How Coaching Influenced My Teaching Career

Atul Gawande and I have something important in common. It’s not that we’re both respected surgeons-that’s him, not me. And it’s not that we’ve both published widely-read books-again, just him. What we have in common is this: We believe just about everybody, no matter their profession, would benefit from having a coach.

Four years ago, Gawande wrote a widely-circulated New Yorker article about this idea, including an extended anecdote about the importance of coaching for K-12 teachers. Although I read and appreciated the article back in 2011, I only recently connected Gawande’s reflections to my own career patterns.

“You’re going back to the classroom again?” and “You’re leaving teaching again?” These questions are the bookends of every career transition I’ve had in the past 22 years, during which I’ve held four different teaching positions and worked both part-time and full-time roles in teacher preparation and support for Teach For America and The New Teacher Project. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what was wrong with me: Why can’t I just stay put in one job for longer than five years? I’ve loved teaching, and I’ve also loved the work of developing teachers. But still, every few years, I feel the need to do whatever I’m not doing at the time. Do I just suffer from “the grass is always greener” phenomenon?

In his article, Gawande described how he hit a plateau after eight years in the operating room. He was still highly successful in terms of how surgeons are measured, but he had a nagging sense he could do better and he was right. Once he hired a coach, his surgical complication rate went down still further. It may seem like an overstatement to some, but I contend that coaching successful teachers to be even better is no less a life-and-death situation.

I’m a good teacher and I always have been. I’m also good at owning my own development: I pay out-of-pocket to attend workshops that will expose me to new ideas; I observe colleagues to see how they work with students I struggle to reach; and I read everything I can get my hands on about the art and science of teaching. But during each stint in the classroom, I’ve eventually hit a wall and seen my performance plateau.

None of the public schools in which I’ve worked have had any mechanism for effectively coaching teachers, especially teachers who are doing better than the norm. Once I exhaust my own strategies for development, I’m generally at a loss for how to keep improving…but I know I have room and potential for improvement. Common wisdom holds that the best way to learn something deeply is to teach it to someone else. That has been true for me as a teacher, but not in the way you might think. When I find myself hitting a professional development wall, the fastest way to get clarity on what I need to do to improve has actually been to coach another teacher.

So I’ve landed on the hypothesis that my own desire to be coached is at the heart of my movement in and out of the classroom. The years I’ve spent working for non-profits like Teach For America have been years with a hidden agenda. Every teacher training I designed got filed away in the “I’ll need to make sure to do this myself when I’m back in the classroom” archives. Every new teacher I coached provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my own strengths and shortcomings. Don’t get me wrong: I did good work in those roles, work that I enjoyed and that I believe served many new teachers well. But it’s possible that the biggest beneficiary was myself; in essence, I was giving myself the coaching I so craved as a teacher.

Today I’m in the classroom again, and I’m still in a bit of a honeymoon stage of being inspired by some students and baffled by others. The puzzle of figuring out how to best serve the ones who stump me is still thrilling. Part of me would like to think that I’ll stay put for a few decades; my retirement plan would certainly thank me. But my most recent “professional development” involved an administrator popping into my classroom for 7.5 minutes and then sending me an email saying “no follow-up needed – great work!” Perhaps I’ll need to get creative again and find the coach within.