Podcast: Empowering Teachers to Choose the What, Why, and How of Observations

Podcast: Empowering Teachers to Choose the What, Why, and How of Observations

Empowering Teachers to Choose the What, Why, and How of Observations

What impact is created when teachers play a greater role in guiding the observations that school administrators conduct? Ty McGee, an administrator with the Saudi Aramco Expatriate Schools in Saudi Arabia, describes the design process used and the plan that emerged to increase teacher’s satisfaction with observation feedback. Consider how this plan for teacher feedback models what we would want to see happening for students.

Contact Ty with questions and for more information: tmcgee@saeslearning.com

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!


Steve [Intro]: 00:01 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening. I’m thrilled you’re here.

Steve: 00:34 Empowering teachers to choose the what, why, and how of observations. Joining the podcast today is Ty McGee, who is an administrator with the Saudi Aramco Expatriate Schools in Saudi Arabia. Ty was a participant in the recent NESA – that’s Near East South Asia Leadership Innovation Network that I had the opportunity to facilitate. During our work together, Ty shared a program that he’s implementing to increase teacher agency around observation and teacher growth. I was anxious to have him share his thinking and findings and so I invited him, and fortunately he said yes. So welcome Ty.

Ty: 01:23 Thank you, Steve. Yeah, it’s an honor to be here. You probably don’t know it, I heard you speak in 2019 for the first time in Bangkok at a NESA conference, and you talked about individuals, franchises and teams, and that idea of franchise versus team has kind of stuck with me ever since then. So it’s a pleasure. I’m glad to be here.

Steve: 01:43 Well, it does make a small world. It does make a small world. I just read an article I was interested in written by two ladies and I wrote off a note asking them to join a future podcast to find out that they were in Bangkok in that presentation that you just described. And now they’re both educators in Texas, so you never know.

Ty: 02:08 Funny.

Steve: 02:09 So, Ty, I’m wondering for starters, if you’d tell people a little bit about your your background and then also about the Saudi Aramco Expatriate Schools.

Ty: 02:19 Sure. So, Saudi Aramco Expatriate Schools really exists to serve the children of the expatriate employees of Saudi Aramco. That’s who comes to our schools. We have six schools and four different residential communities, and we have a daycare and a community ed program as well. I’m at the Dhahran Hills School, which is the elementary school here in Dhahran, and it’s the biggest school in the district. It’s a pretty big school. We’re pre-K to grade four. We have about 1,110 students with 93 full-time staff. Diverse population – students come from over 50 countries, and there’s probably more, but that’s the number of passports that we have in our population. About me, I am an associate principal here and again, at the elementary school, and I’ve always been an elementary guy. It’s kind of who I am and what I’m really all about.

Ty: 03:19 But before moving into school admin, I taught different elementary grade levels and even before that, I started my career in social work. So most of my teaching experiences have been overseas. I was in Thailand and then Kuwait, and now Saudi. And like I was just saying to you off air, we lived in Chicago before moving overseas, and now we’ve been overseas for 12 years and loving life, so hopefully many more. But really, these places I’ve lived, these experiences I’ve had, have definitely shaped my perspective and who I am.

Steve: 03:59 I’m wondering if you’d talk a little bit about the experience that you had that led you to look at creating this new design. And after you talk about what led up to it, then we’ll look at getting deeper into what you’ve designed.

Ty: 04:18 Sure. So the project, we call it growth and feedback, and really that’s what it’s about. And it’s kind of a nickname of GNF for short. I have to stop and think about the name of it because it’s really important. It’s all about growth, and it’s all about receiving and giving good feedback and meaningful feedback and what that looks like. So how it started – part of our reaccreditation plan, the district invited staff to address a gap, a pain, or a passion that they see in their daily work. So think of it like a passion project or a relevant problem of practice. And one thing that myself, that I noticed along with a couple other people is that there was some survey data from the district, and it indicated this gap in the area of teacher observations and feedback by administrators.

