Classroom Observation Drives Instructional Practices
Moving instructional practices forward at a school site can be a daunting task. Ask any principal, team leader, or department chair how easy it is to motivate colleagues to row in the same direction, even after the whole team agreed upon a particular direction and adequate staff development time was devoted to the initiative. The good news is that many instructional leaders have found a way to drive change without empty threats or nagging monitoring. It is a lot easier than you might think, and there is a boatload of collateral benefit as well.
Dr. Duane Cox, an elementary principal, among others I’ll highlight below, has found the key that unlocks the typical obstacles to change at the school site. How does he do it? After meeting with collaborative teams, he observes teachers in their classrooms as they put the agreed-upon practices into action and celebrates the team via an all-staff email. In this case, he is reinforcing a major schoolwide and districtwide focus of coherency of curriculum and collaborative teamwork.
Subject: Highlights from Collaboration Meetings
Dear Staff: I had the opportunity to visit collaboration meetings this morning. Here are some highlights:
The sixth-grade team discussed their curriculum map for Envision and discussed how the plan takes into consideration the essential standards and the CST testing window. The team was engaged in discussion about Envision and how to best use the new resources. Through this work, the team is guaranteeing a curriculum for all sixth-grade students in any of the four classrooms… Our values of collaboration, data-driven instruction, and tiered instruction are all exemplified in this work.
(Portion of email from dcox on 9-27-2011)
Dr. Cox took the additional 10 minutes to draft his experience, very specifically and intentionally, into an all-staff email. The end effect is that it creates clarity, reinforces the collective agreement, defines more deeply the expectation, and creates a moment of celebration. Despite humble objections otherwise, everyone likes to see their name in print! The old adage “People value what you monitor” certainly holds true in this case as well.
Once a critical mass of clarity and leadership focus has been achieved, the leader brings in the big bats…data. However, there is a compelling difference. This data isn’t individual teacher data; rather, it asks the question, “How well is the group doing relative to the collectively designed and agreed-upon goal?” And again, the leader puts the data, as simple as it may be, into a short email and fires it off to the entire staff. Dr. Mike Schmoker, a major proponent of this type of classroom observations, sees these tours as critical. “They should be conducted by at least two people who then report on all-school patterns of growth or need for improvement. I am less enthused about walkthroughs as a primary way to provide individual teachers with feedback that they aren’t always ready to accept” (Schmoker. FOCUS. EndNotes. 2011). Dr. Schmoker is adamant about including the collective data piece as demonstrated below by Dr. Bauermeister, a high school principal, whose data reflects an instructional design goal:
“Dear Team: Our goal this year is to focus in on two areas (Clear Objectives and Check for Understanding) of Hunter’s model of lesson delivery. As I went out and visited classrooms 92% of the classrooms I visited had the current standard posted. Only 39% listed the objective being taught in the lesson. Maybe they were there and I just didn’t see them. If you could have the objective and standards being taught written in the upper left-hand corner of your white board, it would be a lot easier for me to find.
Below is listed Hunter’s model of objectives - What, specifically, should the student be able to do, understand, and care about as a result of the teaching. Keep up the good work.”
(Portion of an email from kbauermeister on 10/18/2011)
Here he sets a baseline using collected data and clarifies what he wants to see the next time he visits the classroom. No nagging. No prodding. No memo of understanding. In fact, he ends with an encouragement. A common tenet of a professional learning community is the desire to continuously improve, and it can’t hurt for a little group motivation to fire up the collective teacher’s desire to achieve on any metric.
Armed with the camera on her iPhone, middle school principal Jennifer Smalley brilliantly captures her walkthrough in this email to the entire staff.
Subject: Re: Way to Go Jane!
(Portion of an email from jsmalley on 9/28/2011)
After a week or two of these emails to a variety of staff members, Mrs. Smalley sent this email:
Subject: Walkthrough Data Friday 10/14/11
Hi Falcon Staff,
I collected data on two of our four walkthrough objectives today. Here is how we did…
75% of the Falcon Staff had an agenda posted
75% of the Falcon Staff had an objective posted
32 classrooms were observed*
I really am proud of how well everyone is integrating the walkthrough objectives. Telling students what they will be doing and what they are expected to learn is essential for all learners. If you need help with writing an agenda/objective or need clarification on the reasoning behind it, feel free to come by and we can work together on it.
(Portion of an email from jsmalley sent on 10/14/2011)
There is added value to this method of walkthrough observation. Dr. DuFour and Dr. Marzano, in their current book, Leaders of Learning (2011), adapted Marzano and Waters’ earlier list of 21 principal responsibilities into 19 high-leverage leader responsibilities that directly applied to a school’s collaborative efforts. Of those 19 behaviors, this simple method of walkthrough observation encompasses approximately 13 of them. Whether the leader is a principal, coach, department chair, or grade-level lead, she is seen as an instructional leader. She is seen as “in the classroom” where the learning is happening. She is seen as “one of us” and supportive to her staff. She is seen as positive, encouraging, and celebratory. I am hard-pressed to find a more simple, quick, and effective strategy to drive the change we long for in our schools.