One of my ongoing coaching projects is with a group of teacher leaders who have the title of PLC Leads. They facilitate grade level teams at the elementary level and department teams at the secondary level. Each of their PLCs has established a goal for the year based on the process of a hypothesis. As the PLCs work with their plans, they collect evidence of implementation and impact to support teacher learning from the process. Peer coaching can deepen that learning. (Here is a blog about hypothesis and evidence)
Example Hypothesis – If teachers employ practices and strategies developed from shared training in SEL, collaborate with school counselors and share common strategies with specialist teachers, teaching assistants, and caregivers, students will create a positive learning environment; showing empathy and respect for others and taking more responsibility for personal choices.
Example Hypothesis – Many of our students do not have English as their home language. A high proportion of students struggle to understand and use correct math terminology. If Math instructors adapt some of the instructional strategies used by EAL teachers, we can build students’ academic communication capabilities, increasing their math success.
Example Hypothesis – We believe that providing more opportunities for purposeful, authentic writing will boost student motivation and effort, increase their writing progress, and yield higher quality work.
As you read through these examples, you can begin to identify how peer coaching observations would support the work and the learning of PLC members, both individually and collectively.
In the first example concerning building students’ practices with empathy, respect, and responsibility, the PLC began by creating two continuums describing student behaviors from low to high. One for observing students in more facilitated activities and another for when students were in less structured activities. Teachers then identified where they believed individual students were currently functioning. This process provided a common picture of the team’s desired outcomes from their goal. As teachers begin observing students in each other’s classrooms, common concerns will emerge for PLC strategizing. Observational data focused on particular students as the year progresses will provide evidence to measure the impact of implemented practices.
(PLCs working only from a teacher’s reported observations from her own classroom are limited in part due to the difficulty of doing detailed observations while teaching. Two teachers observing the same occurrence builds opportunities for deeper reflection and insights,)
The second example sets the stage from the beginning for math teachers to be doing some observations of EAL teachers and their students to identify strategies that they might implement in their math classrooms. As they begin experimenting with those strategies, peer observations from department colleagues as well as from EAL teachers can support conscious practice. After implementation of strategies, peer observations can collect evidence of changes in the student learning production behaviors that will lead to increased student learning success. This input will reinforce teachers’ practice or guide continued exploration for best ways to support their learners.
The hypothesis that is focused on the impact of authentic writing opportunities has a strong focus on impacting student learning production behaviors. What are students doing during the writing process that generates their continued skill development and the quality of their writing? Observations of students by PLC colleagues will provide valuable input for guiding teacher learning in the PLC process.
Here are some additional positive impacts that I think can be the outcome of building peer coaching into the work and learning of PLCs,
- Shared values and the development of professional respect often emerge when teachers conference with each other around observations in their classrooms. In a pre-conference when teachers ask about the “thinking and desires” behind a learning activity they are about to observe, they often hear values and beliefs that match their own. My finding is that these conversations seldom occur during “group planning” or “data review.” A “listening interest” often encourages a teacher to share values at a deeper level in coaching conferences.
- Nothing raises teachers’ respect for their colleagues as much as seeing them be successful with students. This is especially true when a teacher’s style or approach differs from a colleague’s. Seeing students learning, changes perceptions that “hearing about a strategy” doesn’t. A teacher receiving positive feedback from another teacher is still rare in too many schools. PLCs function most productively when teachers are willing to be vulnerable with their colleagues. Peer coaching can build the relationships that encourage vulnerability.
- Peer coaching builds a teacher’s consciousness about “what is actually happening” in my classroom. Often teachers in PLCs report to each other about learner actions they observed while teaching which can differ substantially from observations by another person not weighted with the instructional responsibility. I have had the opportunity to observe a lesson in three teachers’ classrooms which they “co-designed”. Listening to their post debrief, it was obvious that they thought the similarities in experiences were much greater than what I observed. Note, I’m not suggesting that the differences were a bad thing, only that the teachers were unaware of them. That lack of awareness decreases learning opportunities for the teachers.
- Peer coaching creates awesome learning opportunities for the observing peer. The level of observation and analysis of the teaching /learning process that one gets to experience while coaching creates understanding and reflection that cannot occur in isolation in your own classroom. While watching a teacher probe a student struggling to make connections, I can focus on the approach the teacher took, note how the student responds, consider alternatives available to the teacher, and ponder what I would have done in that position and what I might do in the future.
- Peer coaching provides the opportunity for shared celebration of teacher success in gaining student achievement. Roland Barth said it well: “Above all, collegiality means rooting for the success of one another. If every adult in the school is rooting for you, when the alarm clock rings at six a.m., you jump out of bed to go to that school.”