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.

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