How do we get teachers to be more open to observing in each other’s classrooms and discussing their thoughts and ideas with each other to create increased teacher learning leading to greater student achievement? Many school leadership teams need to explore strategies that decrease teachers’ reluctance to making teaching more public and teachers’ discussions more vulnerable. Here are three strategies for some entry points to new experiences: technical coaching, observing student behaviors, and studying student work.
Technical coaching is connected to observing and providing feedback on a specific skill that a teacher is consciously practicing. These observations are often experienced as less threatening as the teacher knows the focus of the observer and the type of feedback she will be receiving. The observing peer feels comfortable in that technical feedback can be very concrete and specific, minimizing any sense of judgement.
A Professional Learning Community (PLC) is examining how teachers might increase student engagement by avoiding having students raise hands and thus communicating an expectation that all students should be developing a response to every teacher question. They set up observations in each other’s classrooms recording teachers’ use of alternative strategies and noting students’ responses. Their observations generate PLC discussions to continue shaping student learning behaviors.
Teachers looking to increase student perseverance and willingness to grapple with problems could observe each other and record how the teacher responds to students’ questions or requests for help. Key in technical coaching is to record the actual phrases the teacher uses. Then, sharing those in a post observation conference, the teacher can assess effectiveness of responses and create alternatives. This may lead to a follow up coaching session where the new alternatives are implemented.
When suggesting technical coaching, I’m often asked, “Won’t the presence of the observer impact the teacher behavior?” The answer is, “Yes!”. And that’s the good news. The coaching creates conscious practice. Without the observer present the teacher may have strayed from the strategy as the lesson progressed or as issues arose, missing the conscious practice opportunity. Conscious practice is needed for teachers to internalize a new instructional strategy.
“Training consists of four main components: developing knowledge, through exploring theory to understand the concepts behind a skill or strategy; the demonstration or modelling of skill; the practice of skill and peer coaching.”
Observing Student Behavior
Frequent readers of this blog know that I have often written about creating opportunities for teachers to observe student behaviors in other classrooms to develop a clear picture of “what student behaviors/actions are needed to gain the student achievement they seek”.
I have found that teachers are often more comfortable starting their observations in colleagues’ classrooms focusing on “what students are doing”. Teachers often report going back to their own classrooms and “seeing” things that they noticed in colleagues’ classrooms.
Observing what students are doing can provide data for a discussion about changes we as teachers need to make. An elementary school is concerned with low performance of their students on the state science test (5th grade is the first year that science is tested). The leadership team decided to ask that for a three-week period, teachers share when they would be teaching science. Then everyone on staff would agree to do three or four observations of 15 minutes in science classes and record what they saw students doing. Then at a faculty meeting they would share and post their observations (without naming where the observations occurred). Now the faculty is ready for a discussion, “What changes in what students are doing or experiencing are needed to gain the student achievement we seek? What changes would teachers make to get those changes in what students are doing?”.
A PLC focused on at risk freshman might begin their study by observing those at-risk students in each of their classrooms and recording student learning behaviors in each class.
Studying Student Work:
Without even entering each other’s classrooms teachers can get a peek behind the door by looking at the work that students do there. When we look at student work, we are seeing teachers’ assignments. If we are looking at student work with teacher grades or comments, we are seeing teachers’ expectations.
When teachers tell me they can’t spare any of their planning time to observe in a colleague’s classroom because they have student work to grade, I suggest that they spend the planning period grading work, at least sitting next to a colleague or better yet, let’s grade mine first, then yours….Doors are opening and colleagues are getting a peek.
Here’s a strategy for later in the school the year. Have students produce a written assignment and give it to a next grade level teacher to comment on how it might be improved. No grade, just comments on strengths and how to improve. Then, working with this year’s teacher, students learn, practice and redo the task. In a few weeks they submit it again to next year’s teacher who returns with another set of comments on strengths and how to improve. Following a repeat of the process, the student work is returned with a grade that serves as their first grade in next year’s class. The writing is given to next year’s teacher as a starting point for the coming year. This process has teachers communicating between grade levels…seeing into each other’s classrooms. “What are expectations?” “What are students learning?” “How are students doing?”
Principals, coaches, department leaders, and teacher leaders can promote strategies like these to increase teacher vulnerability, trust, and growth to gain increased student achievement.