Coaching Teachers

 Laura Mahajan, the director of coaching at Match's Sposato Graduate School of Education.

Laura Mahajan, the director of coaching at Match's Sposato Graduate School of Education.

A young teacher, Ms. M, was struggling to hold the attention of her sixteen elementary school students. The kids were chatty, fidgety and off-task, failing to follow along with the day’s reading lesson. No matter how many times she said, “Eyes on me” or reminded students to “keep voices off” they wriggled on the carpet. Sitting cross-legged among the throng of little bodies, was Laura Mahajan, calmly and persistently redirecting students.  

Mahajan is the director of coaching at Match’s Sposato Graduate School of Education. She’s the coach of the coaches (she also observes and coaches graduate students, like Ms. M). 

(If you’re sensing a theme in our recent stories, about the time we spend coaching teachers at Match, you’re not wrong.) 

Mahajan describes the job of teacher as “master juggler.” “Teachers are using so many discrete skills all at the same time,” she told me. “There’s so much going on that the skills can become invisible, so it’s hard to actually pull them apart and isolate any single one.” 

Mahajan has all training and academic credentials you’d expect of someone in her position: B.A. from Princeton, M.A. in teaching from Columbia, teaching experience in a high-need, urban school. What makes her good at her job is her intuitive understanding of the alchemy of skills that makes for an effective teacher. And, most important, her ability to pull them apart: to prioritize the key element of a teacher’s practice that is off track at a particular moment and deliver concrete, actionable feedback to immediately address it. She translates this skill to her coaches -- master teachers in their own right -- helping them better advise their trainees. 

In one coach-the-coach session, Mahajan complimented the coach’s method of answering a trainee’s questions in a way that put the hard thinking back on the teacher. But she also cautioned her not to slow down the conversation too much and to do more direct narration, to ensure the trainee understood the larger principle of the “teacher move” in question.

With Ms. M, who like many rookie teachers was struggling with the basics of classroom management, Mahajan focused on helping her improve her ability to use nonverbal cues, including proximity, touch and frequent but fast redirection of students’ noises.

Here are Mahajan’s notes from that day’s coaching session: 

When there are noises that prevent you from teaching, neutrally state: “Noises off and tracking the page, please, so we can read the words together.” Then:

  1. Quietly narrate 2 friends with noises off.
  2. Quietly redirect each friend making noises with a What to Do.
  3. Move towards friends who continue to make noises and use non-verbals to get them back on task.

This incredibly detailed feedback is the magic of Sposato training. Here the philosophy is that smart, hard-working people, with proper training, adequate practice and an ability to digest criticism, can become effective teachers. 

The entire program is oriented around a near-consistent loop of practice and in-the-moment feedback on everything from a trainee’s intellectual preparation for a lesson, to her tone and physical presence with students, to the way she goes about engaging kids in a productive in-class discussion. Those practical, repeatable skills, in our view, are more valuable to a rookie teacher than the more esoteric conversations common in a traditional graduate school of education. 

Mahajan should know. She has a degree from one of the nation’s storied teaching colleges. “I knew I wanted help with the practical aspects of teaching, but that’s not what I got at all,” she says about her graduate school experience. “I had none of the skills of a 5th or 6th grade teacher need -- I didn’t know what I was doing in so many ways.” 

As the no-excuses charter movement has evolved, so has Sposato. The school has a much greater focus these days on helping our graduate students learn how to build strong relationships with kids. “Ross Greene, in his book Lost & Found, talks about the idea that kids do well if they can, not if they want to,” Mahajan says. It’s an important shift in thinking. 

It’s also the big thing holding back the young teacher, Ms. M. Mahajan and her team of coaches are working, one session at a time, to help Ms. M internalize the idea that young children are still developing the skills to sit still, and not talk, and read along. (Their fidgeting isn’t personal.) At the same time, the Sposato coaches are helping her see the connection between the relationship she has with her students and how they interpret her direction. “It’s not just ‘cause I’m telling you to do it, right? It’s important that they're able to hear the words,” Mahajan told her. “Get kids invested in the purpose of the expectation (‘Ms. M is helping me read, she has my back!’), instead of going to consequences.” 

Building relationships with students doesn’t always come naturally to first-year teachers, who are worried about the zillion other things they have to master about their new craft. But it’s a critical skill. “Teaching is maybe the only profession where you have to willfully smile at a kid who is scowling at you,” Mahajan says.