In the latest New Yorker, surgeon Atul Gawande has a story about personal coaches that focuses on innovation in teaching within the Albemarle County Public Schools. (If you’re familiar with Gawande’s writing, it would be for his important 2009 article, “The Cost Conundrum,” which demonstrated that communities that rethink radically how they handle public health can substantially decrease health care costs.) In his new piece, “Personal Best,” Gawande explores the notion that coaches don’t just have to be for athletes and singers, but that perhaps all of could benefit from coaches. He visits Walton Middle School and spends time in the classroom of math teacher Jennie Critzer, who is one of the county teachers who benefits from the services of two dozen coaches. These coaches pair up with teachers, observe them in the classroom, and help them understand how they can be more effective.
A representative sample of the article opens with Critzer providing some observations on her classes to a pair of coaches:
“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.
Not all teachers are thrilled with coaching, no doubt because it’s exposing. Few teachers have peers sitting in their classes for hours at a time, noting every detail of their work style, and then critiquing them extensively. It’s stressful and potentially embarrassing. All teachers are required to be coached through their first two years in county school systems, but any teacher can choose to be coached, as Critzer did. She reports that she’s very happy with the coaching, saying that she used to feel isolated and burnt out, but that now she feels less stressed, more satisfied with her work, and that she’s just a better teacher.