Coaching: Not Just for Athletes

Everyone knows that coaching is a key to top performance and excellence in athletics, so why don’t we apply the same idea more widely to teaching? In “Personal Best,” a recent article about coaching in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande reflects on this question and others as he considers the value of coaching for improving performance on the athletic field, the stage, the classroom, and in his own workplace: the operating room.

Gawande, an experienced and successful surgeon, starts the article out wondering if coaching might help improve his performance in surgery. He looks at evidence from fields where coaching is more widely accepted, such as competitive sports, and he talks with violinist Itzhak Perlman and soprano Renée Fleming about the important role coaches have played in their performance careers. Then he explores the work of the Kansas Coaching Project, which focuses on coaching for teachers, and decides to enlist a retired surgeon he’d trained under while doing his residency to be his coach. The relationship yields many benefits, including a drop in complication rates. The coach sees things Gawande did not; the author is convinced that the information he gains from his “outside eyes and ears” helps him improve his performance.

In the classroom, I’ve found the same to be true. I remember the year my school tiptoed into peer coaching, when the administration asked for volunteers to pilot the program. I was a physical education instructor at the time, and I paired up with Jean, our lower school learning specialist. Over the course of the year, we visited each other’s classes and provided feedback tailored around areas of focus that we had each identified. Our professional relationship grew and we experienced some of the same benefits that Gawande highlighted in “Personal Best.”

It wasn’t all easy. We both found that being watched by a colleague made us feel just as vulnerable as being observed by an administrator. However, I learned so much from seeing how Jean connected with students and how she used specific feedback and open-ended questions to turn ordinary moments into teaching opportunities. That, and the level of trust we developed as we worked together, made the uncomfortable parts worthwhile.

Want to learn more about this topic? An article I wrote about peer coaching and observations in the February 2011 issue of the Responsive Classroom Newsletter includes examples from other schools and some suggestions for how school leaders can encourage classroom visits and peer observations.

If you’ve had experience as a coach or being coached—as a new or a veteran teacher—I’d love to hear from you. What’s worked in your school?

Tags: Buddy Teachers, Guest Teachers, Professional Community