Ty: 05:14 So we saw this as an area that needed to be addressed, and also we recognized that teachers needed greater ownership and involvement in the feedback process. So this led us through a design thinking process. We went through all the stages, right? Empathize, define, ideate, prototype test, and that’s what led us to the work. So if I can, I’ll just go through each of those stages a little bit, and then we can go through a little bit more in detail. But the empathize stage was really important. We knew right away, we didn’t want to make assumptions. We wanted our decisions to be data driven so we gathered and analyzed a lot of data. We had a survey. So after that survey I initially talked about that was from the district, then we followed up with the survey just to our school staff.

Ty: 06:08 We asked questions about observations, about walkthroughs, about feedback. And what do you prefer? What is most impactful? Describe some good feedback that you’ve received and what made it good? And what we found, unsurprisingly, probably Steve, is that there’s a big range. Some people, for example, some people want weekly observations. Some people would be fine with monthly, and some people would be totally fine if it was once a year. And so we realized quickly, okay, we have a task on our hands because we want to find maybe not just a happy medium, but what’s gonna be best for us and ultimately our students of course. So that survey was a huge part. Then we also got a pilot group together, and that pilot group turned out to be very instrumental in doing a lot of the work that we ended up doing.

Ty: 07:09 So, like I said, we’re a big school. At the time, we had about 11 sections of every grade level. And so we knew we wanted that pilot group to be representative of every grade level, every department in our school. So it was intentionally diverse in that way. And what we did, moving into that defined stage, we developed shared understandings on how to communicate expectations, terminology. That was a big one. We realized very quickly that a walkthrough in my understanding is different than a walkthrough to what somebody else comes with that understanding. And so we realized, okay, we need to define some of these terms and just have a shared understanding of what these mean. Then ideate. We developed a wheel and this wheel is really important. Think of it like eight pie pieces.

Ty: 08:11 And it shows what’s expected of employees. It’s kind of like your expectations. And it’s adapted from a model that we saw from the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington. And the parts of the wheel are student engagement, curriculum and pedagogy, assessment for student learning, classroom environment and culture, community connections, professional responsibilities, student life and school culture. And initially, we had an other, and we’ve since dropped the other. But those were the pieces of that wheel. Then in addition to that wheel, we developed a timeline. So think of a school year from August to June, and we made a timeline to show and to house documentation and feedback from walkthroughs. Then we prototyped this, we did it on butcher paper, laid it out on tables, and had people try it. And then we created a digital version and we tested it with that pilot group at first.

Ty: 09:17 So that pilot group, we did this at the end of the 2020 and 2021 school year, and we tested it one time. Again, we kind of circled back to that empathy stage. We wanted to make sure we were never losing sight of what really matters to people. And so we continue to gather empathy. And then we rolled it out school-wide the following year. And really, the reason we believe in this hasn’t changed. The reason that we believe in this is that teachers deserve to feel seen. They deserve to feel supported and valued for the amazing work, the important work that they do. And our fantastic teachers here are no different. And I’ve found that great teachers want to learn. They want to grow, they want to be challenged, but everyone also wants to know that their supervisor knows who they are. They want their supervisor to know their strengths and what they’re working on and so on.

Steve: 10:20 It’s interesting. Years ago, I was working in a district where the teachers were just constantly complaining about the teacher evaluation process. And so somebody suggested, let’s just do away with teacher evaluation, . And that brought a bigger uproar from the teachers . So even when they didn’t like it, it was better than not having it at all, because somehow not having it at all suggested what I was doing wasn’t even important enough to evaluate. So a poor evaluation process is better than than not being evaluated. Describe how teacher choice comes into play here.

Ty: 11:04 Yeah. So that’s the light bulb moment for us and that was the epiphany we had when we discovered that wait, teachers could be empowered to make choice about their own observations? That was the moment this project turned from a gap to a gap and a passion for me. Even as you’re just talking there, what I was thinking was, forgive me, I’m not gonna give credit to the right person probably because I don’t know where it came from, but one mantra we’ve started to follow here is clear is kind. And I think that the lack of anything doesn’t bring any clarity. It only invites confusion. And so if clarity is kindness, then we owe it to our staff to lay out something that’s clear and workable. So, developing teacher agency, getting back to choice, developing teacher agency and empowering teachers to own their own growth and learning is really one of the primary
objectives of this whole project.

