It is rare to get a direct observation of instructional coaches working with experienced teachers. Atul Gawande, the veteran surgeon who took on a coach–see previous post–watched Jim Knight and his coaches at work in a Virginia middle school. Here is Gawande’s account.
We met early one May morning at Leslie H. Walton Middle School, in Albemarle County, Virginia. In 2009, the Albemarle County public schools created an instructional-coaching program, based in part on Knight’s methods. It recruited twenty-four teacher coaches for the twenty-seven schools in the semi-rural district…Many teacher-coaching programs concentrate on newer teachers, and this one is no exception. All teachers in their first two years are required to accept a coach, but the program also offers coaching to any teacher who wants it.
Not everyone has. Researchers from the University of Virginia found that many teachers see no need for coaching. Others hate the idea of being observed in the classroom, or fear that using a coach makes them look incompetent, or are convinced, despite assurances, that the coaches are reporting their evaluations to the principal. And some are skeptical that the school’s particular coaches would be of any use.
To find its coaches, the program took applications from any teachers in the system who were willing to cross over to the back of the classroom for a couple of years and teach colleagues instead of students. They were selected for their skills with people, and they studied the methods developed by Knight and others. But they did not necessarily have any special expertise in a content area, like math or science. The coaches assigned to Walton Middle School were John Hobson, a bushy-bearded high-school history teacher who was just thirty-three years old when he started but had been a successful baseball and tennis coach, and Diane Harding, a teacher who had two decades of experience but had spent the previous seven years out of the classroom, serving as a technology specialist.
Nonetheless, many veteran teachers—including some of the best—signed up to let the outsiders in. Jennie Critzer, an eighth-grade math teacher, was one of those teachers, and we descended on her first-period algebra class as a small troupe—Jim Knight, me, and both coaches….
[Critzer] had been a math teacher at Walton Middle School for ten years. She taught three ninety-minute classes a day with anywhere from twenty to thirty students. And she had every class structured down to the minute.
Today, she said, they would be learning how to simplify radicals. She had already put a “Do Now” problem on the whiteboard: “Simplify √36 and √32.” She gave the kids three minutes to get as far as they could, and walked the rows of desks with a white egg timer in her hand as the students went at it. With her blond pigtails, purple striped sack dress, flip-flops, and painted toenails, each a different color, she looked like a graduate student headed to a beach party. But she carried herself with an air of easy command. The timer sounded.
For thirty seconds, she had the students compare their results with those of the partner next to them. Then she called on a student at random for the first problem, the simplified form of √36. “Six,” the girl said.
“Stand up if you got six,” Critzer said. Everyone stood up.
She turned to the harder problem of simplifying √32. No one got the answer, 4 √2. It was a middle-level algebra class; the kids didn’t have a lot of confidence when it came to math. Yet her job was to hold their attention and get them to grasp and apply three highly abstract concepts—the concepts of radicals, of perfect squares, and of factoring. In the course of one class, she did just that.
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.
Toward the end, she had her students try simplifying √20. They had one minute….
I told the coaches that I didn’t see how Critzer could have done better. They said that every teacher has something to work on. It could involve student behavior, or class preparation, or time management, or any number of other things. The coaches let the teachers choose the direction for coaching. They usually know better than anyone what their difficulties are.
Critzer’s concern for the last quarter of the school year was whether her students were effectively engaged and learning the material they needed for the state tests. So that’s what her coaches focussed on. Knight teaches coaches to observe a few specifics: whether the teacher has an effective plan for instruction; how many students are engaged in the material; whether they interact respectfully; whether they engage in high-level conversations; whether they understand how they are progressing, or failing to progress.
Jennie Critzer had no trouble maintaining classroom discipline, and she skillfully used a variety of what teachers call “learning structures”—lecturing, problem-solving, coöperative learning, discussion. But the coaches weren’t convinced that she was getting the best results. Of twenty kids, they noticed, at least four seemed at sea.
Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components…. At Walton Middle School, Hobson and Harding thought that Critzer should pay close attention to the details of how she used coöperative learning. When she paired the kids off, they observed, most struggled with having a “math conversation.” The worst pairs had a girl with a boy. One boy-girl pair had been unable to talk at all.
Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. 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,…
At lunchtime, Critzer and her coaches sat down at a table in the empty school library. Hobson took the lead. “What worked?” he asked.
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 …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.”
“What else did you notice?”
“My second class has thirty kids but was more forthcoming. It was actually easier to teach than the first class. This group is less verbal.” Her answer gave the coaches the opening they wanted. They mentioned the trouble students had with their math conversations, and the girl-boy pair who didn’t talk at all. “How could you help them be more verbal?”
Critzer was stumped. Everyone was. The table fell silent. Then Harding had an idea. “How about putting key math words on the board for them to use—like ‘factoring,’ ‘perfect square,’ ‘radical’?” she said. “They could even record the math words they used in their discussion.” Critzer liked the suggestion. It was something to try.
For half an hour, they worked through the fine points of the observation and formulated plans for what she could practice next. Critzer sat at a short end of the table chatting, the coaches at the long end beside her, Harding leaning toward her on an elbow, Hobson fingering his beard. They looked like three colleagues on a lunch break—which, Knight later explained, was part of what made the two coaches effective.
He had seen enough coaching to break even their performance down into its components. Good coaches, he said, speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves. Hobson and Harding “listened more than they talked,” Knight said. “They were one hundred per cent present in the conversation.” They also parcelled out their observations carefully. “It’s not a normal way of communicating—watching what your words are doing,” he said. They had discomfiting information to convey, and they did it directly but respectfully.
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.” She told me that she had begun to burn out. “I felt really isolated, too,” she said. Coaching had changed that. “My stress level is a lot less now.” That might have been the best news for the students. They kept a great teacher, and saw her get better. “The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is,” she said.