I’m not easily impressed but I was impressed with Atul Gawande’s keynote at ASCD, perhaps because he touched on topics percolating in my brain the past few months.  My love affair with Gawande began with his article in the New Yorker  where he advocates for all professionals having the opportunity to be coached. The philosophy is so simple—we get better at what we do if we get specific feedback on our performance—yet it happens so little in most professions, except in sports and dance. The goal of this feedback is not to be rated or graded; the goal is simply to get better.

When I danced years ago, my instructor would have us watch ourselves repeatedly in the mirror. She’d show me how to adjust my body for better balance, more grace, a longer line. No one has done this for me as a teacher. Certainly no one has done this for me as administrator.

I know when I watched myself teach on video, I found several unexpected behaviors that I didn’t know I did—for ex, I do this sort of two-step move when in front of the classroom. It’s because I move towards the students who are talking and then back up because I realize the students on the edge of the “U” are out of my periphery.  It ends up looking like a strange dance, or at least it did when my students imitated me during a school skit. I also use the word “actually” too much.  Now these aren’t horrible habits in that they’re not overtly harmful to students, but they are a potential distraction to students, so I try to curtail them.

When I’ve had teachers observe themselves, they often share with me that they had no idea how short their wait time was, or that they called on boys more often, or that they asked so many closed questions. Half the trick to improvement is identification and recognition. You can’t work on something if you don’t see it. We need to open ourselves to asking and receiving feedback. Most importantly we need to rethink how we view teacher evaluation and professional development.

Gawande made the point that most teachers, like doctors, fall into a bell curve—most are average. We shouldn’t focus all of our efforts on trying to get rid of the “bad teachers.”  Instead, we should teach them. So simple, but our teacher effectiveness systems aren’t designed this way. We should be thinking about teacher growth for all teachers, not teacher evaluation. How can we learn from the great teachers, and how can we share this wisdom?

In all of the districts I’ve worked, many teachers coast after their first five years. They feel as if they’ve mastered their craft and they don’t feel pushed to keep improving. I wonder if many potentially great teachers leave the profession because they don’t experience the challenge of continual improvement. Other professions offer these challenges. Just like students need the right balance of a challenge without crossing over into frustration, so do our teachers. So do our administrators.

Here’s the big question: how can redesign our profession so that it’s the norm for all teachers and administrators to be coached? Imagine the impact this could have on students.