Ty: 12:10 So to lay it out a little bit, the teachers are given a digital canvas, and that houses that growth and feedback wheel, and it houses that timeline, and only the one teacher and the administrative team, the principals, have access to that digital canvas. So it’s confidential between the teacher and the administrators. And then the teachers get to choose. They get to choose the what, the when, and the how of their observations. So for each observation, the what – the teacher would choose, which part of the wheel they want to be given feedback on. They get to choose the when – they get to choose a two week window of time where they’d like the observation to occur. And that two week window is actually pretty critical because first of all, it allows for some flexibility with scheduling from the administrator’s schedule.

Ty: 13:13 But really the bigger reason I’d say is that it allows for an authentic walkthrough. What we knew we didn’t want right away was some show, some perfect lesson. There are so few perfect lessons as a teacher that it doesn’t help. It’s great to get a pat on the back when everything goes right, but we wanted an authentic walkthrough. And so by giving a two week window, we say, you know what? You don’t know when I’m gonna come in these two weeks, but it’s gonna be sometime in these two weeks. And that way, teachers just keep doing their awesome teaching that they do, and the administrator will come in sometime in that window, but the teacher gets to choose when that window of time is. And then the how. So the teachers get to choose, do they want a walkthrough?

Ty: 14:01 Again, I’ve used that term a few times, and we came to define a walkthrough as 10 to 15 minutes. We could do an informal observation, which we defined as just basically same as a walkthrough, doesn’t require a pre or a post-meeting, but it’s a little bit longer. Or do they want a full on formal observation with a pre and a post-meeting? And so they got to choose that. So for example, the what – a teacher might choose, I want to be observed on classroom environment and culture. I’d love some feedback on that. I want you to come September 1st to September 10th, the first two weeks of the school year, and I want it to be a walkthrough in my class. So the teachers get that choice, that control, and then they do that, they do two walkthroughs and a reflection meeting before winter break, and then two walkthroughs and a reflection meeting after winter break.

Steve: 14:57 And what’s the response you’re getting from the staff since you’ve implemented?

Ty: 15:03 Initially, before growth and feedback before this project started, the data that showed us this was a gap, we had 39% of our staff
that agreed or strongly agreed that principals made regular walkthroughs and provided meaningful feedback. So that 39% now, is up over 80%. So obviously, the numbers are great, and that’s showing that it’s working and it’s doing what it’s supposed to do in that regard. But even more than those numbers, it’s just clear that, that teachers have embraced this. Even students have embraced this. We’ve heard comments like teachers saying that they appreciate the timely feedback, they appreciate being asked questions in the feedback. They appreciate that admin just seem to be more present in the classrooms and in the halls. And the tool’s easy to use. And maybe the best one I’ve heard is that it’s created a culture of open doors. Literally and figuratively. And the sense of just everybody’s learning, and we’re all open and we’re all gonna be learning from each other and working together. So the best part for me is those conversations. And that’s what it’s all about, is the feedback is not one-sided. It often leads to a dialogue, a conversation between a teacher and administrator, where both can learn from each other.

Steve: 16:37 So you’d say there is more dialogue because of the role that the teachers played in structuring it? So whether it’s feedback from the administrator’s observation, or it’s a formal post-conference, there’s more of a teacher engaging in a dialogue rather than the administrator issuing a report.

Ty: 17:03 Yeah. Because teachers were more invested from the jump. And it also can be non-threatening. The example I gave is kind of a common one we’ve seen in that, in the beginning of the year, what is an elementary teacher working on? They’re working on creating a belonging in their classroom. They’re working on creating a community in their classroom. So that’s what they want feedback on. It’s not probably appropriate to go and give feedback on pedagogy on the second day of school.

Steve: 17:35 Interesting, because I was gonna say, a lot of people would avoid observation and feedbacks during the first six weeks.

Ty: 17:42 Right.

Steve: 17:42 And so that time that you’re describing as critical for a purpose, frequently gets missed, right? I can’t tell you how often I’ve worked with instructional coaches who hit several of these blocks of time during the year, where, in effect, they’re saying nobody wants an observation. Nobody wants an observation during that first month of school. And I’m coming back and saying, man, the first day’s a great time to have an observation. If you know what does the teacher wanna make happen on the first day. And can you give the feedback that the choices she made are moving in that direction? So I can see the dialogue growing out of the teacher’s engagement.

