I recently spent a rainy afternoon watching the semi-finals of the Madrid Open and noticed how often one of the players looked to his coaching box for reassurance about his strategy. Coaches are not just ...
I recently spent a rainy afternoon watching the semi-finals of the Madrid Open and noticed how often one of the players looked to his coaching box for reassurance about his strategy. Coaches are not just for players trying to make it into the big leagues; “even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every elite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.” (Gawande, 2011)
If coaching is a proven strategy for ensuring that athletes perform at their best and is used at the highest levels in the business world, why shouldn’t faculty turn to coaching to ensure continued growth and peak performance? In a piece in The New Yorker magazine, renowned surgeon Atwal Gawande recounts his experiences in hiring a retired surgeon to coach him to even higher degrees of professional excellence than he had achieved on his own. Rather than coasting at mid-career on his accomplishments, Gawande stretched his skills further, reduced his complication rates, and concluded that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” (Gawande, 2011)
Coaching as a professional development strategy is beginning to take hold in the education sector. In the preface to his text, “Instructional Coaching” Jim Knight recounts an experience all too familiar to those of us working in faculty development in higher education. At the conclusion of a workshop, he invited participants to send him an update after they’ve had a chance to experiment with some of the evidence-based instructional strategies discussed during the session. “At the end of 2 years, I had not received one postcard. The reality was, I suspected, that inservice sessions just did not provide enough support for most people to implement what they had learned.” (Knight, 2007)
I processed the familiar thud that signals the recognition of something I know to be true, but wished it weren’t. For faculty, just as for students, the transfer of learning takes time and support. With coaching, you are never alone to watch yourself fall flat on your face when you try something new. Together you can examine what went wrong, regroup, have a practice run, and try again. At the core, coaching is a deep collaborative project in which two individuals engage in conversations about teaching and learning that advance the teacher’s agenda of change, growth, and improvement.
Effective coaching in the context of higher education must be grounded in the principles of learning. One principle that has found its way into learner-centered classrooms is the critical role of feedback and practice. Providing multiple means and opportunities for ongoing, authentic feedback and time to practice skills in the light of that feedback, is crucial to student learning. Most faculty members, however, rarely have opportunities to receive feedback about their teaching skills from any source other than student evaluations. How can we expect to improve our performance in classrooms without identification of areas for growth and improvement? Most of the work in our classrooms takes place without the benefit of being seen by others who could provide some fresh perspectives. Coaching allows us to invite a trusted colleague to walk into our teaching worlds with us and take a close look at what is happening.
Coaching uses a variety of approaches, including reviewing videotape of classroom teaching, but the most common method is simply conversation. Coaching provides a deliberate, focused opportunity for dialogue. The direction of the conversation is in the hands of the coachee. It could be a discussion of the “nuts and bolts” of teaching practice or an exploration of deeply held beliefs that may be getting in the way of our own improvement. In the context of a trusted coaching relationship, simple questions like, “What worked?” “What didn’t go so well?” “What could you have done differently?” can create a shift in practice. Skilled coaches also know how to ask deep, meaningful questions, the ones that get to the core of who we are when we enter a classroom, and what happens to us and to our learners when we get there.
I have discovered that teachers have burning questions inside them, often ones that they have been walking around with for years! When I dare to propose, “What is the most powerful question I could ask you right now?”, the real issues emerge— questions about our fears and vulnerabilities, our personas and our authentic selves, our capacities and our limitations. What comes to the surface is the risk of losing control, and anxieties about what happens when learning gets really messy. In some instances, the questions are as fundamental as “why am I here?” or “what is it that I am really doing here?”
When powerful questions arise, and no immediate answer is apparent, this is when the hard work begins. Coaching gives teachers the opportunity to explore their own most critical questions, and having the time and space to truly think about those questions is critical to the process. “The real work of coaching is done in the coachees’ episodes of thinking and feeling in which the coach plays no part other than silent witness.” (Fletcher, 2004) Fully engaging in a coaching model is a commitment to self-reflective practice that is absolutely essential to transforming our teaching.
Many of us teach in complete isolation, and think nothing of it. We close our classroom doors and continue to practice our craft largely unnoticed, except by students who marvel or moan. We should not expect our students to tell us how to do our job more effectively, or ignore them when they try. But when is the last time someone watched you in your classroom with the same investment in your performance and success as a professional coach? If it works on the tennis court, boardroom, and operating room, perhaps it’s time for coaching to enter our classrooms.
Fletcher, Sara & Mullen, Carol A. eds. (2012). SAGE Handbook of Mentoring and Coaching in Education. (Sage Press:Thousand Oaks, California)
Gawande, Atwul (2011). Personal Best. The New Yorker. October 3, 2011.
Knight, Jim. (2007) Instructional Coaching; A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction. (Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, California)
Nicki Monahan is a faculty facilitator at George Brown College in Toronto. She also serves as a conference advisor to The Teaching Professor Conference.