4 ways teachers can learn from one another

“Quite often the greatest PD is the teacher down the hall.” I recently saw this popular tweet from educator and author Brian Aspinall, and I completely agree.

I remember visiting colleagues during a learning walks activity when I was a middle school teacher. I learned how to promote academic discussion with multilingual learners this way. I learned strategies to support students managing their time and establishing focus. I learned about a colleague’s amazing relationship with a student who was often disengaged in my own class. The best professional learning can be the teacher down the hall.

Here’s the catch though: By the time I participated in these learning walks, I had already been in the classroom for eight years. Why did it take so long? Well, frankly, it was the first time I was offered a structure for visiting colleagues. Sure, I could have visited other teachers on my own, but when did I have the time? How could I decide whom to see and how to ask? Would it really be worth it?

Many educators agree that visiting their colleagues’ classrooms has profound benefits. However, a 2013 surveyshowed that only half of American teachers have ever seen a colleague teach.

Structures that allow teachers to observe and discuss practices within their school communities can be highly effective and engaging. I promote public teaching, which includes learning walks, as one of these structures. In our book Compassionate Coaching, Kathy Perret and I write, “What we mean when we say teaching should be public is that teachers should open their classrooms to learn from one another and that schools should recognize that instruction is worth studying.”

Now that schools are back to in-person learning, it may be the perfect time to embrace a public-teaching structure. Here are four structures that you can develop in your school. I’ll break down the purpose, description, and essential components of each.

1. Learning walks

Purpose: Learning walks provide opportunities for teachers to observe their colleagues, learn from other teachers’ practices, and reflect upon their own practices.

Description: In a learning walk, teachers visit a colleague with a focus for the observation. The focus can be a schoolwide focus or selected by the group of visiting teachers. For example, you may be looking for use of formative assessment practices or ways the teacher engages unmotivated students.

During the class visit (which in my schools usually lasted between 10 and 15 minutes), observers look for evidence of the focus area. Once teachers leave the classroom, they meet in the hall or another location to discuss what they saw and reflect on the implications for their practice. They may visit one or two additional teachers during the learning walk.

Although as an instructional coach I sometimes have teachers leave a positive note for the teacher we observe, the goal is not to give the host teacher feedback, but for the observers to learn from the host and reflect on their own practices.

Essential components

  • A survey to determine which teachers are open to being observed and during which class periods
  • A schedule made to match teachers’ planning times with teachers who are open to their classrooms being visited
  • A designated meeting space and time for the beginning of learning walks
  • A facilitator who provides an orientation to the group and leads the learning walk (this can be a teacher, an instructional coach, or an administrator)
  • A set of discussion and reflection questions related to the focus of the learning walk
  • Kudos slips for teachers who want to leave a positive note for the host teacher

2. Instructional rounds

Purpose: Instructional rounds provide opportunities for a host teacher to pose a problem of practice to a group of colleagues who observe the host teacher’s classroom and provide feedback.

Description: Instructional rounds involve a teacher-generated problem of practice. Perhaps the teacher wants to learn more about the quality of conversations in student groups, the best way to use a digital tool, or how to improve questioning. There are many possibilities.

The curious teacher hosts a group of colleagues for a pre-observation meeting where they share their lesson plan briefly and the focus questions they want the group to answer. The observing teachers can ask clarifying questions during this time. Then, the group observes a specific class chosen by the teacher and makes notes of evidence that relate to the focus questions. Then the group meets again for the observing teachers to share their evidence and feedback and for the host teacher to reflect on the process and determine next steps.

Essential components

  • A teacher who hosts the rounds, selects a problem of practice, and drafts focus questions
  • Selected times and dates for the pre-observation meeting, the observation, and the post-observation debrief and reflection
  • Handouts for observers with the focus questions
  • If coverage is needed because teachers have classes at the same time as the observation, support from a substitute teacher, a colleague, or an instructional coach will need to be arranged

3. Matchmaker pairs

Purpose: Matchmaker pairs are an opportunity for teachers to learn about a self-selected instructional practice from a teacher who has expertise in the practice.

Description: Matchmaker pairs are a low-stakes classroom visit for informal learning. Teachers sign up to participate by completing a survey where they share topics in which they have expertise as well as topics they want to learn about.

The organizer of the groups uses the surveys to find matches in which an expert and a learner have shared the same topic. The organizer contacts the pair, shares the topic, and explains which teacher will visit and which teacher will host. The teachers are given a time span during which to arrange their visit, and they are asked to complete a reflection form after the visit.

Essential components

  • An optional matchmaking survey to have teachers share topics of expertise and topics they want to learn more about
  • An organizer who makes the matches and notifies the teachers of who is in the observer–host pair, what the instructional focus of the visit is, and the window of time for scheduling visits
  • A reflection survey after the visit to allow participants to process their learning and the experience
  • If coverage is needed because the visiting teacher has students at the same time as the class they are supposed to visit, support from a substitute teacher, a colleague, or an instructional coach

4. Peer coaching

Purpose: Peer coaching is an ongoing opportunity for teachers to collaboratively support one another in personalized and schoolwide instructional goals through observation and feedback.

Description: Small teams of teachers arrange a schedule for observing one another and providing feedback on specific goals. These goals may be part of a schoolwide focus set by an administrator or school improvement team, or they can be set by the individual teacher. In some schools, there can be a school goal and a teacher’s goal.  These observations and the subsequent feedback discussions occur on an ongoing basis throughout a semester or school year to discuss growth and implement new ideas from the collaborations. ­­

Essential components

  • Teams of two or three teachers who will collaborate as peer coaches (three usually works better than two for practical reasons, like mid-year schedule changes or potential absences on a scheduled visit day)
  • A schedule developed by the teacher team of when they will observe one another (again, if class coverage is needed, they can secure a substitute teacher, colleague, or an instructional coach to help)
  • A selected practice to observe; all teachers can focus on the same practice, or each teacher can choose what practice they would like for their colleagues to observe and provide feedback on
  • An observation tool, which can be a schoolwide instrument or one developed by the group; the tool may differ if the teachers in the group have selected different practices for their peers to support
  • A specific recurring time for debriefing and providing feedback (some schools make this a part of the schedule of faculty meetings)

What now?

If your school does not currently have a form of public teaching, I encourage you to think about the structures presented in this post. Contact some teachers in your school and share this post with them. Ask them which structures appeal to them. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Which structures can be supported in our school with current schedules and personnel?
  • Do we have a schoolwide focus that a structure could support?
  • Could public teaching be an opportunity for deeper learning after a workshop or professional learning kickoff?
  • Do teachers currently have autonomy in their professional learning offerings? If not, which structures could support that professional need?

For schools that already engage in one of these or another form of public teaching, reflect on what impact offering some choices in public teaching would have. In one school where I served as a coach, we gradually built our public teaching toolbox by offering different options over the years. Eventually, teachers could select their own public teaching activities based on their professional needs.

We can learn so much from watching the great work teachers do with their students, but let’s not leave it up to chance. Commit to working with teachers in your school to implement a public teaching structure as part of professional learning.

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