Ty: 18:26 Definitely.

Steve: 18:28 How are administrators responding? It’s striking me as a little extra pressure on administrators.

Ty: 18:35 You know what it is . I can’t even sugarcoat that. But it’s something we’ve tried to be mindful of from the beginning,
because we also know that we have to create a sustainable system, something that can actually continue on. Otherwise, this will just be another initiative that kind of comes and goes and falls apart. So I don’t know if there’s a perfect system, but again, just keeping that goal of sustainability and just being realistic has been really helpful for us. If we expect too many observations, then they’re either not going to get done, or the feedback will be delayed because you’re too busy with other things. And so too many equals not realistic, but then not enough is just less data and it’s less of a connection.

Ty: 19:27 So initially, the first year, we asked teachers to do nine over the course of the year. And both teachers and administrators agreed nine was too much. So we backed off. We went down to six this year, and that’s been much better. So, to go through the process in terms of the timeline of the school year, in August, we ask teachers to plan out their growth and feedback for that first half of the school year. So before winter break. Again, they schedule two walkthroughs at a reflection meeting. Two occur sometime between August and December. They add it to their timeline, they send their administrator calendar request on Google for each of those walkthroughs and reflection meetings. So currently I supervise 22 people. If I get three calendar requests for each person, 22 times three, that’s 66 total. So it’s gonna take me some time, right?

Ty: 20:26 I’m going to get flooded with calendar requests, but maybe a couple hours of work. I go through those, I add those to my calendar, and then they’re there. Other than pop-ins and just of course, my day-to-day, but other than kind of unannounced visits, all my walkthroughs and one-on-one reflection meetings are planned until January now. Then after a walkthrough, I try to add my written feedback on that digital canvas along with any pictures I’ve taken, which is another really cool thing that the tool we’re using allows us to do, is to add photos. We try to do that within 24 hours, and I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not perfect with that. I’ve missed that 24 hour mark sometimes. But again, timeliness is really important because the feedback needs to be relevant and needs to be meaningful. We can’t wait too long.

Ty: 21:21 But I think perhaps the bigger thing is the trust. In order to build trust and maintain trust with teachers, we need to be held accountable and we need to show that we’re committing to this just as much as as they are. The other thing to think about is there’s different levels of comfort with observations. And I kind of alluded to that earlier when we talked about surveys and the pilot group, but we wanna be mindful and considerate of people having different experiences. That they come to the table with people having different levels of anxiousness around being observed around feedback being given. And our focus is to grow and empower teachers, not to add stress. So yes, it’s substantial work for administrators, but it’s systematic, it’s organized, and a hundred percent, it is worth it.

Steve: 22:20 I frequently talk about the the cost payoff balance scale, or the effort payoff. And you need to be in a situation where the payoff
outweighs the the cost or the effort. So what I’m hearing is, you’ve got an increased effort on the administrator’s part to carry this out, but there’s a payoff that you see in return, where I’m afraid, way too often, administrators end up having to make a substantial investment in a teacher appraisal process where they’re not seeing the the payoff from that investment that they’re having to make just for the “paperwork” part of it.

Ty: 23:05 Absolutely. And the accountability piece is important, right? We need to commit to this, we need to show that this matters to us in order for teachers to commit to it and know that it should matter to them as well.

Steve: 23:20 I’m wondering from what you’ve learned so far with with implementation, are there are there questions areas that you see exploring next from the feedback that you’ve been receiving?

Ty: 23:35 We’re constantly thinking about that question. . That’s a great question. We haven’t just implemented this and then kind of moved on. We’re constantly looking for feedback and input from staff how to keep this meaningful. One specific area is peer-to-peer feedback. It really intrigues me and it really excites me, the potential of adding a teacher’s feedback to another teacher on that same digital canvas. And I was listening to one of your other podcasts, you talked about peer coaching and peer observation, and I just kept thinking – you were kind of talking about the difference between the two and the purpose and who is it for? But, oh, man, that would be so wonderful to have that be a part of all of this. What’s tough for us is the tool that we use, we couldn’t maintain the confidentiality that we have and still allow teachers to give feedback on that tool. So, if they were gonna use a sticky note or an email, of course, like that’s a different thing. But in order to kind of merge them, we’re still looking at that.

