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Hurry Up and Coach

December 16, 2009

When I was in my twenties, I volunteered to host a surprise birthday party at my home.  There was only one problem: my walls were bare and my furniture was sparse. I was in transition from the hand-me-down décor that got me through late college and early adulthood, to coordinated furnishings and carefully selected artwork. In that in-between space, I was bringing 30 people to my home! I set out to decorate in one week.

Need I tell you that decorating a home in so short a time is an impossible task? On days one and two, I shopped for furniture and found some lovely pieces, all of which would be delivered in six to eight weeks – long after the party took place. I then made some trips to Pier One, where I grabbed several items from the clearance shelf and one or two splurges. And I found an art fair at the local exhibit hall, where I picked up a few framed wall hangings. I loved the furniture and still have some of it, but because it had to be ordered, guests at the party sat on my old couch and on folding chairs that I borrowed from school. The birthday cake sat on a card table. As for the accessories and wall décor, it was a motley mixture; I had purchased, but I hadn’t decorated.

This approach to one’s home—attempt to transform it in an emergency—parallels what some school leaders do when they think about upcoming mandated tests. They panic and try to find a quick solution, and sometimes they think of coaching as the answer. They pressure coaches to raise test scores and determine the effectiveness of coaching by the scores of students. Of course, this is a mistake.

The nature of coaching is that it is a partnership that has the potential to enhance teachers’ problem finding and decision making and to further a school staff’s commitment to professional learning. None of this occurs quickly, and none of it happens because someone else—e.g. the principal—said it should.

Coaching is about relationships, reflection, inquiry, insight. It is not about demands, pressure, expediency, or following orders.

When coaches feel pressure to raise scores, they tend to emphasize quick fixes in teachers’ behaviors. Such quick fixes sometimes do produce increased test scores, but the effort is usually temporary and improvements typically plateau. Acting under pressure rarely produces smart, insightful people, and, in the long-run, it often exacerbates existing problems by producing teachers and students who are even more disengaged, unmotivated by the meaninglessness of what they are being asked to do and angry that they have lost their voice and choice in the educational endeavor.

On the other hand, when coaches partner with teachers and when principals provide appropriate support and resources, students truly learn more and more deeply. I do believe that in these instances students’ test scores are likely to improve as well, but that is not the goal. The goal is enhanced community, deeper insight, greater meaning for schools and for life.

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