Vulnerability and reflection are keys to continuous teacher growth. Vulnerability requires trust. Expectations can help establish, fulfill, and build that trust. Too often, I find that unclear expectations around roles and processes limit the building of a safe environment that’s required for vulnerability and trust.
I’ve been zeroing in on what value we might gain from differentiating peer observing from peer coaching to add clarity to expectations.
What if we identified peer observation as an activity that is focused on the observer learning and benefiting, while peer coaching focused on benefiting the observed teacher? Of course, there are some benefits to both in either activity but the clarity of expectations going into and throughout the activity might increase teacher learning outcomes.
In peer observation, the observing teacher can focus on student learning behaviors in a way that one can’t while teaching. Consider John Hattie’s thought that 80% of what’s happening in the classroom is unobserved by the teacher. An observing teacher can look at how the teacher’s actions are impacting student learning behaviors. During and after the observation, the observing teacher can reflect upon her choices and learners’ actions in her own classroom. I’m recalling a time that I had teachers in small groups visit colleagues’ classrooms, and then debrief. After one of the sessions, a teacher approached me stating that she was surprised at the amount of “low engaged” students she observed in her colleague’s classroom. I provided a short response about the complexity of teaching and the task of maintaining engagement. Later that day, the same teacher stopped me in the hall and gave me this statement: “Remember how I was surprised at the low engagement in my colleague’s classroom? This afternoon, I realized it’s the same in mine.” Her reflection generated following the observation, set the stage for this teacher to set a goal for her own teaching.
Tracy Fasik describes peer observation as it occurs in Manheim Central School District in Pennsylvania through learning walks. (Read Tracy’s guest blog here.)
“Learning walks are a collaborative opportunity for three or four teachers to be able to visit the classrooms of colleagues for about 20 minutes in each classroom, and then to meet with the instructional coach and the director of curriculum and instruction to debrief and have conversations surrounding instruction in a safe, supportive, and risk-free learning environment. The group usually visits four to five classrooms in a two- hour span and then participates in an hour and a half debrief. Group norms are established and much of the focus of the observations has been around student learning production behaviors. This has allowed for the conversations in the debrief to be more around what learners are doing and less about what the teacher is doing.”
My thinking is that in peer observation, any feedback to the observed teacher is positive approval and a thank you for contributing to the learning of colleagues. Should the observed teacher push for more feedback, I think it sets the opportunity to explore a peer coaching activity where the focus moves to the goals of the observed teacher. In peer coaching, the observed teacher should be directing the focus of the observing teacher and directing the feedback that the observer shares. Therefore, pre- conferencing is a necessity for peer coaching.
The observing teacher wants to understand some of the teacher’s thinking (agenda). This allows the peer coach to observe through the teacher’s eyes as well as through the coach’s. The pre-conference also sets the focus for the coach’s observation and feedback that will be provided. I usually try to create an observation collection design in the pre-conference so that the teacher and the coach agree upon what information will be collected. If a teacher looks up and sees me as a coach writing during the observation, he knows exactly what I’m writing and recording. It’s what we had agreed to. When the observation information that the teacher requested is shared and discussed in a post-conference, trust is built for continued learning through peer coaching.
Peer observation and peer coaching both build opportunities for teacher reflection, growth, and collective teacher efficacy within a school. Clarity on expectations of a collegial peer engagement can positively impact the experience and the outcomes.