A Message from the Executive Director
I PLAY THE RECORDER, and I’m part of an amateur ensemble. Rachel is our teacher and coach. From time to time, if we lapse into a moment of sloppy or careless playing, she’ll look around at us, a twinkle in her eye, and ask, “Is that how you want to be remembered?” She is challenging us to play mindfully, listening to the music we’re making and going for beauty with every note we play.
Rachel’s coaching works on many levels. When demonstrating a difficult passage, she shows us how fluid and sweet a recorder can sound. She guides us in exploring a wide range of repertory – everything from Bach to a contemporary samba piece that is great fun. She gives us tips for improving the specific skills that form the basis for good recorder playing.
Above all, her message is “Blow – and be happy!” I thought of Rachel when I read Atul Gawande’s essay in the New Yorker, “Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?” (October 3, 2011). Gawande’s conclusion, after an interesting exploration of the question: Yes.
Everyone can use a coach to do their best, even the very best practitioners.
And that includes educators. Coaching has always been a crucial aspect of Morningside Center’s work. When we started the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP) back in 1985, we knew that just handing out our curricula and giving a few workshops wouldn’t magically result in wonderful classroom lessons. Teachers starting out with the program would need someone to show them what the activities would look like in their own classrooms with their own students. They would need a partner who would work with them in planning, conducting, and debriefing the lessons.
Even back then, teachers were under pressure and pulled in different directions. They would need inspiration from someone passionate about social and emotional learning — and an occasional nudge to encourage them to stick with it.
Twenty-seven years later, coaching is still at the heart of our work. Working on a per diem basis, our staff developers roll up their sleeves, go into classrooms, conduct demo lessons, co-teach lessons, observe and give feedback – and generally serve as allies for teachers. While their primary goal is to foster high-quality teaching of The 4Rs or RCCP, they share techniques and insights that improve teachers’ performance throughout the school day.
We have a remarkable team of 20 staff developers. Some are former classroom teachers; others are experts in peacemaking and facilitation. Some are artists, singers, or actors.
All receive extensive training and support from each other and from me. Some provide as few as 15 days of service in a given year; others, as many as 150 days. Last year our staff developers provided a total of 1200 days of service in the New York City public schools. It’s an unusually stable crew: their average tenure with Morningside Center is eight years
The relationship between the staff developer and the teacher is a critical nexus for our work, and we are always looking for ways to strengthen it. Several years ago the research team that conducted the scientific evaluation of our 4Rs Program told us about “My Teaching Partner,” an approach to teacher coaching developed by Robert Pianta and his colleagues at the University of Virginia. It’s a careful, focused process that involves a teacher identifying an area of her teaching she wants to improve, and using a research-based rubric for classroom quality called the CLASS. The teacher videotapes herself working with her students, and the videotape provides the jumping-off place for the work with the coach.
With funds from the W.T. Grant Foundation, we introduced My Teaching Partner to some of our staff developers and tried it out in two schools. The impact on the teachers was profound. Teachers found that the targeted support of our staff developers helped them make teaching breakthroughs.
Fast forward to the present, and we are now in Year 2 of a three-year federally funded collaboration with the University of Virginia to adapt My Teaching Partner for coaching teachers implementing our 4Rs Program.
Coaching can help principals too. In our work over the years, we’ve seen again and again what a huge difference a principal can make in the success of our classroom-based programs – and in fostering a positive school culture. Because our staff developers are knowledgeable about social and emotional learning, are good listeners, and are independent of the Department of Education, they’ve sometimes become confidants and unofficial coaches for principals.
Since 2005, coaching of principals has become a major focus of our work. Our SEL Policy Pilot project supported principals of 19 Brooklyn schools in facilitating a collaborative planning process for sustained, school-wide social & emotional learning.
Today, we’re building on this work. Through our Smart School Leaders Project, we are providing one-on-one coaching for principals in leading with emotional intelligence, using a coaching model based on Daniel Goleman’s research on leadership. We are also refining our approach to supporting principals in facilitating collaborative planning, and writing a manual to codify the process and provide tools for carrying it out.
Unfortunately, coaching isn’t the preferred method for improving our schools these days. Instead, the focus is on shaming. Principals are removed. Public schools are closed and replaced by charters. Teachers are assessed using an error-prone “value-added” metric that is derived from a standardized test students spend an hour taking – and then the results are made public.
From our 30 years working in the New York City public schools, Morningside Center knows that running a school or teaching a group of children is a challenging and complicated endeavor. Albert Einstein said, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.” High-stakes tests are too simple and flawed to assess the quality of a teacher’s year with students or a principal’s year with a school community. And shaming is not the way to improve performance. If you want people to reach high standards, you give them the tools they need and you give them a hand.
When Atul Gawande first enlisted the help of a coach, he was nine years into his career as a surgeon. He didn’t turn to a coach because he was struggling. He did it because he wanted to continue to strive for his personal best. No matter how competent, accomplished, or highly regarded we are, we can all benefit from another pair of trained ears hearing the music we’re making or another pair of trained eyes seeing the operation we’re performing or the lesson we’re teaching. Easier said than done, of course. Coaching is an art in its own right.
Morningside Center keeps trying to do it better. And if Rachel should ask us her question, I would be proud to say, “Yes, that’s how we’d like to be remembered!