In November 2012, Dr. Atul Gawande gave a talk at Harvard University titled The Difference Between Coaching and Teaching. In this speech, Dr. Gawande invites listeners to think about what makes some people good, or competent, at what they do and what makes others excellent. At a time when the stakes have never been higher with regard to accountability, this strikes us as an interesting question. What are the things that we do well? And what are the things that we do better than well? In fact, what are we actually great at? And how can exploring the difference between these two things serve us as practitioners?
In his pursuit to answer these questions for himself both as a physician and a surgeon, Dr. Gawande began by looking at hospitals and programs with particularly high success rates with different diseases and procedures. His investigation led him to Dr. Warren Warwick, a pediatrician from Minneapolis, Minnesota specializing in Cystic Fibrosis. The patients in Dr. Warwick’s clinic have higher life expectancy rates than those in other Cystic Fibrosis programs and Dr. Gawande wanted to know why. What was different about this program? What made it great?
In order to find out, Dr. Gawande traveled to Minnesota and sat with Dr. Warwick and one of his patients, a seventeen year old girl named Janelle. During this appointment, Dr. Warwick noted that Janelle’s lung function had decreased considerably and began to question Janelle about what she thought might be responsible for causing this drop. True to typical teenage form, Janelle had no idea. According to her, she had followed her treatment regime faithfully and nothing had changed since the last visit.
It was at this point that Dr. Warwick demonstrated the difference between good and great. Rather than simply reiterating her treatment regime and making sure Janelle understood what she needed to do to ensure that she maintained optimal lung function before sending her on her way, he turned and began discussing the life expectancy statistics for people with Cystic Fibrosis. He drew a couple of diagrams and processed out loud what he knew and understood about the relationship between life expectancy and treatment. At one point in the conversation, he looked at Janelle and said, “It is important to acknowledge when we have failed,” at which point Janelle began to cry and revealed that because of her new job, new boyfriend, and a change in school policy about having to go to the nurse to take medications, she had not faithfully followed her treatment regime.
Dr. Gawande points out that Dr. Warwick is great at ushering his juvenile Cystic Fibrosis patients into adulthood. Driven by a strong “moral clarity” to keep his patients healthy and well, Dr. Warwick achieves his goal by being fastidious about details, by looking for the ways in which things connect, and by knowing that “small things can amplify in non-linear ways.”
Fortunately for educators, our work with children is not usually a matter of life and death in the ways it is for Dr. Warwick; however, his story holds an element of universality for all professionals. He stands as an example of what it means to be exceptional and provides us clues about the difference between being competent and being excellent. As we conclude this post, we encourage you to think about the fine line that exists between good and great, and to share what you have observed about yourself and your colleagues from which we can all learn as we continue on our perpetual quest to be excellent.
On September 17, 2001, just days after the attacks on the Twin Towers, I was spending my days tying up a series of loose ends in preparation for a move to a new town. One such loose end involved cataloging and sorting books I had purchased through a grant written through the local library to establish a small library at the local jail. I was stressed, working frenetically in the back room of the public library while trying to manage the simultaneous emotions of an unwanted move and national grief when what appeared to be a rather hapless library volunteer walked into the corner of one of my boxes of books and pantomimed a serious injury. I was in no mood for frivolity or distraction. I apologized and strategically avoided small talk by overtly returning my attention to my stacks of books. A few minutes later he did it again, bumping into the corner of another box. And again. Eventually, my stoicism cracked and we enjoyed a few moments of laughter together. He offered to help me with my task and, although he continued to prove a distraction, we managed to organize the books for the new library. To make a long story 250-words-or-less, after twelve years of marriage and two sons (ages 11 and 6) he still regularly distracts me from my work by making me laugh, and I am still grateful for his love of laughter and of libraries.–Jan Burkins
It was September 2006. My older son, Matthew, had been in first grade for about two weeks and things were going fine; however, on the other side of town, where his best friend from preschool lived, the transition from kindergarten wasn’t going as smoothly. On about the tenth day, his mom, my good friend, called me, worried that Owen wasn’t where he should be as a reader. What could she do, she asked, to help him?
I said, “Let’s go to the library.”
A day later, we met inside the children’s section of our public library. As we moms browsed the shelves, chatting about this and that, our boys waded through books, pointed at pictures, and giggled at the things that made them laugh. My friend, who arrived worried, quickly felt a sense of calm and said, “I think we need to do this more often!” Before we left, we made a plan to return a week later.
Unfortunately, that second meeting never happened because my friend passed away unexpectedly two days after we met in the library. Some might think that such a sad circumstance would cloud this moment with sad memories, but for me, this is my most cherished memory of my beloved friend and I can look back with fondness and say, “I had a beautiful day with a beautiful person in a beautiful place.” And for that, I am grateful. ~Kim Yaris
These are our entries in Shadra Strickland’s contest for a free, autographed copy of her new book, Please, Louise, written by Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison and illustrated by (none other than) Shadra Strickland. We love everything Shadra does; we know the integrity with which she lives and the care with which she selects projects. Needless to say, this new book’s theme of the power of libraries makes the new title especially compelling for us, and perhaps for you, too! So we couldn’t resist entering her contest and inviting you to do the same! Your students can enter, too, since there is no age limit on the contest. Simply describe in 250 words, or less (there is a discrepancy in the word counts listed on the contest description, so we went with the longest option), a favorite library experience. Follow this link for a description of the book and the contest. The book drops on March 4th, which is the deadline for the contest. So start reliving your favorite library experiences and submit them for a chance to win free, autographed copy of Please, Louise.
Happy Monday, Friends!
We are excited to announce that we, in collaboration with Dr. Kimberly Tyson of Learning Unlimited, are founding an educational Twitter chat! This Literacy Leaders chat will utilize the hashtag #LitLeadchat. Our audience is literacy educators who serve in informal or formal leadership capacities, which is really anyone who talks with colleagues about ways to improve literacy instruction. Whether you are a classroom teacher swapping ideas with the teacher next door, a literacy coach, a literacy consultant, or the superintendent of a school district, we intend for this chat to offer you fresh ideas about improving the literacy learning of students.
The three of us–Kimberly, Kim, and Jan–will host this one-hour chat every Monday night at 8:00 p.m. Our inaugural chat is Monday, March 3, 2014 at 8:00 p.m. Our first discussion topic is “What is a literacy leader?” So, mark your calendars and join us for our first conversation, at the end of which we will announce the topic for our discussion on March 10th (Clue: It has a children’s literature focus. )
We look forward to chatting with you on March 3rd!