Growing: it’s not just for kids

10 Oct

Even a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School can feel like he could do his job better.

Professor Atul Gawande writes in The New Yorker, “I’ve been a surgeon for eight years. For the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better” (
Professor Gawande’s self-reflection resonates with me. One of the professional areas that concerns me most is my own growth: when I was a teacher in a school, professional development was offered and available as a regular part of my job. On my own now, I make a concerted effort to create professional growth opportunities through research, collaboration with colleagues and participation in workshops and conferences (from which I get a double takeaway: content and facilitation). Gawande advocates a particular form of professional growth: coaching, which he distinguishes from teaching, admitting that:

“[t]he concept of a coach is slippery. Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They’re not your boss—in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach—but they can be bossy. They don’t even have to be good at the sport. The famous Olympic gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi couldn’t do a split if his life depended on it. Mainly, they observe, they judge, and they guide.”

Apparently, those who can’t do… coach. In an interview with NPR, Gawande notes the effects of being observed, judged and guided on teachers:

“A bunch of [studies] have shown that when you have teachers go through workshops [and] learn some new skills about teaching math or teaching English, less than 20 percent are using those skills six months later.

But if you have a coach follow them into the classroom, even just once a month, and watch them try that out, they get to over a 75 percent likelihood that they’ll use those skills” (

What this “bunch” of studies tell us is that our model for professional development is incomplete–in other words, that attending workshops and conferences will not by themselves transform practice and outcomes. I don’t think this is a revelation to those of us who have felt the effects of “workshop high” followed by “workshop high dissipation” the Monday after, upon re-entry to our classroom or office (which is exactly how we left it–somehow unimpacted by our having Seen The Light in a roundtable discussion with a group of people whose e-mails we collected in order to Continue the Dialogue… now where did those e-mails go?) It’s one thing to have a new experience or gain new knowledge and skills. It’s quite another to integrate it into a daily practice that we’ve been habituating for years, or even just months.
Blink takes a “yes, and” approach to professional growth. Yes, I offer workshops to provide not just resources, but dedicated time for educators to have professional conversations. These workshops are stand-alone, hopefully “a ha!” inspiring experiences. I also encourage schools to develop what I like to call DIY (Do It Yourself) professional growth opportunities. This is more than colleagues having conversations about educational practice from their personal perspectives and experiences. It’s creating expectations, systems and accountability for growing one’s practice in mission-critical areas. This means:
  • identifying what professional growth isn’t left to personal choice but is actually required by the school, under its definition of an educator’s responsibilities in service to students and families (and by “educator,” I mean all adults who work at a school because formally or informally, they end up teaching students);
  • creating rubrics that identify areas of growth, metrics, shared expectations and understandings about professional growth and a program (including timeline) so an educator can articulate goals, identify a plan and take the initiative in their own continuing education;
  • supporting the formation of small learning communities to deepen and share “a ha”s and takeaways (we all think better with divergent viewpoints to open up new perspectives and possibilities to us);
  • providing resources, including but not limited to workshops and conferences (tapping in-house mentors and discovery projects), that expand an educator’s experience and frame of reference; and
  • designing assessment processes that include accountability and intended outcomes for the individual, the community and the institution.
Gawande’s suggestion that we could all use a coach is perhaps the thinking behind having positions like deans of faculty, but that thinking is flawed. Consider Gawande’s further explication of a coach, as:
“… someone whose job is to be on your side of the fence … They’re there … to help you achieve your maximum potential, and help you figure out how to get there along the way. And it’s a funny relationship, because in individual sports — the professional ice skater or tennis player — they hire and fire the coach. The coach is the boss of you, but they’re not the boss” (NPR).
If your coach is the administrator to whom you report, then they’re not really a coach: they’re your boss. And anyway, deans of faculty are just that: for faculty. Many other educators in schools don’t have someone formally designated to help them grow and thrive professionally. (Consider heads of schools: they report to boards of trustees, but to what extent do most boards coach, versus defer to or fight with their heads? How often do boards help a head figure out how to achieve her/his maximum potential–versus just firing them for not already knowing?) This isn’t to criticize boards–administrative staff are often stranded in their professional growth wasteland, as most resources go to classroom teachers and school leaders–but to point out that what Gawande is suggesting is actually really radical in a profession and industry that is actually all about growing into potential… at least for kids.

The idea of coaching is particularly interesting to me when applied to the increasingly common expectations for educators to be culturally competent, instructionally diverse and technologically proficient. These are scary areas for folks whose main focus has been math or literature and, to some degree, child development. Now they have to be able to meet all kids where they individually are, using a variety of techniques and incorporating the latest technology. And they’re going to be evaluated on how well they do it. Yikes.

Coaching may provide an effective means of scaffolding teachers to greater cultural competency, instructional diversity and technological proficiency: if Gawande’s “bunch” of studies are right, small, resourced learning communities that are structured to provide open collegial observation, feedback and guidance could effect better outcomes in these priority initiative areas for individual educators and their institutions. The experience of coaching and being coached would also add to the repertoire of tools and roles that adults bring to their engagement with students–after all, kids won’t have formal teachers all their lives. Experience and practice in coaching relationships now can help them seek out and construct those relationships after they leave school.

I used to think my goal for Blink Consulting was to become obsolete. I no longer think that. I’d rather stick around, as long as I can be useful as a consultant, mentor, coach, advisor and fellow learner.

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