I recently had the rare opportunity (and pleasure) to observe my colleagues’ classrooms throughout two school days. In total, I entered twenty-four classrooms and, after reflective collaboration with the rest of the leadership team, enjoyed conversations about nearly fifty observational rounds. While out on tour, my purpose was to collect data about the amount of differentiation and level of rigor our students experience in a typical day of high school to provide direction for future staff development. What I recorded on a clipboard may prove valuable; but what I experienced has already made a significant impact.
My greatest take-away is the need for all stakeholders to increase innovative thought in our vision of school–by students, teachers, and administrators. Students should spend more time creating, not simply doing, in a school day. Teachers should be coaching more than instructing. Administrators should attack the status quo, think big and ask, “why not?” All leaders should empower others by asking more questions than providing answers. We can make significant improvements to what we do and how we do it. So what holds us back?
The walk-throughs confirmed what I already know; we have an outstanding staff.
It comes as no surprise. I gained even greater respect for my colleagues after sharing in their environment. Our students receive a well-rounded, comprehensive education thanks to the efforts of knowledgeable, passionate teachers. Students enter a variety of learning environments where they experience content delivered through diverse instructional techniques. Variety from class to class is mostly beneficial, but presents potential conflicts if there is not a consistent language, expectation, and philosophy visibly established in our school culture. We need to be intentional and transparent in communicating our purpose. We have a responsibility to ourselves, each other, and our students; consequently, we should approach professional growth with greater urgency.
Teachers need to be aware of which of their teaching strategies are working or not, need to be prepared to understand and adapt to the learner(s) and their situations, contexts, and prior learning, and need to share the experience of learning in this manner in an open, forthright, and enjoyable way with their students and their colleagues (Hattie 19).
Teachers should experience a school day from the perspective of students.
The structure of a traditional seven period school day is exhausting. Regardless of how deeply we are invested in a topic, where we are in a process, or how much learning support is needed, a bell forces teachers and students to move on. It is difficult to commit to learning, produce authentic outcomes, and perform at one’s peak when faced with too many expectations. As a result, students have to prioritize one class over another, particularly when given homework or presented with tests in multiple classes. (This does not even take into consideration time for extracurricular participation, work, relationships, play, or relaxation). To maximize the impact on learning, Hattie insists:
It is teachers seeing learning through the eyes of students, and students seeing teaching as the key to their ongoing learning. The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers (18).
But teachers have to be humble and hungry to improve their craft. While many grow content (even complacent), we must recognize, “What does matter is teachers having a mind frame in which they see it as their role to evaluate their effect on learning” (Hattie 18).
Colleagues should have more freedom to see each other in action.
Instructional rounds should be a natural part of the school day. Frequent visitors in a classroom would alleviate the awkward vibe of paranoia and distraction. Rather than feeling judged by evaluators, peers could engage in collegial dialogue with useful feedback in a supportive, professional culture. Rick DuFour concurs:
Schools cannot help all students to learn if educators work in isolation. Schools must create the structures and cultures that foster effective educator collaboration — collaboration that focuses on factors within our sphere of influence to impact student learning in a positive way (Hattie 69).
Observation promotes reflection. Reflection inspires growth.
Observers benefit by gaining fresh insights into new approaches for their own craft–mentally adapting the strategies of peers (especially across content areas). I was inspired by my final assignment–a visit to the band room. I set my clipboard aside, engrossed in my surroundings. Our band director had every student’s attention, embedded instruction with routine warm up exercises, differentiated for individuals and by section, provided immediate feedback, increased rigor, gradually released responsibility, and engaged all participants with purpose and a sense of humor. This is the model I aspire to reach every day in my English classes. In this moment I conceptualized a powerful professional development plan that could take place tomorrow.
What if the next professional development opportunity took an innovative twist?
For future PD, I propose teachers of core subjects dedicate an hour observing one of the following classrooms: music, band, art, physical education, family and consumer science, special ed, STEM, or tech ed (an easy grid based on availability and alignment).
- After studying the lesson plan, classroom interactions, learning environment, and instructional techniques, observers would reflect on the experience and return to their core subject.
- Teachers would then determine ways to redesign an upcoming lesson plan by integrating methods adapted from the observation.
- Following delivery of the innovative lesson, core subject teachers would record a written or video self-reflection with insights into how the changes impacted learning and how students responded.
- To complete the process, staff would have a conversation with the teacher they observed to share the big take-aways from both classes, ideally resulting in further collaboration.
The result: increased perspective, mutual respect, greater appreciation, and professional growth to benefit the culture of a learning community. Why not?
Work Cited: Hattie, John. Visible Learning For Teachers. London: Routledge, 2012.