Teachers Observing Teachers: How Excellence Becomes Contagious

By Christie McMullen, i3 Project Systems Coach for AVID Center, Apr 03, 2015

When do teachers have an opportunity to see excellent teaching being modeled as part of their regular school day? Sadly, the answer is almost never―until now.

Such observations are the norm in Hardee, Highlands, and DeSoto counties in central Florida. The middle schools, high schools, and state college in these counties are partnering with the AVID Center (Advancement Via Individual Determination) through an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The goal is to transform these schools into a college readiness system for all students.

These Florida communities seem unique: surrounded by orange groves, cows, migrant workers, rodeos, caladium farms, generational poverty, and the nicest people you may ever meet. But during the last 10 years, the area has been hard hit by hurricanes, declining markets, and job scarcity―and has had very little money to put into education.

But in January 2013, through AVID’s work and the i3 grant, the administrative teams and the teachers in these schools began systematically analyzing their practice and shifting their schoolwide focus: preparing all students for next steps after graduation and building students’ life skills. Most notably, teachers observe one another’s classrooms as a way to learn and spread best practices. The observed classrooms vary in content, grade level, and student skills. The teachers, who vary in title and status from department heads to first-year teachers, observe classrooms for 10 minutes using the walk-through model.

During observations, these teachers stand off to the side and take notes on a clipboard using a classroom observation tool. (View this video of classroom observations in action.) Afterward, they are asked during a hallway debrief, “What did you see?” The conversation is game changing and includes statements like:

  • “I love the way she displayed her data wall.”
  • “I never thought about putting students into groups by having them rearrange their desks themselves.”
  • “I need to step up my game. His students were doing amazing things.”

After each walk-through, the teacher being observed receives written feedback and “nice notes” highlighting specific takeaways from the observing teachers. The teachers doing the observing also provide verbal feedback. It’s a win-win situation for the observers and the observed. The end result: Classrooms in these buildings are now more student-focused, with an increased use of strategies that require students to “lift the weights” of learning, applying what they know as active participants in the classroom.

Walk-through observations, typically used by principals as part of the teacher evaluation process, are meant to be short, focused, and efficient. They allow principals to observe a large number of teachers in a short time period. In the Florida schools, this approach was adapted by AVID for use by teachers. Teachers learn by seeing others do what they do, with kids like theirs, in a live setting. They feel energized and empowered by learning from one another. This job-embedded, community-centered style of professional learning helps promote changes in teacher practice.

After the Florida teachers began to shift their teaching focus to help students become active learners, true change began to surface. The administrators worked with their staff to create a culture where learning is emphasized for students and teachers. College and career readiness for all students has become the norm.

This shift certainly did not occur overnight. In the last year and a half, the amount of growth initiated by administrators, teachers, and students has transformed the academic structure of the classrooms to places of active learning. Now, classrooms have collaborative seating. Students rely on one another for their growth and understanding of content. Classroom walls display college pennants, military information, and career choices—all options for students about their future.

The AVID Center’s “how-to” guide for structuring similar walk-throughs in secondary schools provides a framework for change and can be tweaked to meet the needs of individual schools. Walk-throughs are not a new concept and will always be crucial to the education system. But when the teachers are the ones doing the walking, classroom change is more likely to happen.

Now it’s your turn. What do you think?

  • What can states or districts do to encourage more peer observation as a professional learning strategy, particularly for rural schools?
  • How could this process provide real-time professional learning for administrators and leaders in your state or district?
  • How does your school or district currently ensure that opportunities for teacher learning are implemented in the classroom? How might a process like this one increase the use of those learnings schoolwide?


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