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'Hey, Coach, What Did You Think of My Class?'

Professors keep working on their game through a peer-coaching program

Coaching is typically associated with activities such as sports, singing, or SAT prep. Yet, two years ago, after reading physician Atul Gawande’s 2011 essay “Personal Best” in The New Yorker, about the lack of mentors for doctors, Kenneth Sharpe, working on a Templeton Foundation project on Institutional Design for Wisdom, had a question: “Why shouldn’t faculty members be coached—even coach one another?” The seed for the Faculty Teaching Seminar was sown. 

Sharpe, the William R. Keenan Jr. Professor of Political Science, pitched the idea to Professor of History Timothy Burke, then recruited Professor of English Literature Betsy Bolton.

“Swarthmore’s a liberal arts institution. Teaching is one of our trademark strengths. Shouldn’t we pay more reflective attention to pedagogy?” says Sharpe. “The only way to improve at a practice like teaching is by having people practicing with you or watching you practice. ” 

Supported by the Aydelotte Foundation for the Liberal Arts, 12 faculty members from disparate disciplines and with varying levels of experience,  including softball coach Renee Clarke, paired up. They visit one another’s classes through the year: observing, being observed, coaching, and being coached. Every three weeks, they gather for three-hour sessions to share experiences.     

Bolton and her partner, Tomoko Sakomura, associate professor of art history, noted  a mutual tendency to self-critique. “Tomoko is trying to stop me from apologizing in my classes,” Bolton says. “Some of the conversations that resulted from watching her seminar have informed my thinking on how to handle my seminars this spring.” Bolton in turn role-played with Sakomura on the usefulness of reminding students of the steps of visual description and analysis.

Although Clark and Visiting Associate Professor of Educational Studies Elaine Allard have different aims, Clark says, “Faculty share the same kinds of issues as coaches.” During the softball season, she sought feedback from Allard on her student-coach interactions—individually and with the team: whether she favors certain athletes, whether her practice is well organized, and whether she coached it well. 

“What’s admirable about Renee’s teaching is the atmosphere of overall mutual respect and support she fosters,” Allard says. “I’m working on creating a similar kind of classroom space, where students feel comfortable taking intellectual risks, supported by their professor and classmates.”

“Elaine has a phenomenal lesson plan that keeps the students involved for long periods,” Clark says. “We also talked about her wrapping up the class and not leaving it open-ended.”     

Professor of Spanish Maria Luisa Guardiola, who is teaching Introduction to Spanish Literature, teamed with Burke, who is teaching A Cultural History of Digital Media. 

“It’s interesting and incredibly beautiful to me how Maria structures different kinds of pedagogical exercises, different ways of connecting to and addressing different students, moving in and out of engaging, for example, a student whose Spanish is a little weak and students who are fluent,” Burke says. 

“It’s good to reflect on your own teaching and compare yourself to someone going through the same experience,” Guardiola says. “Our topics and fields are different, but the struggles are similar.” 

 Sharpe hopes to make the seminar permanent, with all faculty members eventually participating. 

“Teaching each other to reflect on our teaching should be part of what we do,” says Sharpe, “and the three-hour meetings allow us to discuss very concrete exercises aimed at improving our practice. Even when we’re done talking, people don’t want to leave. It’s like there’s a buzz.”