Commentary | Education

Lessons—For Teaching’s Real Pros, Coaches on the Sidelines

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


For Teaching’s Real Pros, Coaches on the Sidelines

By Richard Rothstein

Teachers sometimes complain that they are not “treated like professionals,” pointing to things like lack of personal office space or access to telephones. But the most unprofessional aspect of their job is excessive autonomy. Behind classroom doors, teachers are mostly on their own.

Other professionals get more supervision. Young law firm associates have senior partners for mentoring, supervision and modeling. Partner-to-associate ratios are typically one to one. Business executives rarely have more than five subordinates reporting to them. At newspapers, editors often supervise no more than 10 reporters. But in public schools, it is common for one principal to oversee 25 teachers. It is also unprofessional.

This is now changing, with many districts adding full-time teacher “coaches” to their rosters. These quasi supervisors are not merely volunteer mentors who offer advice to beginners during lunch or after school, although this is also a growing trend. Rather, coaches are specialists with no classroom assignments of their own, who observe other teachers, guide teachers’ own learning and teach demonstration lessons.

Anthony Alvarado began such a program when he was District 2 superintendent in New York City. Now he is in charge of instruction in San Diego, where each school has a full- time specialist spending four days a week in the school and a fifth day in training with other coaches.

Diana Lam assigned a full-time “instructional guide” to each school when she was superintendent in San Antonio, and now has a similar program as superintendent in Providence, R.I. Suburban districts like Wheeling, Ill., outside Chicago, also now have full-time specialists at each school.

In Montgomery County, Md., in the Washington suburbs, Superintendent Jerry Weast requires each principal to identify academic areas needing student improvement. Then the school’s own staff developer works with each teacher to prepare an individual plan to mesh with the common goal. If the coach recommends further training from which a teacher could benefit, coach and teacher may attend together so that they can  later model for each other the methods learned.

The need for coaches has become acute, because schools are enrolling more diverse populations and because demands that all students achieve at higher levels require more attention to individual learning styles. Bill Bailey, a 37-year-old specialist in San Diego, has worked this year with a fourth-grade teacher many years his senior. Although already effective, she needed help learning to guide a small group in reading while relinquishing her fears that other pupils might not fulfill independent assignments without her constant attention.

Many districts are making these changes despite the cost of specialists, who nearly double school leadership budgets (although most districts report this as an instructional cost, not administrative). San Diego, Montgomery County and Wheeling principals, usually in consultation with teachers and even parents, select coaches for their schools. Dr. Lam used such a system in San Antonio, but in Providence she has taken a more direct hand in selection, because she wants every school to focus on reading.

To make the approach work, districts have raised a fire wall between coaching and evaluation. Coaches remain union members and do not recommend discipline for teachers who don’t improve. Principals keep sole responsibility for evaluation, without help from coaches.

In practice, this line can blur, but not much. While coaches and principals sometimes informally consult about evaluation, their doing so is rare, as it must be to gain teachers’ cooperation. Teachers have had autonomy for so long that it is a radical step to place specialists in veterans’ classrooms for observation and modeling. If teachers believed that poor performance would be reported, they would resist being observed, and unions would resist the reform.

This line between mentoring and evaluation does not exist in other professions, but it may be a better way: in education, specialists seek to improve performance of well-established teachers, not only novices.

Some districts have instituted coaching gradually but have won rapid acceptance for it. In San Diego, specialists enter classrooms only when invited by the teacher. In Wheeling, they started the same way last year, but veteran teachers have now been convinced that specialists can help; they invite coaches in more frequently.

It is no accident that many superintendents have come to the same conclusion: that standards-based reform cannot succeed without better teaching and that it is unrealistic to expect teachers to improve without coaches’ help. Quality could not be maintained in other professions without intensive mentoring, supervision and collaboration. Education is no different.

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