5 Practices that Promote Sharing and Open Classroom Doors

It’s not uncommon to have teachers who teach next to one another for years yet have never seen each other teach.  When this happens, many assumptions about what is working and what is not working get made. This culture can not only maintain some ineffective practices but prevents great practices from spreading and impacting the school as a whole.

There is a lot of discussion about transforming teaching and learning but how do we do that if we can’t have open, honest conversations that begin with a shared understanding of where we are and where we want to go. We cannot continue to tell teachers to do it differently if their experiences, both past and present, provide no other models for how to create better learning experiences.

In this article, I Lie About My Teaching, Ben Orlin highlights this challenge:

Teachers self-promote. In that, we’re no different than everyone else: proudly framing our breakthroughs, hiding our blunders in locked drawers, forever perfecting our oral résumés. This isn’t all bad. My colleagues probably have more to learn from my good habits (like the way I use pair work) than my bad ones (like my sloppy system of homework corrections), so I might as well share what’s useful. In an often-frustrating profession, we’re nourished by tales of triumph. A little positivity is healthy.

But sometimes, the classrooms we describe bear little resemblance to the classrooms where we actually teach, and that gap serves no one.

Any honest discussion between teachers must begin with the understanding that each of us mingles the good with the bad.

To support necessary shifts in teaching practices, whenever possible, I try and get educators to share their work and open up classroom doors to have deeper more authentic conversations about teaching and learning. At first this is not comfortable for many teachers or administrators, but necessary to change practices.  And once teachers start sharing, they rarely stop, but they need to feel safe and that they are part of a culture where learning and risk taking is valued to get started. The development of shared norms and structured protocols help focus on teaching and learning without putting others in a position where they feel threatened or judged.  When protocols are used effectively to guide the  collaborative groups, educators can not only gain ideas from the models but also benefit from the experience and expertise of their colleagues as well.  National School Reform has some great protocols to get started.

To open classroom doors, here are five practices that can facilitate the sharing of new and better practices to meet the needs of learners in our classrooms today:

  1. Explore Models  To help others get comfortable talking about teaching and learning, it helps to provide models. When this is done in collaborative groups, educators can not only gain ideas from the models but also benefit from the experience and expertise of their colleagues as well. Here are some great examples of student work and authentic projects that can inspire teachers to explore authentic learning experiences and have conversations about the implications for their own classrooms  
  2. Analyze student work– To move beyond discussing lesson plans and curricula, looking at student work helps educators understand how students apply what they are learning and focus on the actual impact of learning and teaching. It’s great to use actual work from the students you teach, however if the group is not quite ready, beginning with other examples such as the ones shared above to be used as models, can help scaffold the process. The Looking at Student Work Protocol is one of my favorites to use and can help create a safe environment that allows for effective critique to shift practice.
  3. Collaborate to design learning experiences– When teachers work together to design learning experiences they can bring different perspectives and alternatives methods to expand on what one teacher has always done. Creating structured time for teachers to plan and reflect on the impact can help open classrooms through focused conversations.  When possible, carving out a longer block of time to design, implement, reflect and revise in a day or two can allow for teachers to put ideas into practice and support one another to refine ideas in quick learning cycles. Here is an example of how this can work.
  4. Observe Learning and Teaching– Getting into other classrooms is typically a learning experience that I get the most push back from initially but in the end teachers appreciate the learning and the impact on their thinking more than any other experience. There is value in visiting one’s own building to develop a shared understanding of what learning and teaching looks like in your own context. In addition, visiting other schools is extremely important to see new opportunities that exist beyond your school and classroom. I described some of my experience and a useful protocols here.
  5. Create the space for ongoing sharing and collaboration- Teachers have diverse expertise and experience and often their most valuable professional learning comes from collaborating with their peers.  To foster the collaborations on a regular basis, create spaces and opportunities for teachers to share their work and what they are learning.  Carving out time during staff meetings or planning time is a great way for teachers to share.  But to move beyond the school,  encouraging teachers to share in online communities with a school or district hashtag is a great way to share learning in real time.

After a year working with one of our partner districts, I heard educators talking about how much great stuff was happening in their schools and discussing how to share their work.  As I listened to different tables discuss how they could continue to share their work through blogging, Twitter chats, websites, Instagram and Facebook pages, I was brought back to the beginning of the year when the conversations were much more guarded and learning was private.  By creating the space and structured opportunities these educators were introduced to new ways of teaching and learning.  Although they began with models from other educators, within a year, they were implementing the ideas they learned but also designing new and better experiences that they were excited to share with others in their district and beyond.  These collaborative practices helped them peek inside other classrooms and open their doors too.

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