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Teachers Observing Teachers:
Spark Discussion, New Ideas

Looking for a way to encourage more collaboration and reflection among his staff, principal Terry Bradley worked with university professors to implement peer walk-throughs. The observations and discussions have changed the way teachers teach. Included: How peer walk-throughs work.

All teachers sometimes can use another set of eyes and ears to let them know how they are doing -- not to mention a shoulder to lean on -- and one school has found that the best professional development for teachers can come from down the hall.

Since teachers began visiting other teachers classrooms three years ago as part of a program called peer walk-throughs at East Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, North Carolina, the school made adequate yearly progress (AYP) for the first time in several years. Collegiality and collaboration also have increased among the faculty, according to principal Terry Bradley, who became principal three years ago.

[When I got here] they had a staff that was isolated, just trying to make it through, Bradley told Education World. The community perceived the school as low-performing. [Peer walk-throughs] helped with things we wanted to do. We wanted teachers to raise expectations and put children first. We had forgotten that a little bit.

LEARNING ABOUT WALK-THROUGHS

Walk-throughs -- in which staff members make casual visits to classes and discuss their observations -- is a technique principals have used for years, according to Dr. Kathleen Jorissen, an assistant professor in the department of educational leadership and foundations at Western Carolina University at Cullowhee. The idea is to do brief visits to keep on top of what's going on in terms of instruction and professional development, Jorissen said. Western Carolina teaches students how to do walk-throughs as part of the department's teacher induction program and teaches principals how to facilitate discussions about walk-throughs, she added.


It's really an effective way to open classrooms and encourage teachers to work collaboratively, which is how schools build capacity.
 

Bradley had just taken over as principal at Franklin and was looking for a way to re-invigorate his faculty when he attended a workshop at Western. There he met Jorissen and another professor involved with walk-throughs. We bounced around some ideas and kept tweaking them until we got what we wanted, Bradley said.

Initially, Jorissen said she tried peer walk-throughs in other schools with mentor teachers who were working with first-year teachers. Data she collected showed it helped new teachers feel more confident and connected. When we started working with Terry, instead of doing it with mentors, we decided to do it with everyone, said Jorissen. We thought it was a good way to re-energize the faculty.

STARTING THE DIALOGUE

When working with a school, Jorissen said she forms a team and visits the school to present the basics of walk-throughs. Then teachers decide on the criteria they consider relevant to the area on which they want to focus. It depends on what the teachers want to look at, such as student engagement or classroom management, according to Jorissen. We let teachers define what the indicators are. If it's student engagement, then teachers make a list of what they would see if teachers are using student engagement effectively. Terry's teachers had brainstormed some areas that they considered important for good teachers.

Franklins teachers wanted to work on classroom management in the first year of walk-throughs. The key to walk-throughs is they are not evaluative, Bradley said. At least two teachers -- but no more than four -- visit a classroom for a maximum of ten minutes and then step outside and discuss what they saw the classroom teacher doing with students. All instructors participate in the program, including special education, art, music, and physical education teachers. The teachers who did the observations talk with the classroom teacher after school at a faculty meeting.

The initial fear was that teachers thought it would be critical of other teachers, Bradley said. But when the classroom teachers began meeting with the observing teachers, the conversations took off. We had to send them home because they talked on and on, Bradley joked.


I saw ideas they were using and with which they were having success, and it gave me a bigger bag of tricks to pull from.
 

Franklin's Title 1 supplemental math teacher, Angela Martin, said the post-observation conversations are valuable for everyone. They [the observed teachers] could tell you what worked well, what happened in the classroom after we left, the conclusion to the lesson, and how students reacted, she said. It makes us more reflective of our own teaching.

After the first walk-throughs, two teachers saw another teacher use a particular strategy they couldn't wait to try themselves, Jorissen said. It's really an effective way to open classrooms and encourage teachers to work collaboratively, which is how schools build capacity, she noted.

SO THIS IS WHAT GOES ON IN PE

The walk-throughs not only introduced teachers to new strategies, but also new subject areas and co-workers. Teachers get stuck in their own little worlds -- their four walls -- and these [walk-throughs] were very eye-opening, Bradley told Education World. Classroom teachers sometimes did not understand how pull-out teachers worked -- this way everyone got an idea of everyone's responsibilities.

Michelle Bell, Franklin's lead teacher, said the peer walk-throughs opened up classroom doors. Many teachers don't know what's going on in other parts of the building, Bell noted. This also gave them a chance to see if they were preparing kids the way they need to for the next grade level.

Martin now jokes with colleagues not to use an idea if they don't want her to steal it. I saw ideas they were using and with which they were having success, and it gave me a bigger bag of tricks to pull from, she told Education World. We're our own best resource. It gives you chance to go to the class just down the hall and maybe get answers to questions you had as opposed to going away to a conference.


Teachers can go to a workshop and hear how to do something, but seeing it in a classroom done by a colleague is very re-enforcing; it's very concrete.
 

Some simple ideas that got passed on to other teachers included using tables with different colored trim to group kindergarten and first-grade students, since most students could recognize colors. Teachers also adopted colleagues approach to incorporating active boards into lessons.

Some of Franklin's faculty members also have given presentations about peer walk-throughs at other schools in the area. At one grade 3-5 school Franklin teachers visited, a teacher said she hadn't been to the gym in 20 years. She said, I didn't even know what they do there, Bradley recalled. It turned out the PE teacher had an excellent program. The classroom teacher learned how the PE teachers could manage a class of 30 kids.

Jorissen and her colleagues gathered some data on peer walk-throughs that shows the effectiveness of educators observing educators. Teachers can go to a workshop and hear how to do something, but seeing it in a classroom done by a colleague is very re-enforcing; it's very concrete, she said. You don't need to bring in any outside experts.

REFINING, BROADENING THE FOCUS

This year, the focus of the walk-throughs at Franklin is on how teachers at each grade level integrate technology into a lesson. Bradley also wants some teachers to observe teachers at schools with demographics similar to Franklin's. A lot of our teachers grew up and were educated in this area, and I'm trying to get them into other towns, Bradley explained.

The school also has made adjustments to make scheduling walk-throughs more convenient. In the first two years, the trouble was having enough people to cover classes, Bradley said. The important thing was to have everyone observe and be observed. The cost of the program is minimal, he added, although some substitute coverage is needed at times.

Not everyone has been enthusiastic about the walk-throughs., noted Bradley. Everything you try or do in a school is not for everyone.

Overall, though, the peer walk-throughs at Franklin are proving to be both effective and efficient. When I got here, it was very rare to see teachers talking across grade levels, Bradley explained. Peer pressure is pretty good; if you want to teach a lesson, ask someone else. It is a little time-consuming, but people see the benefits.

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Administrators: Leadership

 

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