November 20, 2019

Opening Classroom Doors

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 and student achievement? That question was posed to me as I worked with a school-based leadership team that was finding teachers to be reluctant in making teaching more public and teacher discussions more vulnerable. I suggested three strategies for some entry points to new experiences: technical coaching, observing student behaviors, and studying student work.

Technical Coaching:

Technical coaching is connected to observing and providing feedback on a specific skill that a teacher is consciously practicing. The observation is less threatening to the teacher as she knows exactly the focus of the observer and the type of feedback she will be receiving.

If a Professional Learning Community (PLC) was examining how teachers increased student engagement by avoiding having students raise hands and communicating an expectation that all students were to be developing a response to every teacher question, they could set up observations in each other’s classrooms recording teachers’ use of alternative strategies and noting students’ responses.

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 request 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 and observer can assess effectiveness of responses and create alternatives. This may lead to a follow up coaching session where the new alternatives are implemented.

I was asked, “Won’t the presence of the observer impact the teacher behavior?”. The answer is, “Yes!”. And that’s the good news. That is 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 skill. (20- 30 repetitions over an 8-10 week period- Bruce Joyce/ Beverly Showers-ASCD)

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 we seek”.

I have found that teachers are 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 observation 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 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 teacher assignments. If we are looking at student work with teacher grades or comments we are seeing teacher 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 we are getting a peak.

Here’s a strategy for this time of the year. Have students produce a written assignment and give it to next year’s teacher to comment on how it might be improved. No grade, just comments on how to improve. Then, working with this year’s teacher, students learn, practice and redo the writing. In a few weeks they submit again to next year’s teacher who returns with another set of comments on 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 kept by next year’s teacher as a starting point for the coming year.

This process has teachers communicating between the grade levels…seeing into each others 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…with increased student achievement.

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