Coaching, Not 'Moneyball,' Will Improve Teaching

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I am an avid baseball fan. And though I live in the heart of Yankees territory, I remain faithfully devoted to my hometown Boston Red Sox -- a team whose management is known for applying sophisticated statistical analyses in its efforts to field a winning squad.

However, despite a bevy of superstars and data-driven prognostications for success, the 2011 Red Sox fell short of the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Sports pundits were quick to suggest that the team's shortcomings came neither in talent nor ability, but in leadership, team chemistry and effective coaching.

This made me think about my workplace. So much of the conversation about school reform has focused on the themes of data and testing-based measures of teacher quality; competition among both teachers and schools; and the eradication of teacher tenure and guaranteed pay raises. These policies, the argument goes, would compel better teaching and thus lead to better schools.

But there is something missing from this equation, just as it was missing from this year’s Red Sox. I am a relatively novice teacher but I have enough experience under my belt to know I don’t need any more carrots to inspire me to constantly improve my practice. I’ve got 29 pretty darn good ones sitting in my classroom each weekday morning.

What I need instead are the practical means by which I can actually become a more effective teacher for my students. What I need is a good coach, and a nurturing group of teammates.

I am not asking for anything groundbreaking. In fact, the most effective professional development resources often already exist in our schools.

Last year I began teaching at a school (Public School 124 Yung Wing in Manhattan) that employed a math curriculum drastically different from the one at my previous school.

I was lucky, however, to have the opportunity to meet regularly with my school’s math coach to break down lesson plans before I taught them. We worked together to develop questions to help my students better articulate their solutions, and we collaboratively examined students' work to glean further insight into their thinking, and thus devise more targeted learning experiences.

Because my coach had previously taught in the school, she approached her work with a level of empathy and understanding that made it easy for us to collaborate. And though she was well versed in our school’s math curriculum of choice, she also maintained an extensive knowledge of alternative approaches -- garnered from the numerous professional development workshops that she attended throughout the year -- and did not insist that we adhere strictly to the script when our shared understanding of our students suggested otherwise.

If we are serious about raising the level of teaching in our schools, then we need more instructional leaders like my math coach -- colleagues who can be trusted by their coworkers to provide relevant, effective, non-judgmental and dogma-free coaching and support.

Coaches are typically teachers who have transitioned from the classroom, so they know the community and the students well. This gives them greater credibility among teachers who are more likely to collaborate with someone they respect and with whom they feel safe.

We should also consider how to develop and preserve a sense of community within a school so that teachers willingly share resources, tools and tips with each other.

I owe enormous debts of gratitude to colleagues who opened their doors to me, sat down and brainstormed lesson plans and lent me words of encouragement after rough days. I am a far better teacher today because of my colleagues, and there is not a day that passes by when I am not inspired to improve my teaching by those who I work alongside.

Reform measures that promote a culture of competition among teachers are obviously inconsistent with the tenets of a true, collaborative learning community -- inconsistent, one might say, with the principles of a team.

Instead, we should focus more of our efforts on enhancing the structures through which teachers can improve their practice rather than those by which we measure teacher practice.

Statistics tell a great story on paper. We can use all of the advanced metrics we want to assess an individual’s efficacy. We can adjust someone's pay based upon past performance. And we can make it easier to replace those we no longer deem suitable for the job.

But it is harder to quantify a team of engaged practitioners, led in their collaborative efforts to excel by fellow practitioners who know the craft well.

I’m a Red Sox fan. Trust me: I know.