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Teachers Eye Coaches, Collaboration To Improve Their Teaching

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Can you teach great teaching? The answer, shaped by best-selling books and popular movies, is no. Many of us believe great teachers are born with exceptional skills, not molded and shaped by years of hard work.

"The problem is 99.9 percent of teachers aren’t born that way, they need to be prepared," says Vivian Troen, a senior education specialist at Brandeis University.

Going To The Tape

Katie Hubbard is preparing for greatness. Every Tuesday for six weeks this spring, Hubbard videotapes herself teaching a reading class at Phoenix Charter Academy, a high school in Chelsea. This week, shortly after class begins, Hubbard turns and there’s an outburst behind her.

"I didn’t whistle. I didn’t whistle, that was [him]," a girl in Hubbard's class says.

"I can talk about a discreet moment because I want to isolate it and get a teacher better at doing that specific thing."

Max Tuefferd, teaching coach

Hubbard interrupts an argument between the students with firm but calm commands.

"Right now is not the time to have this conversation," Hubbard says. "I will talk to you about it in a minute but now we need to start the lesson."

A day later, Hubbard reviews the videotape with her teaching coach.

"I think the way you handled that was pitch-perfect," says Max Tuefferd. "Those moments are inevitable. But how you handle it makes the difference between whether that escalates into something huge and you have to send them out, or deescalates. So I thought you handled it very, very well."

Tuefferd’s small firm, Teacher Coaching Solutions, has a contract with Phoenix for six coaching sessions with any teacher who wants his help. Hubbard jumped at this chance few teachers have, either because schools can’t afford it, or because teachers and administrators don’t see the value.

On this day Hubbard wants to analyze her worst moment of the lesson. A student who rarely speaks during class answered a question in a way that didn’t make sense.

"And instead of working to validate his answer, I said, 'OK, does anyone else have any thoughts?' and totally skipped over him," Hubbard says.

Tuefferd sympathizes and asks Hubbard what she could have done differently. "Because I know it’s really tempting to just go for that quick, 'Anyone else?' What’s going to trigger you to remember that? The scar of having…"

Hubbard, nodding, interrupts. "I think that’s going to be part of it. I was so aware of him in class today." Tuefferd laughs.

Tuefferd and Hubbard spend an hour reviewing five or six micro-events that Tuefferd believes will make Hubbard a better teacher.

"I can talk about a discreet moment because I want to isolate it and get a teacher better at doing that specific thing," Tuefferd explains. "And then it’s important to zoom out and see how that fits it, because it all adds up to great teaching."

Hubbard says Tuefferd’s focus on the mechanics of teaching — how to move through the classroom, how to pace lessons, how to keep students at different levels engaged — is helping her in a way no other professional development program has.

“It’s almost as if you need a genetic transplant to change our vision of what teaching should be.’s never the teachers working together in a culture that values collaboration."

Katherine Boles, Harvard School of Education

"This is really individualized," she says, "where are you in your teaching practice and how we can follow through and set goals and help you grow."

Changing The Teaching Culture

Hubbard is using what she learns about her own teaching to assist Phoenix colleagues. Some educators see “peer coaching” as the most promising tool to improve teaching for everyone, especially when teachers work together in teams (PDF). But this concept goes against the culture of most schools, says Katherine Boles, who directs the Learning and Teaching Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

"We all work alone, we don’t talk to anybody, there isn’t time in the day to watch another teacher teach or to analyze the way another teacher teaches," Boles says. "Once you begin to introduce people to the culture, they’re shocked."

Boles and co-author Troen, from Brandeis, have a book (PDF) out this fall they hope will both inspire and guide teachers toward collaborative teaching. It's quite different from the way many teachers think about teams now, around the logistics of ordering books, planning field trips or putting up bulletin boards.

"The culture is so embedded in our lives," Boles says, stressing each word. "It’s almost as if you need a genetic transplant to change our vision of what teaching should be. It is the isolated teacher, it is the once-in-a-while great teacher. But it’s never the teachers working together in a culture that values collaboration. It’s not just my children, it’s the team’s children we’re talking about."

Team-Tweaking Lesson Plans

Collaborative teaching is the norm at Trotter Elementary School in Boston. Trotter, an under-performing school, has some outside money to train teachers on coaching and working in teams. Third-grade teacher Joanne Douglas describes collaborating on a difficult lesson — "What is cause and effect?" The team planned the lesson, watched one colleague teach it, and then tested the students.

"Well, a lot of the kids didn’t get it," Douglas admits.

So Douglas and her team tweaked the lesson and another teacher tried it with more hands-on, visual elements. The created puzzle pieces that, when paired, illustrate cause and effect.

"A car with a flat tire and nails on the street," Douglas remembers, "shining bright teeth, toothbrush and toothpaste — cause and effect. Now, 90 percent of the kids got it. So we can tweak it again to get 100 percent."

And that, Douglas says, is how she is learning to be a great teacher. Of course coaching and teaching in teams could become the latest fad that burns bright for a few years and fades. The difference may be whether supporters can measure and evaluate their contribution to great teaching.

This program aired on May 26, 2011.

Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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