At the school in which I work there is lots of talk about developing ourselves as educators and professionals. Some ways in which development happens is driven by the school, such as staff meetings and early release professional development days. Some individual educators in the school are even awarded the opportunity to be sent to various trainings around the world. On a individual level, some teachers work to continually develop themselves as professionals through PLNs, twitter chats, webinars, etc… These examples of development mentioned above take planning, time, resources, and reflections. While the effort is typically worth the end outcome of new learning, sometimes the work, time, and resources required can be daunting to staff and leadership. However, peer observation is another, and different, approach to professional development and learning that does not require the same work, time, and resources.
Peer observation is providing teachers the opportunity to sit in classes (not always in the same subject area) to observe a lesson or portion of a lesson that is being facilitated by a colleague. The purpose of these observations are not to be judgemental or assessment based. Rather, teachers are observing to learn, grow, and develop their own professional teaching practice, from watching the practice of other educators in the building. A lot can be learned through conversations with colleagues and reading text. However, watching a teacher in action can provide deeper insight that other options cannot give. Additionally by watching a peer teacher each individual can debrief the observation so as to deepen understanding, discuss ideas, and build upon what was observed with intent of applying your learning to your own classroom.
This year I began a peer observation process for my staff. I decided to focus on peer observation as a development model because I hoped to show staff that learning can take place outside of assigned PD days. I also hoped that staff would begin to view their peers are expert practitioners who have valuable ideas and practices to share. Each staff member was paired with another staff member and asked to visit his or her class to watch, listen, and learn. From the perspective of the staff, peer observation was a worthwhile and positive experience.
“This exercise was a great learning experience for me, I gained some new ‘tricks of the trade’ and I enjoyed watching the different interactions that teachers have with their students.”
“I noticed I was doing a lot of the same things in my own class as the teacher I observed; it was heartening to see. I did notice a number of things that I was already doing that I could be doing better, and I saw a lot of new ideas that would enhance my teaching further! Overall, it was worthwhile!”
By spending time in the classroom of their peers, teachers were able to observe other professionals in action. Through this process –using a lens of learning and developing — teachers were able to learn new things and be reassured about practices taking place in their own classroom. In addition, by allowing colleagues into their classrooms, staff built a community of trust and a community of learning. When trust and openness is built among a staff — that’s when real development can take place. As people feel safe to share ideas, take risks, and collaborate in an authentic way, then personal growth is made that will then positively impact the students that we work with.
After reflecting on the peer observation process, there are some elements that I would like to adapt for the future. First and foremost, I want to get away from having structured observations and move towards a culture of openness and constant learning. I want the classroom doors of teachers to be open all the time and have teachers feel comfortable dropping in often. This open door culture would take the observation process from a potential feeling of evaluation to a feeling of learning and growth. When there are nerves in the classroom, or teachers or students feel they are being judged, the observation process and learning opportunities that come along with it becomes useless. While the staff that I work with found the observations useful, they did comment that because we have not created (yet) a culture of learning by observing it still felt a bit foreign to both them and their students.
“They [the students] would not talk or discuss and seemed frozen. When my peer observer left, a sigh of relief was heard and they suddenly became engaged. They thought I was ‘in trouble from the office’ and didn’t want to ‘talk too much or act crazy and make me look bad.’”
“I would love to see dropping into each others classroom develop as a norm. It still can feel as though a judgement is occurring when another professional is in the room, and that is weird, because all our talk is about collaboration, but we don’t collaboratively work at the point of delivery.”
So this is where I am. A first attempt has been made. It is clear that it was a worthwhile experience but what else is clear is that a culture of getting into each others class must be established. So how do we begin? How does a school move towards a culture of openness? How can we effectively and meaningfully use peer observations as a low-stakes, low investment professional development tool? And how can we continue to make ourselves current and relevant and trust that peer observation is a positive step in that direction? How can a school/department authentically move towards a culture of openness for the purpose of learning so as to best serve the students that we work with? These are big questions that I hope to start to answer as I work with my staff to push ourselves to create a culture of openness and a culture of constant learning.
professional development tool? And how can we continue to make ourselves current and relevant and trust that peer observation is a positive step in that direction? How can a school/department authentically move towards a culture of openness for the purpose of learning so as to best serve the students that we work with? These are big questions that I hope to start to answer as I work with my staff to push ourselves to create a culture of openness and a culture of constant learning.