Monday, February 17, 2014

The Shame of Classroom Visits

Coming to my new school this year, I made a concentrated commitment to be in classrooms more that I have ever been before.  Quite often, skepticism and eye-rolling tend to follow statements such as these, and rightfully so.  Each of us knows the typical pattern: the Principal makes these ambitious proclamations, does in fact show up in classrooms for the first few of weeks, and then steadily fades into the managerial quagmire that can consume school administration.  I know this because I have both seen this in my own administrators when I was a teacher, and followed this cadence as a Vice-Principal and Principal myself.  However, save for our monthly District Administrator Meeting that happens one Thursday per month and a couple of scattered meetings here and there, I have stuck to my regimen of being in classrooms during Period 2 each day.

And each day that I am in classrooms, I have the very same thought as I walk back to my office:  what a shame.

The shame comes not from what is going on in the classroom--quite the contrary, in fact.  The shame comes from the idea that the only person who really gets to see what is going on in our classrooms is, well, ME.  ME being the person who does not teach students on a daily basis.  ME being the person who does not regularly design lessons (except for faculty and team leader meetings) that are engaging, meaningful, and require the deep learning of our students.  ME being the person who does not develop and execute flexible, authentic assessments that allow students choice in demonstrating what it is they know in their courses.

This situation is going to change.  Not for me, because I still want to be in classrooms.  This situation is going to change for our staff.

Right now at our school, we are beginning our investigation  into how we require students to learn deeply in our classes.  Thanks to the hard work of our students and our staff, our results were very strong last semester--we had a 98.2% success rate in course instances in our school from September to January.  74% of our students achieved a "B" or "A" in each of those course instances.  And while not perfect, and while these are only gross, macro reference points, for the most part our students experience success.   However, as a staff, we want to probe deeper and look at things such as:
  • what tasks are we asking students to do?
  • what are students learning as a result of these tasks?
  • is that which students are learning in our classes preparing them for life in 2020, 2030, 2040, and beyond?
But if WE want get a better understanding of the answers to these questions, then WE need to have a chance to experience what it is that students and teachers are doing in other classes, not just our own.

Not just me.

However, going into other classrooms requires a number of different things (not just the release time) to take place so that we make the best use of that time.  These include:
  • Creating multiple entry points:  not everyone will comfortable having people into their classroom right off the bat.  We all know that when we have another adult in the room, we notice them.  Why? Because it happens so rarely!  However, others are very comfortable, and we don't want to neglect them either. Therefore, we need to recognize that there will be differing levels of comfort for everyone.  However, we don't want to have some of our faculty in classrooms observing and working with different teachers and not others.  So how are we going to do this? We will have three levels of observers and hosts so that people can move through this at their own pace.
    • Level 1:  Observer
    • Level 2:  Observer and Sa-Hali staff host.
    • Level 3:  Observer, Sa-Hali staff host and outside host(other district staff, Thompson Rivers University staff/student teachers)
  • Creating a Non-Threatening, Non-Judgmental Environment:  this is not evaluation, not at all. This is giving us a chance to get out of our classrooms and work with someone in our department, or another area altogether that is interesting to us!  Educators need to know that when a colleague is coming into their class, the colleagues are not judging, they are just seeing.  How do we do this?  Practice, of course.
    • Developing a common language of 'learning to see and unlearning to judge'
    • Developing our skills of descriptive observation using non-judgmental language
      • "when the teacher moved from Activity A to Activity B, 5 of the 17 students were able to move to Activity B" (descriptive) instead of "the pace was fast" (judgement)
    • Starting with video analysis from resources such as The Teaching Channel
  • Honing our skills of task analysis: we want to make sure that we have a clear idea of what students are actually doing (the task) as opposed to the activity that they have been given (the assignment).  We will begin to look at examples (here is a brief presentation that we will use to get started).
  • Being deliberate in our mechanism: we need to co-create a schedule that works for people and accommodates people, but it needs to happen.  The sooner we pre-load the activities above, the better so we can get started!
Yes, there will be some release time involved.  Yes, there will be some of my own time involved when I cover some classes for people.  But by being deliberate about getting educators in other educators classes, we will actually create powerful, meaningful and sustained professional development that is research-based in terms of its level of effect on student (and adult) learning (see below from John Hattie's 'Visible Learning').

So I will continue my classroom visits, but I believe that if we get our staff into each other's classes, not only will we learn, it will be meaningful, fun, enjoyable, and create a new culture of wall-less staff development.  And when I walk back to my office, I will no longer be thinking that it is a shame that more of our faculty do not get to see other classes and work with their colleagues.