Sometimes we stop improving as teachers. Why is that? And does it have to happen?
In “Coach in the Operating Room,” a very engaging article from The New Yorker, Atul Gawande looks at several professions–including classical violinist, surgeon, educator–and offers a theory about how professionals like university faculty can break out of a plateau stage and continue to grow as teachers. And he shows how mid-career coaching can play a role.
We don’t fully know our own strengths and weaknesses, Gawande says, and we need to know more about what we actually and unconsciously do in the classroom if we want to keep improving. Coaches, he says, can help mid-career professionals see themselves better. Coaches are required for reaching the highest level of skill in many fields–athletes, for example–but having a coach feels risky to people in other fields:
The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well-defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches–showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, though, is just conversation.
Coaching, one educator pointed out, reduces the isolation of teaching–we carry out most of our work away from our professional peers, not seeing them in action, not getting feedback from them about teaching. Coaching changes that part of the structure of our work, Gawande shows. “The coaching has definitely change how satisfying teaching is,” that same educator said. [The discussion of education starts about halfway through this very readable article.]
Gawande is himself a surgeon, and he describes his own experience trying to break out of a plateau in the quality of his work by employing a coach to observe him in the operating room. Afterwards, a twenty-minute conversation with the coach gave him more ideas about improving his practice than he’d managed on his own in five years, he said.
Is coaching little more than a self-help fad? Gawande takes a look at that idea, too. He concludes that our professions are too important and too complex to leave to laissez-faire methods of growth and quality-improvement.
We treat guidance for professionals as a luxury–you can guess what gets cut first when school-district budgets are slashed. But coaching may prove essential to the success of modern society.
If you know of a thoughtful article about improving our professional lives, our teaching, our research, our service, our work with students and colleagues, please suggest it to any member of the Executive Committee. For example, email ksmith@… or call 520-7381.