We start the school year, and all of a sudden it’s spring. Where did the time go? Even when a fast pace is the result of students experiencing deep learning, teachers don’t always take the time to step back and reflect upon their progress in relation to their professional goals during the school year. That is why teacher leaders should use questioning to create these opportunities for teachers. Here are three strategies I use with our faculty.
Strategy 1: Teacher Interviews
The beginning of the school year holds many possibilities for the future. Although ideas in the fall are as common as leaves on the ground, plans for implementation are sometimes lacking. Educators do not always ask themselves, “Why am I doing what I am doing?” during planning and goal setting.
Mining ideas for more insights is facilitated through several questions I ask each of our teachers in the fall once the school year has started. My purpose is to cause thinking and help them take a different perspective with regard to their professional growth. For example, I sat down with one teacher in our building who wanted to become fluent with our new digital portfolio tool. After listening to her describe her goal and writing down the main points, I asked a series of follow-up questions I adapted from Ivey and Johnston.
Matt: “How did you come to make this change in your practice?”
Lynn: “It’s a building goal to implement digital portfolios, and we have been offered a lot of opportunities for training.”
Matt: “What do you see as a possible major effect on the students?”
Lynn: “Well, sharing student learning through digital portfolios with families will help facilitate conversations at home and school. I will also be promoting reflection and goal setting with my students.”
Matt: “How might this change have a positive effect on you?”
(Teacher takes time to think; I remain silent.)
Lynn: “My role is probably going to change. I will become more of a guide on the side, because students will start to become the main assessors of their learning.”
Each question built off of the previous one. Through this process, the teacher realized that her goal was about more than how to learn to use a digital tool with more proficiency. By allowing teachers to talk and think about their goals through authentic and intentional questioning, we create the conditions for professionals to reconsider their current ideas and plans, and discover new ways to prepare for even greater success.
Strategy 2: Instructional Walks
One of the best decisions I have made as a principal is to replace formal, scheduled observations with several informal classroom visits that happen anytime, anywhere. During my daily instructional walks (inspired by Regie Routman), I use a simple mnemonic device to help me stay focused:
It also creates an acronym that has meaning for me: I want the teacher to own the learning through my visits and feedback. My observations are objective and focused on the students. For the “Wonder” part of my walk, my questions are generally reflective in nature. The goal is to help the teacher think back about why they are doing what they are doing and consider what’s possible (next steps).
I often squeeze in these wondering questions between my observational notes. Consider the following example, from the same teacher’s classroom: I am sitting in on a science lesson that involves watching a multimedia presentation about an observation of a wild animal with a “Critter Cam”:
Instructional walks are not a “fidelity check” of the teacher’s instruction. Rather, I want the teacher to consider what the learning experience would have been like had she not used the interactive video and discussion-promoting questions. My wondering (check mark) guided the teacher through an appreciative lens to consider how she might transfer this practice to other areas.
Strategy 3: A Postcard to Your Future Self
This idea came from the most recent National Council of Teachers of English annual conference. A scene and a quote are depicted on one side of the postcard. On the other side are reflective questions for the teacher to respond to individually. I created a similar activity with our faculty using postcard paper and a word processing template.
At our midyear review we looked at student progress and discussed teachers' goals in relation to this information. To summarize our conversation, I had each teacher respond to the reflective questions on the postcard. Below is the same teacher’s reflections.
I scanned this teacher’s response into her Evernote notebook and gave back her postcard, saying, “Keep this to refer to in the future.” At the end of the school year when I meet with every teacher for evaluations, we revisit all of these artifacts—the interview, instructional walks, and reflective postcard—to make a collaborative, comprehensive assessment of their professional work.
Stopping to Smell the Roses
My wife and I enjoy taking garden walks sponsored in our local community. We visit homes in various neighborhoods to appreciate people’s creativity with their landscapes and gain ideas for our own property. If we merely walked through these tours without stopping to observe and wonder about what was in front of us, what good would these visits be?
Taking time to take stock with current instruction is necessary if educators want to truly improve their practice. We waste valuable opportunities for reflection and goal setting by waiting until the end of the school year to assess the teaching and learning occurring daily. The answer to the question “Why am I doing what I am doing?” should become more evident for teachers with our thoughtful guidance.