Coaching top performers

Top athletes and musicians work with coaches to perfect their skills. Surgeon Atul Gawande explores coaching for surgeons and teachers in The New Yorker.

Jim Knight, director of the Kansas Coaching Project, at the University of Kansas, thinks coaching can help excellent teachers become even better, as well as helping novices.

Training workshops have little effect on how teachers teach, researchers have observed.  Only 10 to 20 percent use what they learned in workshops in the classroom. Coaching — another teacher watched them try the new skills and offered advice — raised the adoption rates to more than 90 percent in California studies.

Gawande and Knight sat in on a coaching session at a Virginia middle school that requires coaching for new teachers and offers it to veterans such as Jennie Critzer, an eighth-grade algebra teacher with 10 years experience.

She set a clear goal, announcing that by the end of class the students would know how to write numbers like ?32 in a simplified form without using a decimal or a fraction. Then she broke the task into steps. She had the students punch ?32 into their calculators and see what number they got (5.66). She had them try explaining to their partner how whole numbers differed from decimals. (“Thirty seconds, everyone.”) She had them write down other numbers whose square root was a whole number. She made them visualize, verbalize, and write the idea. Soon, they’d figured out how to find the factors of the number under the radical sign, and then how to move factors from under the radical sign to outside the radical sign.

Gawande thought the lesson was great. But Critzer told the coaches she was worried about students’ engagement.

At least four of her 20 students “seemed at sea,” the coaches said. When students were paired off, most struggled with having a “math conversation,” especially girl-boy pairs.

Critzer said she had been trying to increase the time that students spend on independent practice during classes, and she thought she was doing a good job. She was also trying to “break the plane” more—get out from in front of the whiteboard and walk among the students—and that was working nicely. But she knew the next question, and posed it herself: “So what didn’t go well?” She noticed one girl who “clearly wasn’t getting it.” But at the time she hadn’t been sure what to do.

“How could you help her?” Hobson asked.

She thought for a moment. “I would need to break the concept down for her more,” she said. “I’ll bring her in during the fifth block.”

Critzer knew students were having trouble talking about math. A coach suggested putting key math words on the board for them to use, such as factoring, perfect square and radical.  She decided to try it.

I asked Critzer if she liked the coaching. “I do,” she said. “It works with my personality. I’m very self-critical. So I grabbed a coach from the beginning.” She had been concerned for a while about how to do a better job engaging her kids. “So many things have to come together. I’d exhausted everything I knew to improve.”

Coaching makes her feel less isolated and lowered her stress level, she told Gawande. “The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is,” she said.

About Joanne


  1. That puzzling question mark is actually a square root sign: √

  2. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I had the same experience with coaching.

  3. There are at least two good reasons why training workshops have little effect on how teachers teach.

    1. Many trainings are little more than pitches for the latest fad. Coaching will not rectify this problem, if it is similarly fad-driven.

    2. Teachers may find that certain aspects of the training apply to their teaching and others do not. They may translate it into their own terms instead of adopting it literally, immediately, and completely. This is not a bad thing; it is a sign of discernment.

    So, before concluding that coaching is superior, those invoved should ask: just what is being conveyed in these trainings, and what are teachers expected to do with what they learn? If there are problems with the very content and premises, then the manner of conveyance is secondary.

    • 1. Many trainings are little more than pitches for the latest fad. Coaching will not rectify this problem, if it is similarly fad-driven.

      Or, school/district administrators working on another degree and use PD days as an opportunity to make use of a captive audience to do a class project.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      As a department chair, I coach my teachers by sitting in on lessons (I get an extra release hour for all my duties… doesn’t really cover them, but such is teaching). Sometimes people know what to ask; sometimes they just know things aren’t going as well as they’d like, but don’t know what’s going on. I make extensive notes about what I see and add a few things they might try. Then we talk about it for a few minutes later in the day. Usually the most helpful thing is the very detailed observation. I’m not pushing any sort of fad or even my own preferences. The idea is to work with each person individually to improve.

      I had three years of that sort of coaching and it took my teaching to the next level.

      I’m also an athlete who works with an Olympic-level coach. Sometimes I have no idea what to ask to fix an issue, but he can see it instantly and work with me until I know how to train on my own to improve. It’s best of you are self-aware, but isn’t necessary if you want to improve.

  4. Bill Leonard says:

    Has no one else noticed the changes in the original post? We start with athletesvand musicians, and suddenly transform into coaching kids of whatever abilities.

    I think the dichotomy is clear: in most, of not many cases, the musician or the athlete already knows the areas in which he or she is deficient. Hensce the search for profesional coaching.

    “Teachers” generically? Probably not.

    FWIW: I am an amateur Bluegrass guitarist. I studied with a serious pro to improve techniques and a lot of other deficiencies. And I immediately learned what those shortcomings were.


  5. tim-10-ber says:

    What if schools stopped wasting money on PD and hired coaches (master teachers). What if these coahes were already in the building but needed a lighter load in order spend the rest of their time coaching and mentoring?

    Teachers probably do know their short comings but have no one to talk to about them. Why is education the only field that throws first year grads to the “wolves” without a true training period — no student teaching does not count. Yes some programs are requiring a year of student teaching which is much better. Yet some schools (K-12 charter) have developed and certified their own teacher programs (at the masters’ level!) because Ed schools aren’t doing their job.

    First, second and even real experienced teachers all need constant review (observation, video taping, etc) and then discussion of the same with the teachers to see what area(s) they need to strengthen. Why is this so hard for educators to do? Many teachers must want this kind of coaching but where are the coaches?

    I bet if PD spending were eliminated all districts would have ample money to make this work…

  6. I don’t see the point of turning and talking to your partner about the difference between whole numbers and decimals. This seems like a distraction from the problem at hand. No wonder some kids were out at sea; I bet others were bored.

    If you want students to provide the square root of 32 in simplified form, without decimals or fractions, you have to show them what that might be. You remind them that the square root of a times the square root of b is the square root of ab.

    Now they know that the square root of 32 can be expressed in terms of the product of two (or more) square roots. If one of these results in a whole number, then you can present it as such. So then they can figure out that it’s the square root of 16 times the square root of two–thus, four times the square root of two.

    More instruction and teacher-student dialogue. Less “turning and talking” about goofy things. More attention to the problem itself. Less “verbalizing and visualizing.”

    • What Diane said. Apparently it’s OK if students get the information from a fellow student, but ed schools teach you students should “discover” information on their own. Ed schools teach teachers to not “hand it to the student” but to have students struggle first.