Steve: 24:45 I don’t know if there’s a process like this that that could work, but in my own organization, we set up peer coaching among our trainers. So two people pair up, they do a peer coaching cycle with each other, and then they individually report back, but their report back, it doesn’t say anything about the observation that they did. So the report back is, what did I learn from being observed by my peer? Or what did I learn by being able to go out and be an observer? So just as I’m listening to you, if there’s a way that the teacher can post on their own site with you the administrator, then activities like that, that a teacher did in between the observations that they’ve done with the administration. So I might go out and observe in other teacher’s classrooms to gather some ideas based on something that came up, and I can post that, so now my administrator has that when he comes to the next cycle with me. Or I’ve invited a couple people into my classroom and here’s what I found out from them. And I post that back, but I think you’re on a great wavelength there of creating a way for the teacher to extend the feedback and more important, extend the reflection process beyond the times that the administrator can be available.

Ty: 26:19 Absolutely. And we’ve thought about even, the ultimate goal of this, of course, is to impact student learning. But we’ve also thought about using this beyond just our teaching staff. For example, what would be the benefit of having our front office staff or our school nurses also have an opportunity to take charge of their growth, their learning and invite and welcome feedback? So that’s another thing we’re looking at. Even just the feedback, giving feedback is it’s not easy, it’s not simple. So getting better at that is something from our side as an administrator. The quality, the consistency, the alignment of feedback given. When we initially rolled it out, we started with bright spots, compliments, and gradually moving towards what we currently do, which is we kind of structure our feedback in terms of notices and wonders.

Ty: 27:21 And again, that’s been a journey, but what does really good feedback look like? And what I’ve personally found, anecdotally, is that people want different things. Just like I think we all tend to give feedback the way that we want to receive feedback, but that’s something we’re certainly still kind of looking into. And we’re in our third year with growth and feedback, our second year of full implementation, we’re clearly still learning. And we just want this feedback to be can you continue to lead to conversation to building our culture into a culture of where everybody’s learning? An one question that we keep coming back to is how do we know we’re being effective? How might we measure the impact this is having? And that’s something that, we can look at that data that I referenced, we can talk about how more teachers are saying and, and agreeing with, yes, administrators are observing, yes, administrators are giving meaningful feedback, but how do we know it’s impacting student learning?

Ty: 28:33 And so I think that’s a question that we continue to ask ourselves just to ground us and guide us forward. And maybe we even invite students to give feedback along the way. What would that look like? But ultimately, Steve, I mean, we talked about this in Dubai, right? I keep coming back to John Hattie’s work. We know that collective teacher efficacy is the single biggest factor in student achievement. And so I have this hypothesis that I think we wanna pursue – that growth and feedback will lead to teacher agency, and teacher agency will lead to collective teacher efficacy. So if that’s not that outlandish of a hypothesis, then I think we’re on the right track.

Steve: 29:24 And I would have to say that part of what hits me is you’re putting an awesome model in front of teachers as to what it is you’re hoping they’re doing back in their classrooms with students. So that that whole role of student agency and teacher feedback being provided in ways that students can make the most use of it, that’s a critical model to be in an effective school.

Ty: 29:53 Absolutely. Our big focus in our district this year has been on empowerment. And you’re exactly right. The same work that teachers did with their students is this parallels that, right? It’s the same thing. We’re empowering teachers. We’re trying to increase agency.

Steve: 30:10 Well I’ll tell you, I really appreciate you sharing this with us. I’m wondering if there’s a way that you’d be comfortable for listeners to contact you with questions that that they have or desire to find out more about what you’ve done.

Ty: 30:25 Absolutely. The easiest way is just via email. My email is tmcgee@saeslearning.com.

Steve: 30:41 Alright. I’ll be sure to post that in the lead-in to the podcast so if people missed it, if they’re out exercising while they’re listening to the podcast, they can go home and find it. And thanks again, Ty. I enjoyed my time working with you and look forward to the next opportunity we have.

Ty: 30:59 Definitely. Likewise, Steve. Thank you so much.

Steve: 31:02 You bet.

Steve [Outro]: 31:05 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and
review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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