Coaching – a way to improve teaching and learning

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Recently a school in Oakland California that is providing “residencies” for new teachers, as a novel approach for teacher training, was featured by the New York Times. This program is modeled after medical training and is based on the truth that the skills required by professionals can best be acquired in real life situations with the help of mentors.

OLE has taken this idea one step further as it seeks to improve learning in low-income countries around the world where there is an urgent need to help both existing and new teachers become more effective and more enthusiastic about their work.  OLE begins with the notion that having a skilled coach work in regular classrooms, with a teacher and their students as a “learning team”, can be highly effective.  Using a sports metaphor, we envision the coach being “off the field” while the teacher and students are the “learning team”.

For a start, the coach will show the class a Sesame Street video as an example of project based learning and then will challenge them to create a meaningful project of their own. This may begin by creating and conducting a door-to-door survey of their village or of their school’s teachers and students, leading to an analysis of the results and a set of recommendations for improvement.   At various points in the process the coach will video the team, show them the video and engaging them in a discussion of their own process.

We have found this to be an excellent way to help teachers and students transition quickly from the traditional “talk and chalk”approach to more activity-based learning. It is amazing to see how eagerly both students and teachers become invested in such a process.   Students regularly pick up the changes quickly and bring their teacher along with them. Both teachers and students express a much higher level of enthusiasm and energy in school than they have had before.   New learning skills are acquired by all members of the team and tend to persist.

You may wonder where these skilled coaches come from. They are not nearly as scarce as one might think. Many of OLE’s coaches have been teachers and headmasters and have been promoted to school supervisors. In that role they are often feared since much of their function is to identify and fix problems in schools. One coach, thinking back about his decision to become a coach likened it to being demoted, like becoming a “teaching assistant”. However he found the change from “cop” to “helper” much more rewarding and energizing than he had anticipated. Now when he arrives at a school he is whole-heartedly welcomed.

We need to do the necessary studies to determine the return on this kind of investment in student learning and in teacher skills, satisfaction and turnover. But, so far, it is looking good.

I have long wondered by the education profession has not adopted this kind of “residency model” for new teachers.   It would involve designating certain high quality schools as “teaching schools”, parallel to the medical profession’s “teaching hospitals”. Such schools would share and exchange faculty with one or more schools of education and would provide mentoring in classrooms for both pre-service and in-service teachers. The students themselves could become members of the mentoring team. Shouldn’t this be the standard process for developing effective teachers?   It makes so much sense.

Richard R. Rowe