I want to be the best teacher and teacher educator I can be. To try and do this I sign up for professional development opportunities when I can, read books and articles about teaching and learning, attend conferences, and engage in further study. But there is one opportunity to improve my teaching that I’ve never tried – partly because it’s difficult to set up, but mostly because I didn’t think of it: coaching.
What brought it to mind was this article in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande. He decided to use a coach to improve his performance as a surgeon, a job he’d been doing for eight years. After several years of experience doing a particular job, most of us become pretty good at what we do. But we can always do better. Coaching might be a way to do that. What clinched it for me was when Gawande observed that “even Rafael Nadal has a coach.” If a world class tennis player can use a coach to keep him playing at that level, surely the rest of us could benefit from a coach in our chosen careers.
The idea sounds simple. You invite someone to be your “outside ears, and eyes” and to watch you perform your job. Afterwards you discuss what went well and what didn’t go well. Crucially, the observer is there because you invited them. The observer needs to be someone you respect and, according to Gawande, someone who can “break down performance into its critical individual components.”
Although Gawande is interested in improving his work as a surgeon, coaching for teachers has been supported by the University of Kansas for at least a decade. The Kansas Coaching Project describes instructional coaches as “onsite professional developers who teach educators how to use proven teaching methods.” The four areas that the Project staff focus on when they try to “accelerate teachers’ professional learning” are classroom management, content planning, instruction, and assessment for learning.” Jim Knight, the President of the Instructional Coaching Group, has written about the power of one-to-one exchanges in instructional coaching, and he blogs here and here.
But, haven’t we inspectors who can act as coaches for teachers? Not really. The difference is apparent in the etymologies of the words. Inspect is an old word that comes from the Latin words in and specere, meaning to look into or examine, and related to the origins of the verb to spy. Coach is a newer word, that seems to have come from the town in Hungary where carriages were made. This evolved to a verb meaning to convey people by coach, and later its use as a word meaning to tutor or to train. The bottom line is that an inspector’s job is to inspect or examine schools and teachers. Even as a teaching practice supervisor of prospective teachers, despite my personal intentions, my role is not a coaching one because I have an evaluative remit as well. Perhaps, when the primary school inspectorate was established in 1832, the climate was one where inspectors were needed. Could coaches replace inspectors in today’s education system? Or as humans do we need sticks as well as carrots to do our best?
I’d still like the idea of having a coach who could help me to teach better. But I know I’d probably find it hard too, especially when a lesson doesn’t go well. At such times I often know – afterwards – what went wrong; and if a coach were present, I’d need the coach to tread gently. It’s when I think that things have gone well that a coach could help me raise my game. But it would only work if my involvement in it was voluntary and if the coach would have no say in, and no communication with those who have a say in, hiring, firing, promotions or pay rises. The problem is, how to find a coach when I’m ready for one. Possibly, a coaching system in the Department of Education and Skills, alongside the inspectorate, would fit the bill? But more likely, it would have to be a separate, independent service. If top athletes and musicians use coaches to improve, surely coaching could help those of us who teach to raise our game?