Perhaps surprising no one, I wasn’t a kid who played sports. I never sat on the sideline with a Capri Sun, waiting for Coach to put me in. In fact, my only experience with “coaches” were in nerdly pursuits, like math team and quiz bowl (you know you’re cool when…), where “coach” pretty much meant “chaperone.” Outside of life coaches, which seemed like a totally different animal, I thought coaching was something reserved only for athletes.
Now I realize I was wrong: A more expansive understanding of coaching can benefit anyone who engages in any kind of practice, and directly ties to expertise development. It’s an especially great idea for those of us who work in library instruction.
A few years ago, I read an Atul Gawande article that really stuck with me. Gawande, a surgeon and author, writes about feeling like he had plateaued in his surgery practice: He was performing everything competently, but after eight years of continual practice, couldn’t reach that next level of surgical excellence. While he was watching tennis one day, he realized that even the best athletes in the world have coaches standing behind them; why couldn’t that be adapted to medicine? So he invited another surgeon to watch him perform surgery a few times a month and give him feedback. And Gawande started to see improvement based on his coaches’ feedback. For example, he’d never noticed that he held his elbow slightly in the air, but his coach saw it. Gawande would probably have never noticed on his own—if it’s hard to notice everything you do while teaching, I can’t even imagine what it’s like during surgery. But a small adjustment based on that observation led to serious improvement.
There’s considerable literature demonstrating the benefits that coaching can have on teachers. Just one example: Teachers who are coached adopt new ideas at a higher rate than those who just learn the skill in a workshop. Personalized feedback seems to make the difference.
We’ve talked about deliberate practice before on this blog. One key component of developing expertise is feedback. Expert feedback is best, but just having someone who shares an understanding of your field comment on your performance and suggest ways to improve is good too. They can tell you things like: Did you know that you play with your hair when you present? Nope. And I never would have known if unless there was an impartial observer telling me that I did.
In the K-12 setting, coaching is no longer a radical idea. So why is it so much more unusual in higher ed, and in librarianship in particular?
We’re all busy, sure. But, more insidiously, higher education is an environment where, in many cases, people expect you to be an expert already. So inviting someone into your classroom to critique you is kind of counter to that idea—it’s scary to invite criticism, even positive criticism. But the potential benefits are just…huge. After being observed, I’ve learned about my weird tics and verbal hang-ups. I’ve been offered really productive suggestions on how to present material in a new, and possibly more engaging, way. I’ve been reassured that I’m on the right track with my teaching, and am not out in Dani-land, doing my own thing. And when I’ve observed others, I’ve also learned things about how I might improve my own practice, based on some of the incredible teaching I’ve seen, which would have been their personal secret forever unless I was in the back of that classroom.
I’m lucky enough to work in an institution where peer observation is the norm. In previous library positions, that wasn’t true. So I asked people I respected as instructors if a) I could observe them (whether or not they wanted feedback after) and b) if they would observe me. Yes, I certainly sweated more knowing that there was someone I respected, watching me from the back of the class. But can you engage in true reflective practice if the only thing you are aware of is what you perceive from the front of the class? Probably not.
Do you engage in peer observation or peer coaching?