We’ve all had a class where we ask ourselves, “Why did this person become a teacher?” And as much as we’d like to believe every educator is another Jaime Escalante, the fact of the matter is that most aren’t. So what does it take to be a great educator? Are teaching skills innate, or can they be learned? Alas, the age-old question of nature versus nurture rears its head yet again.
A strategy called teacher coaching is becoming popular. Its aim isn’t making teachers into the idealized versions seen in movies and on TV, but it seeks to make an individual teacher the best he or she can be based on his or her own natural abilities and limitations. It zeroes in on behaviors, strategies, and approaches to running a classroom and objectively tries to analyze, and ultimately, improve them. It focuses on the mechanics of teaching, moving through the classroom, pacing, and keeping every student at every level engaged and participating. Teacher coaches work the same way a baseball coach works to help a player improve his or her batting stance or swing.
Many times the behaviors a teacher needs to improve are things of which he or she is totally unaware. In a recent story on NPR about coaching, a teacher named Katie Hubbard discusses her response to a situation in which a normally quiet student responded to a question in a way that was difficult to understand. She recounts that “Instead of working to validate his answer, [she] said, ‘OK, does anyone else have any thoughts?’ and totally skipped over him.” It’s not the best way to inspire a student’s confidence, but one even her teaching coach admits is “tempting to just go for that quick ‘Anyone else?’”
Correcting these kinds of behaviors comes in two main approaches: professional approach and peer approach. The professional approach involves an outside firm and professional coach. A teacher will be videotaped in the classroom and review the tape with the coach for individualized adjustments to teaching style. The peer approach is similar, but involves teachers sitting in on one another’s classes, and can involve a collaborative, or “team teaching” aspect.
However, like anything that seems too good to be true, there are drawbacks to both approaches. Professional coaching is expensive, and many schools that need it simply can’t afford it. The peer approach ends up taking one teacher out of a classroom to watch another, and can end up being more subjective due to personal relationships among coworkers.
So do great teachers emerge naturally, or is their greatness learned? It’s still impossible to say. In all likelihood, great teaching involves both nature and nurture. Whether great teachers are born great, or they learn how to be great, the important thing is that through teacher coaching, educators are working to be as good as possible at what they do.