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.
2 thoughts on “Learning by Watching”
This “culture of openness” sounds exactly like a Critical Friends Group. Could your department turn into a CFG of its own?
In the Elementary division, we’ve also been playing around with a few different models of peer observations as a professional development tool. Similar to your experience, we have received lots of great feedback from teachers about how valuable this type of learning can be. We’ve also received some feedback about the challenges of the models we have tried – scheduling, the absence of choice and the timing of visits. We have used this feedback to reflect and hopefully try some different models next year.
It is interesting to note that we did not receive the same type of feedback regarding the challenges of getting into each other’s classrooms. I think a large part of this is because the expectation for “open-door” learning communities was established early on in the school year to the staff as a whole. It was very transparent that all classrooms should be “open” and expect lots of visitors popping in and out. Teachers were encouraged to have discussions with students early on preparing them for the possibility of visitors – both the purpose of visitors and how to act/respond to visitors. This initial discussion helped to set the tone for teachers and students early on in the year, which made class visits throughout the year feel like a normal part of the school culture.
Another interesting model that I have heard about – but have not yet tried myself – is a release and re-collect model of peer observations. During grade-level meetings, team meetings or department meetings (that happen during teaching hours), staff is released and instructed to go explore the school and pop into classrooms and document learning (take notes, pictures or videos) and then come back at an agreed upon time and share their discoveries with one another. The focus can be anything – classroom management techniques, inquiry, collaborative learning, etc. I would argue that a school-wide culture of openness and peer learning has to be in place before a model like this is used, but once those elements are in place it allows for peer learning that is authentic, can go beyond grades and departments and does not require teachers to use their own time. I’m planning on testing this model next year – so I will let you know how it goes!
Next year we are also going to test out some models where teachers can have more choice of who they visit, the purpose of their visit and the scheduling of their visit. We haven’t worked out the logistics yet, but we are thinking of a model where staff can highlight their own perceived strengths and based on that, staff can decided which teachers to visit based on their interests and areas of perceived self-growth.
Thanks for sharing your experience and reflections!