Every Teacher Needs a Teacher

In a recent TED talk, Bill Gates expressed his belief that everyone needs a coach. It doesn’t matter whether you are a basketball player, tennis player, gymnast, bridge player or even a teacher. “We all need people who will give us feedback because that’s how we improve,” Gates explained. He and his wife Melinda were stunned when they heard how little useful feedback most teachers get. His research showed that until recently over 98 percent of teachers received one word of feedback: “satisfactory”! Gates said that even with the improvements made in the way teachers are evaluated today, they still receive almost no feedback that actually helps them improve their practice. He strongly advocates that every teacher would benefit from having a coach.

After reading an article in the October 3, 2011 New Yorker by Atul Gawande, a surgeon who wrote about teachers needing coaches, I entertained the idea of engaging a coach. Gawande, a surgeon for eight years, wrote an article titled “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should You?” because he felt that his performance in the operating room had reached a plateau. He wrote that, “No matter how well trained people are, few can sustain their best performance on their own.”

He described the benefits of having a coach when it comes to sports. “Coaches aren’t teachers, but they teach. They’re not your boss, but they can be bossy. In professional tennis, golf and skating the athlete hires and fires the coach. The coach doesn’t even have to be good at the sport. Mainly, they observe, they judge and they guide.” Gawande described how he benefitted from having a coach in the operating room during surgery, and how he perfected his technique by having another pair of eyes in the room with him. He suggested that teachers too could profit from having a coach.

I immediately started contemplating the different areas in which I could use assistance. In the fall I would be teaching new material and wanted help designing my lessons, so that each of my seventh grade students could become an independent learner and discover the thrill of inquiry based learning.

I discussed the idea of having a coach with Tom Hoerr, head of The New City School. Although they weren’t using this model, his suggestion was, “A coach would be someone whose expertise makes the feedback meaningful, and whose role, not a supervisor, perhaps enables it to be better heard.”

The idea of having someone coach me was certainly appealing. My teaching style has evolved over the years, from an MI (multiple intelligence) first grade classroom to integrating arts into the curriculum, and teaching new material from our Chumash curriculum would be challenging. The big question was, who would be my coach? I was looking for an expert educator with whom I would feel comfortable discussing my ambitions as a classroom teacher as well as my insecurities and failures.

I was looking for a colleague perhaps, someone who wouldn’t be afraid to offer suggestions, someone who could really help me grow professionally in all areas of teaching the skills, values and content of the Chumash curriculum. I wanted a coach who wouldn’t be afraid to encourage me and would agree to push me beyond my comfort zone, but at the same time support me when I made mistakes. I knew that for the coaching experience to be successful, I needed to find someone who would enjoy working with me and someone who would enjoy being a part of the process of my professional growth.

Mistakes were inevitable. Would inviting a coach into my classroom be inviting trouble? Would I expose my weaknesses and become vulnerable to criticism? Would I become defensive when a better way to design my lesson was pointed out? Would I be able to handle constructive criticism? What would my students think? After pondering these questions for several weeks, I decided that in order to have the professional development I needed and truly wanted at this point in my career, I was willing to take the risk.

In order for the coaching model to be effective, it was important that the coach be an expert educator and someone I could trust implicitly. It’s not typical to have the head of school for one’s coach, but that’s whom I approached. I wasn’t sure if our head, Rabbi Avi Greene, would consider my suggestion, or if he could find the time. As the Judaic studies curriculum coordinator I worked together with him on pieces of our curriculum, I had a very good working relationship with him, and we had many opportunities to discuss education. Rabbi Greene taught a Mishnah class to the same students I was teaching, he was an expert educator himself and I had a lot of respect for him. I could think of no one more suited for this role than him. You can imagine my delight when he agreed to this idea. Together we designed a coaching model.

Our objective was for me to improve and grow as a Judaic teacher by focusing on the skills, values and content of the Chumash curriculum. We decided to meet once every six weeks; we set goals to check on the engagement and interest level of all students, understanding of individual learning styles and opportunities for skill development. We planned monthly reviews on units/topics, looking at the essential questions and big ideas in my lesson plans and how they aligned with my instruction and student activities. We planned on assessing goals for progression in skill development and checking for understanding.

Rabbi Greene observed my Chumash class on six different occasions. Before each observation, we reviewed and discussed my lesson plans. We had deep discussions about different topics, such as “Did the different responsibilities of the Levite families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari, affect their relationship with Hashem?” “What is a chok (statute)?” “If the Jewish people complained when Miriam died, how do you think they will react to the death of Moshe?” From the story of the spies, we discussed, “Can there be cases where we determine our own punishment? What is the difference between, punishment and consequence?” I enjoyed our discussions immensely; it often felt like I was having my very own private Chumash class with Rabbi Greene. My students and I enjoyed the rich discussions I brought to my classroom.

After he observed my classes, we met and discussed his observations and feedback. Rabbi Greene made certain to document his observations so I could have written evaluations as well. I was pleased that our coaching experience was a professional one.

After having been observed numerous times I asked Rabbi Greene if he thought our coaching model was successful and a productive use of his time. I was worried about taking up too much of his time. He reassured me that this wasn’t the case and expressed his desire “to look for new and better ways for teachers and administrators to reflect on what they do and the way they do it.” “Many of the best models come from the business world. This method seemed to excite you and provide an opportunity to experiment with a new type of reflection method,” Rabbi Greene told me. He added, “This is clearly superior in that there are themes that we have worked to develop in your teaching and I can see how they are growing. This is better than the snapshot method of observation which is limited to what is seen in that moment alone.”

He noted that with the coaching model he had a better understanding of how I teach and what I want to accomplish. “While it was not surprising, I was glad to see that you regularly turned questions back to a student for answering, often referring to the text.”

Beginning in January there was a recurring theme in Rabbi Greene’s evaluations. “Focus on essential questions and have all activities and lesson components follow naturally from these questions.” One of his comments on my lesson plan was, “Be sure that the objective, group discussion and strategies align with the essential question.”

During our very last post-observation meeting, Rabbi Greene was able to crystallize for me the area in which I most needed improvement: the way I was aligning my lessons. I felt comfortable with Rabbi Greene’s feedback style and at the same time I knew he had high expectations of me.

We tend to hide our weaknesses. There were humbling moments for me in the coaching process, and it was uncomfortable at times when a weakness was exposed. Having a coach is about learning and growing more than it is about being evaluated. It’s about having high expectations and striving for excellence, not perfection. I feel that I learned more about myself as a teacher with this format of PD than with any other in my teaching career.

When the school year came to a close last summer and I reflected on the benefits of having a coach, I couldn’t help but wonder how I had managed all of these years without one. Fortunately, Rabbi Greene has agreed to continue coaching me. This year we will continue the same work and expand into integrating technology into my Chumash classes. I am going to begin flipping my Chumash class. I feel passionately that every teacher needs a teacher.♦

Shiffy Landa is a middle school Judaic studies teacher and curriculum coordinator at H. F. Epstein Hebrew Academy in St. Louis, Missouri. slanda@eha.org

Shiffy Landa
Day School Teachers
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership
Published: Winter 2013