I sat with a group of teachers recently who were frustrated and couldn’t see how the projects and examples that we were looking at would work in their classrooms. No matter how much we talked about possibilities and brainstormed ideas, they weren’t resonating. Seeing examples of other teachers‘ projects and all the “perfect” products that other students were creating seemed so far from what they were doing in their classrooms. Instead of being inspired, they couldn’t imagine a different way of doing things and were having a hard time moving past the perceived barriers. They were frustrated by what they envisioned these other teachers and classrooms to look like.
These teachers are not alone but they felt like it. Teaching and leading in schools can be isolating if we let it, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In a blog Open Your Door: Why We Need to See Each Other Teach, Jennifer Gonzales shares:
And though we work together, we usually follow parallel, rather than intersecting lines. We rarely ever actually see each other teach. And it’s a shame, because every time I’ve observed a colleague, my admiration for them has grown, and each time, I felt a little closer to them.
Like Jennifer, I have grown so much as an educator seeing diverse teachers in action. Walking through schools and getting into different classrooms, I always learn about new strategies, see a different way of organizing the space and realize what I am doing that can be celebrated too. Even more important, when people have observed me, I always learn so much from their questions and ideas. In order to build capacity and develop a shared understanding of what powerful teaching and learning looks like, sounds like, and feels like, it is critical to see it and experience it, not just talk about. Too often we make decisions based on assumptions, as well as our own beliefs and perspectives, rather than what is currently happening in classrooms. In spite of this, every time I ask teachers and administrators to go visit other classrooms or schools I am met with a host of reason why it won’t work in their schools. The teachers aren’t ready, the lesson isn’t perfect yet, we don’t have time…
These excuses are often anchored in fear. There is good reason for this. More often than not when people have come in our classrooms and schools it is to judge and evaluate. So we close our doors or invite people in very structured and formal ways that put on a show of the ideal rather than a true picture of what learning actually looks like. Nothing puts educators on edge or inhibits innovation more than “evaluators” inspecting classroom practice from a deficit perspective.
Opening our classroom doors and making learinng public is a key step in school improvement and is inspiring when it is more about creating a culture of learning and innovation than it is about doing it “right.” When you look at what is working and build from there, people are more open to observing others and being observed and often are often motivated to try new things as a result.
Start with Strengths
In order to spread great practices and help teachers learn from their colleagues, I worked with the principal to organize grade level visits to classrooms on campus. To ensure that teachers felt supported we set it up as a scavenger hunt to find and celebrate examples of the desired practices they saw in each of the classrooms. Teachers brought their phones and took pictures to document and share examples and ideas to take back to their classrooms. Using these pictures, we put together a montage for teachers to see the best examples of inquiry, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity that were evident throughout the campus. The video both documented what was happening on campus and validated of the school’s progress; it was also a catalyst for growth. When we focus on what is going well and create opportunities for reflection, observations prompt reflection about our own practice- both validating and stretching thinking.
What is important to highlight is that this wasn’t about evaluation, but about learning from one another. Perhaps that was the reason people were willing to be vulnerable and let people in. It allowed the educators to deepen their connections, ask questions and build off the examples and models they had seen in practice. As you can imagine, after seeing twenty-five classrooms and different ways of organizing the classrooms, explaining concepts, transitions, giving feedback and so much more, everyone had so many questions and new ideas that they couldn’t wait to try. Opening the classroom was a critical first step to inspiration and innovation.
Focus on Learning, Not Evaluation
Observations in learning walks or instructional rounds typically focus on what the teacher is doing, but not often zeroing in on the school culture and systems that support or inhibit the desired practices in the classroom. I was working with my colleague, Cris Waldfogel, in one of our partner districts at the Buck Institute for Education and we organized site visits with a focus on leadership moves and their impact on desired practices in the classroom. Using an inquiry-based approach, we asked leadership teams, including administrators and teacher leaders, to share their strengths as a school and something that they were working on or a “problem of practice.” With a specific focus that they selected, we looked at the walls, evidence of teacher collaboration, classrooms and a variety of other artifacts to help the leadership team better understand their impact and move forward based on their goal.
We celebrated success and probed for how the culture, systems, and expectations impacted their goals and helped to develop concrete next steps for teams. One principal noted that his focus was on improving collaboration across campus and he wanted teachers to more explicitly using a rubric to guide teaching and assessing collaboration. As he shared his focus and then we probed more, he realized that he had never modeled using the rubric for his teachers and as a result, they were not using it as he had hoped. Just like this principal had a revelation about his own practice, at each site celebrations, ahas, and next steps emerged. If we are going to see changes in our schools we will have much more success if those leading the way are empowered and excited to do it. Creating opportunities to see what is possible is critical to shifting mindset.
Create the Culture of Learning and Innovation
At the end of the day Cris facilitated a debrief and asked each person to reflect on how they felt at the beginning of the day when they were preparing to visit other schools and host educators in their schools too. As we went around the room and each person shared one word to describe those feelings and the words that I heard over and over were anxious, grumpy, frustrated, unsure, and nervous. The second round of reflections, after everyone had seen other schools and classrooms as well as hosted colleagues at their site, included motivated, proud, ready, and inspired. The same teachers that were frustrated the day before and couldn’t imagine how to make the desired changes in their classrooms had shifted their perspective after seeing other classrooms. They had realized that they were already doing many things that they had not realized and were motivated to try new things as well. To break down the barriers, to validate what you are doing, and to see what else is possible, we need to get out of our own classrooms and schools and see what is happening in other spaces.
Feeling nervous about administrators, educators, or even parents being in our schools and classrooms often comes from the fear of being judged. This is a common fear, but as Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of all innovation, creativity, and change.” If you have a great idea but are afraid to try it because you aren’t sure if it’s going to work or you are afraid of what others will say, the status quo will prevail. When innovative practices are celebrated and shared, great learning can spread through schools and the world. If we only tell the stories of the good or gloss over the challenges, we miss the power of the learning process instead of sharing the hurdles that are part of learning. The culture of learning and risk-taking can make great ideas and practices spread through schools and communities like wildfire or keep it hidden behind closed doors.