Coaching to Get Great at Something | Steve Barkley

Coaching to Get Great at Something

Continuous Improvement Drawn on White Wall. Illustration with Hand Drawn Icons. White Brick Wall with Continuous Improvement Inscription and Green Arrow. Increase Concept.I listened to a Ted Talk by Atul Gawande titled, Want to get great at something? Get a coach. There were some powerful statements that I decided to highlight here with my reflections. I encourage you to listen to Gawande’s presentation and reflect.

He begins with the questions, “How do professionals get better at what they do?” and “How do they get great?” Two historical approaches are examined:

  • In professions like medicine, law, and music you study, learn, practice, get certified, and then manage your own improvement.
  • In sports, the tendency is for everyone to have a coach. The world’s best have a coach… usually coaches.

Gawande shared his surprise to find out from interviewing Itzhak Perlman, the violin virtuoso, that he had been coached by his wife, listening from the audience and providing feedback.

“Itzhak, in that middle section, you know you sounded a little bit mechanical. What can you do differently next time?”

Having a realization that he might no longer be getting better, Gawande hired a coach to observe his surgeries and provide feedback.

Getting Better

Getting better is a phrase I have always felt received too little focus in our descriptions of educators’ professional growth. Way too much time has been spent with school leaders focusing on “evaluating” teachers, usually upon a list of minimal competencies. Teachers got focused on earning credits or hours to illustrate growth and on defending their proficiency rather than pondering where new skills and learning could drive their success and their students’ success. I describe everything I know about teaching and learning being inside of a balloon and the outside of the balloon representing areas for future development. The more I learn the more I can develop.

Sometimes getting coached doesn’t feel good

Gawande described what coaches do, “They are your external eyes and ears, providing a more accurate picture of your reality. They’re recognizing the fundamentals. They’re breaking down your actions…..” Describing how it feels he said, “It was painful. I didn’t like being observed, and at times I didn’t want to have to work on things. I also felt there were periods where I would get worse before I got better.”

These experiences and feelings are what I describe as creating an environment where we are comfortable with discomfort. Constant growth requires feedback and reflection which certainly at times feels uncomfortable. Gawande described getting worse before getting better… going into the learning dip. Motivation during these times is the picture of reaching a goal where I make something better happen. School leaders should be part of encouraging educators to picture “what could be” and then exploring how we can make it happen. Educators with those visions are positioned and constantly preparing to assist students in future visions.

Systemic Coaching

Having personally experienced “getting better” from coaching. Gawande was part of building coaching into an extensive health program (BetterBirth) that took place in birth centers in India.

We trained an army of doctors and nurses, who learned to observe the caregivers and also the managers and then help them build on their strengths and address their weaknesses. One of the skills for example they had to work on with people, was communication. Getting the nurses to practice speaking up then getting others, including the managers, to practice listening.

When I explored a report that was written on the BetterBirth coaching program, I found these descriptions.

  • Coaches and coach team leaders used strong communication
    skills and a non-judgmental attitude to build a relationship of trust and understanding with the individual(s) they coached.
  • Coaches worked with birth attendants, and coach team leaders worked with facility and district leaders, in a supportive,
    constructive, respectful peer-to-peer manner.

This reinforces for me our need to build coaching cultures that reflect a collective focus on our desired success for students. Do we individually and collaboratively have a desire to be better… to be great? I think that too many instructional coaching programs are isolated from an overarching plan for educator’s, school’s, and system’s improvement. Where is the creation and nurturing of a coaching culture being explored? Who has responsibility? Are we coaching each other on generating the coaching culture?

A coaching culture creates a climate where people can freely:

  • Give and receive feedback
  • Support and stretch each other’s thinking
  • Challenge each other with support, and stress-test ideas where appropriate
  • Engage in development conversations that are short in length, but strong in impact.”

(Center for Creative Leadership

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One Response to “ Coaching to Get Great at Something ”

  1. Michael Chirichello Says:

    Thanks for highlighting the importance of coaches. We know that there are coaches for teachers but we do not see coaches for principals, supervisors, and other school/district leaders. I had the opportunity to be a coach for principals as an independent consultant with five decades of experience in education. The reaction from those who were coached was positive. We must do more to get this message out to superintendents that every school leader needs a coach, not just teachers, including themselves!

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