Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Missing Piece of the Professional Development Puzzle

Growing up, my older brother loved jigsaw puzzles. He’d sort the pieces and bend over our card table looking for the next fit.

I only enjoyed one piece of his jigsaw puzzles—the last piece. When my brother left the room I’d sneak a piece away and hide it in my sock drawer. The puzzle would remain incomplete until I showed up and proudly placed the last piece.

We often approach professional development without all the pieces in place. We schedule a training event rather than strategizing how to support the changes we want to see in our classrooms. As a result, the training becomes a memory rather than a springboard.

A good coach can carry the professional growth from the training event into the classrooms. With coaching, a great training event becomes a launching pad for greater instructional excellence.

Why? What does a coach do that aids professional growth?

A coach activates reprocessing of new concepts and skills. Most likely, the training event featured a wealth of information. Unless the presenter intentionally planned time and activity to think through the material, many teachers left without constructing a deep understanding of new ideas. A coach engages teachers in thinking through the material and ways of using it to improve teaching.

A coach provides resources for success. Success motivates continued effort, but lacking the resources necessary to implement new strategies frustrates and defeats. A coach monitors teacher needs and works to provide the tools, materials, and support that will enable success.

A coach directs focus toward solutions. If we’re honest, we all tend to resist growth and change. It can be easy to find every reason why something will not work, and this perspective quickly defeats new initiatives. A coach can redirect thinking away from finding problems to designing solutions that enable a new initiative to progress.

A coach helps transform thinking to reality. Let’s move to the gym for a moment. Imagine a basketball coach who meets with the team once at the beginning of the season for a day-long seminar held in the school library. After that, the players are on their own to achieve excellence throughout the season. How successful would this approach be? Not very. The team needs the coach nearby to help them implement the vision and ideas on the court. (Even professional basketball teams need coaches.) Similarly, the coach in the classroom helps the teacher experience success with a new initiative.

That puzzle piece in the sock drawer drove my brother crazy. An incomplete puzzle is unsatisfying. It shows potential unrealized. Don’t let this be the description of your professional development efforts. Recognize the important role a good coach can play in supporting instructional success.

Of course, many questions remain. What traits do successful coaches share? How can a coach establish relationships that will promote optimal effectiveness? Future postings may discuss these and other related ideas.

One final note: a coach can only be helpful to the degree that a teacher welcomes the dialogue. It never feels comfortable to have a colleague observing our instruction because we think the focus is on what we’re doing wrong. A great coach will work for your success and celebrate your success. Let’s welcome such input. As we grow, our teaching improves. As our teaching improves, our students’ learning increases. And that’s a piece we all want in place.