In a thought-provoking article subtitled “Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?,” surgeon/journalist Atul Gawande describes how, even after eight years and more than two thousand operations, he benefited from coaching (from a retired surgeon), just as pro athletes and accomplished musicians do. He then talks about proposals to institute coaching for teachers to help them perform better.
This all makes sense to me—except that I’m a little worried about expansion of the teacher coaching program. I can imagine it could work pretty well for teachers who are motivated to be coached—for example, I think I would get a lot out of it—but I’m afraid that if teacher coaching became a big business, it would get taken over by McKinsey-style scam artists.
But could I use a coach?
First, let me get rid of the easy questions.
1. Yes, I could use a squash coach. I enjoy squash and play when I can, but I’m terrible at it. I’m sure a coach would help. On the other hand, I’m happy at my current crappy level so I won’t bother. (Paradoxically, I think if I ever play enough that I actually start to get better, I’d probably want to get better still, and then maybe I would want that coach.)
2. Yes, I could use a teaching coach. I have lots of flaws as a teacher and I’m sure a coach would help. I’m not so sure that all or even most college teachers would benefit from coaching. Not because they’re so good, but because I think you have to want to improve, and I think lots of teachers would prefer to just not hear about their own flaws. (Gawande talks about that with surgeons.)
And now to the tough question:
3. Could I use a statistics coach? Gawande reports that top musicians such as Itzhak Perlman (as well as, of course, top athletes of all sorts) benefit from coaching. But I’m not clear that coaching would benefit my performance as a statistician. Coaching might help me with my management skills and other peripheral items, but I don’t know that someone could watch me do statistics and point out areas of improvement, in the way that Perlman’s coach can. I mean, what would there be to watch, exactly?
In this way, then, I think Gawande’s article is missing something. Let me put it another way: Gawande is a fine surgeon (at least, from the evidence he presents in his article) and it seems that coaching makes him even better. But, despite “surgeon” being a central part of his identity, it’s not what makes Gawande special. The United States is full of skilled surgeons making a million dollars a year (or whatever it is they make). What makes Gawande special is not that he’s one of that group; rather, he’s special because of his skills as a reporter and writer.
So the real question is: Is he getting coached on his reporting and writing? I think it’s possible. To be a good editor, you have to have some writing skills but you don’t have to be a top top class writer. In fact, as noted in this space on occasion, in my dream job (if I could not be a statistician), I’d be a Max-Perkins-style editor (if only such jobs still existed).
But I don’t know if this could work for statisticians (or for physicists or computer programmers or various other technical jobs). I’m sure I could benefit from advice—if I had Don Rubin or Xiao-Li Meng or Jennifer Hill on a string to answer my statistics questions at all time, I’d be in much better shape (this is not possible so I have partitioned off areas in my brain to simulate Rubin and Meng and Hill—it’s not as good as the real thing but it actually can be helpful, sort of like those old Windows emulators they used to have on Macs)—but that sort of advice and feedback seems a bit different from coaching, somehow.