In this podcast, Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan chat with Franki Sibberson about how teachers can get the most out of observing a colleague’s classroom. A full transcript is below the player.
Franki Sibberson: What can teachers do to get the most out of an observation of a colleague’s classroom?
Tammy Mulligan: Well, when we think about how people can get the most out of an observation, really the word that comes to mind is purpose. We talk with people about thinking about what’s your purpose for observing? Are you observing to see more and learn more about small instruction? Are you trying to teach a particular complicated concept, like inferring? And so then we want teachers to really go in and say, “What’s my purpose for going?” and that helps them to figure out, to look at things with a particular lens.
The other thing we think that really helps is that the observation has three parts to it. One part is the observation, but before that observation there’s a pre-brief, where the teacher gets to talk with the classroom teacher and really hear what’s going to be happening in the room, and what’s her thinking behind the lesson. And then colleagues observe with that particular lens, and then, after that, have some time, just even a half hour, to sit down and debrief what happened, what they noticed, questions they have, so that people can share their thinking, because that’s the difficult thing with teaching. You want to be able to share your thinking with others.
Franki: And you might have answered this partially, but how do you set it up so the peer observations are helpful and there’s not a competitive feel to them.
Clare Landrigan: We think the first thing is to define them, and to help teachers understand how peer observations fit into the overall professional development plan, making sure it connects to any grade-level meetings they’re having, or professional development sessions, or PLC meetings. There’s so many different vehicles going on in schools right now for professional learning that we think it’s helpful when they’re all connected, so that teachers see the purpose behind them, as Tammy had talked about.
We also think it’s important to talk about everyone’s role in these observations, that often what can begin to happen is people become over-focused on just the person who’s doing the demonstrating, and we try and talk explicitly about everyone’s role in this process, so that the observers have a role and that the teacher who’s doing the teaching has a role, because we’re really not going in there for the lesson itself. We really believe there is no perfect lesson, but that if, when Tammy talked about, in that pre-brief, coming together to think about, “Why are we doing this? What’s our whole point in going in and observing a lesson?” that they have this focus or this purpose, and then the person who’s doing the lesson may be doing the lesson but the other person has this lens, taking notes and to be watching for things, so that at that post-meeting, they can really begin to reflect.
The other thing we find that really helps shift away from a competitive field is that sometimes during that pre-brief teachers are co-constructing a lesson together. So again, if this is becoming part of a team meeting or a PLC meeting, that the teachers jointly have something that they’re exploring together, and they’re writing the lesson together, so everyone owns the lesson that’s about to be done. It’s just one person who volunteers to actually do the lesson, and the other teacher or teachers involved are the ones who are doing the observing and taking the notes so that they can then come back together, reflect, and make another plan. So no one’s the holder of the knowledge when everybody has this role and they’re coming together to sort of have a joint experience around learning.
Franki: What benefits do you see from teachers observing in a colleague’s classroom?
Tammy: We think there are so many benefits, and as Clare talked about, really getting a chance to plan with a colleague and then try the lesson makes such a benefit. But we think the biggest benefit is the teachers get to share instructional practices. In our field, people are in their classrooms and they’re isolated in those rooms. They just don’t have enough time to see each other teach, as well as have a chance to talk about it. It’s just not part of how schools are set up. So we think that the benefit of observing in each other’s classrooms breaks down those walls. We also think that when teachers are working together that they start to, as they’re having conversations after it, they really get to talk about the nuts and bolts of a lesson design, and think about those nuances of how we do our planning together. That really is a big benefit in watching someone else teach.
Franki: And what are the challenges?
Clare: The first challenge is when you asked us about the competitiveness. The culture of our schools and how schools operate can be one of the bigger challenges. I think our profession, unfortunately, was set up to really be about teaching and isolation, even if you think about our pre-service teachers. When it comes time to be at the end of their pre-service teaching experience, we call it “take-over week,” and the mentoring teacher leaves the classroom. We don’t call it “collaboration week.” I think our schools are set up, and our culture is often set up in an isolating way. So to shift that culture to have people coming into your room to be a safe thing, rather than an evaluation, or because there’s something not going well with your teaching – it takes some time for people to get used to that and to feel comfortable with it, and to actually see it as a help as opposed to a judgment or, in some ways, something that makes them feel nervous. So that, we find, is one challenge, is how do we begin to get people to feel comfortable with this and to actually see it as a learning experience.
I think the other is – it sounds minor – but it’s scheduling. It’s hard. If we’re really going to hold true to what Tammy talked about, those three parts – having a previous meeting, the actual observation, and a post meeting – that’s a lot of time to cover teachers, to have those conservations as well as to see the observation. So the scheduling and the timing of it becomes tricky, because we’re seeing a lot of schools moving towards grade-level teams having their specials at the same time so that they can have common planning time, which is great for their grade-level team meetings and their PLCs. But then for this kind of work it’s hard because everyone’s kids are in the room at the same time, so you need to find coverage to allow this to happen, so that can be a challenge.
Franki: And then you’ve probably touched on a lot of this, but what needs to be in place before teachers begin observing a colleague’s classroom?
Tammy: One thing Clare just talked about is the schedules, and the nuts and bolts behind that schedule is important to have in place. But the other thing we think is also important is that there’s lots of discussion around the purposes of these observations, that at faculty meetings or grade-level team meetings we talk about, what’s the purpose, why are we doing this, that it’s part of learning and it’s not a evaluative. We want to make sure that people understand that this is studying the craft of teaching and really not about evaluation.
One time, as district administrators, we set up peer observations for teachers, and although teachers went into each other’s rooms, we think it wasn’t quite as successful as it might have been because they really didn’t have a purpose behind it and it didn’t come from the teachers. We also think it would really help if it was linked to other PD sessions, so if teachers are studying, for example, have effective reading conferences in their PLCs or in grade-level team meetings, or even at professional development days, then if these observations can follow that and be linked with that purpose, it really helps make these more effective.
Franki: Okay. Great. Anything else you want to add about teacher observations?
Clare: The only other thing that we’ve seen over time is that if people aren’t completely comfortable with it, that sometimes we sort of think about it in a gradual release, that maybe in the beginning a coach is involved and sometimes they begin it where they’re doing the lesson and people are watching them, just to get used to the roles, and then they might share a lesson together and then slowly release it so that teachers are doing the process on their own, if that makes teachers feel more comfortable.