Gawande, Atul, Personal Best, The New Yorker 3 October 2011 p. 44, 46-50, 51-52
This is Part II of two blogs begun March 2012 which addressed Dr. Gawande (New Yorker Magazine Article). He has a quest for ‘coaching’ to continue developing into his Personal Best. I felt it necessary to analyze the article written by Dr. Gawande in order to address a professional sense of self-reflection, that of a professional surgeon. Dr. Gawande so thoroughly addressed his personal role in medicine AND all the other potential factors of medicine that I was compelled to use this as an example. Dr. Gawande admitted the fault of being human and demonstrated humility in not being God. He noted that the human condition is imperfect yet there is a way to learn and continually improve ourselves over time, most often with self-reflection and insight from others as it is difficult to view ourselves while being ourselves.
Only by carefully observing other professionals outside the field of education can we begin to develop a consciousness of professionalism, what it means to good, better, best, great and so forth and look for tools to apply to the teaching profession. Focusing only on education assumes the worst case scenario – teachers are distinctly different in the world of humans, but instead of being viewed as deities, in America, they are viewed as pure evil by many, often including their own administrators and the government at state and federal levels.
When we see what others do, we get past the misanthropic view of one group of people (non- teachers) regarding teachers and notice more of the similarities between teachers and other professionals. Once back from the brink of insanity, we can address the multitude factors which effect the outcomes of education, which are not strictly the result of teacher quality. Many outcomes in education have everything to do with poverty, parental involvement and self motivation/will.
If we were to blame only surgeons and doctors for ALL medical outcomes, no one would have surgery any more. It is both a science and an art. There is not ‘perfection’, rather there are gradations of success based on a whole slew of issues above and beyond the doctor/surgeon. We may seek perfection – this involves coaching and improving professional practice. It is NOT the golden bullet to prevent all problems. Doctors can not account for your DNA, what you choose to eat, how you choose to take care of yourself. Doctors have to work with what is presented to them and hope that with their best ministrations, they obtain a positive outcome as they take an oath to do no harm. In the case of doctors, we need to look from within regarding outcomes of surgery, because we came to the doctor damaged.
When we grade a teacher, we wish to push results and outcomes on people whom have the least control over what goes on in a child’s life. Teachers have only 40/168 hours, including sleep. Take out sleep (which is substantially important) and you have 40/118 hours assuming kids sleep a 10 hour night. In both cases, 40 hours is very little and yet so much is expected. Teachers, like doctors, have to work with what is presented to them and hope that with their best ministrations will produce positive outcomes in nine months of the school year of eight-hour school days. Let me be clear – most kids do not sleep even eight hours a nigh.t Not all school days are actually eight hours so the numbers I present are skewed by things such as testing, minimum days, staying up late at night for a variety of reasons and a multitude of other issues (lockdowns, snow days, illness, etc.). Grading a teacher on amount of time of ‘influence’ alone is inadequate.
In order to explore various ideas within education reform, I also sought out different pieces of writing from others who address the ideation of grading teachers. It is not enough to say something is a bad or good idea, rather one needs to support different views and perceptions so the discussion can center on what is best for children, not what is best for our sense of power over things we lack control.
As Dr. Gawande indicates, coaching is costly and rarely something schools can afford. It is awkward – in the hospital and in the classroom. Obtaining coaching can be (and often is viewed outside sports and singing) seen as an admission of failure instead of the converse – an admission of willing to improve. When coaching is used as punishment in education, it automatically infers substandard performance. To change the perception of coaching in education will be no different or easier than the exact experience Dr. Gawande addresses at the end of his written piece. Demonizing teachers does not improve their quality – it does slowly wear them down and destroy them which could not be good for students.
I am done picking at the bone of grading teachers with a public which hates teachers, who think denigrating and demeaning teachers (public humiliation/bullying/ exposing student success or failure on our backs) is reform. This bone is from a recently dead animal which was left rotting on the street, run over by a car and bits of it are smashed into the concrete. The piece of bone left has tendons and muscle hanging from it, smells of horrible decay and clearly would be of no use to the mammal it came from so we need to start over and not be so willing to kill. Bloodsport does not ever portend to good.
So, to use a quote:
New Yorker Magazine cartoon (5 Dec 2011) by Victoria Roberts: “There’s an elephant in the room and no zookeeper.”
Let’s try to find a better course of action because grading teachers is not working the way we assumed it would. Here is a smattering of examples of alternative perspectives. What would be awesome is if the people who hired teachers had as much interest in teacher success as their own rise to power.
Almost all men can stand adversity, but if you want to judge a man’s true character, give him power. (I have been unable to find the source in order to attribute this quote – if you know it, please comment!)
When society begins supporting ways for teachers to improve their personal best, obtaining the caliber of teachers wished for will be in reach. Brigham and Women’s Hospital in MA and Harvard University are fortunate to have such a self reflective staff member AND some one so willing to share their personal experiences in order to help others. By supporting Dr. Gawande and his willingness to strive for better, these institutions and patients benefit greatly all the way around.
We would do far more to improve education by creating a positive environment for teachers. It is our choice – surgically destroy education with reforms that have little to nothing in offering actual improvement or healing what happens in the classroom by owning our locus of control and assisting teachers in achieving their personal best.