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Professional Learning

3 Ways to Unlock the Wisdom of Colleagues

Sometimes the best ideas are inside your own school. Here are three thoughtful practices to find—and share—inspiration from your peers.

March 14, 2018

With packed schedules, piles of grading, and the endless pressure to prep for tomorrow, it’s no wonder many teachers spend little time outside their own classrooms. But some schools have realized that when teachers have regular, structured opportunities to learn together, good ideas are more likely to travel from one classroom to the next.

“We’re really asking teachers to step outside of their comfort zone,” explains Pauline Roberts, an instructional specialist at Birmingham Covington School in Michigan, where teachers regularly provide feedback on each other’s teaching. “We are creatures that live behind closed doors.”

Encouraging teachers to learn together is hardly a new idea. More than three decades ago, researchers identified teacher collaboration—including time for colleagues to discuss classroom challenges, design learning materials together, and critique each other’s practice—as a cornerstone of school success. It’s also listed as a key feature of what makes for effective professional development in a 2017 research review from the Learning Policy Institute by Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues.

Collaboration takes time and planning. If classroom observation becomes part of a school’s strategy, administrators have to make time during the regular school day for shared professional learning among the staff. School leaders should also have to have clear objectives for the program of observation, and protocols to keep discussion on track and to ensure that the time isn’t wasted.

In Wyoming, Michigan, and Washington, DC, the following schools showcase innovative models for teacher collaboration that can be woven right into the regular school day.

Learning Walks: Wyoming Lab School

Each year, more than 1,000 people tour the halls of the University of Wyoming Lab School looking for inspiration. The K–8 school, nationally known for its innovation in teaching, is located on the university’s campus in Laramie and partners directly with the School of Education.

A spirit of continuous learning permeates the school, which encourages all teachers—from preservice to veteran—to seek out and experiment with new practices without fear of failure. The process is actively supported through learning walks, during which teachers observe each other and gain insights and ideas they can replicate in their own classrooms.

“Sometimes the best things going on are happening in your own building, and you might miss them because you’re doing your own thing,” explains Abby Markley, a grade 5 to 8 teacher.

During the walks—which proceed at a brisk pace—teachers and teachers-in-training sit in on five to 10 classes for five minutes each, making note of particularly effective teaching practices as they go and then debriefing as a group. Because teacher time is precious, a facilitator tracks time and keeps things moving along during the reflection.

On future walks, the tables are turned: A teacher who was previously a visitor may now host an inquisitive group—ensuring that feedback loops are continuous and that all classrooms benefit from the wisdom of the whole community.

Protocols for Examining Student Work: Two Rivers Public Charter School

At Two Rivers Public Charter School, a pre-K to grade 8 school in Washington, DC, teachers meet regularly outside of class time to examine their students’ coursework as a team. At this academically high-performing school, students regularly tackle real-world problems in the larger community.

“The reason we look at student work is to help teachers become better teachers,” says Jessica Wodatch, the school’s executive director. As a result, she adds, teachers “are better able to guide and facilitate a deeper level of student learning.”

Using a structured protocol, teachers pore over student work samples from a colleague’s specific lesson, such as a third-grade math lesson on bar graphs. Teachers are first asked to consider how they would respond to the task if they were the learner. They then analyze student work to look for specific, concrete evidence of what students understand, and brainstorm actionable feedback about how to improve their colleague’s instruction.

The teacher on the receiving end typically comes away with new ideas to improve the rest of the unit—along with encouragement to keep doing what’s already working well.

Teacher Labs: Birmingham Covington School

At Birmingham Covington School, a 3–8 public magnet school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, teachers identify as a community of learners who use planned, peer-to-peer feedback to help raise student outcomes throughout the school. Central to this approach is the practice of teacher labs, which enable teachers to reflect on their craft with support from their colleagues.

Each three-hour teacher lab focuses on a specific instructional topic that teachers choose to explore together, such as student engagement strategies. Participants from different content areas convene and brainstorm best practices related to the topic before observing a lesson in a classroom, facilitated by a teacher who has volunteered to be the host.

A structured discussion with an instructional coach follows, leading to takeaways that participants can apply in their own classroom contexts.

A teacher lab focused on student problem solving, for example, began with teachers listening closely to student conversations. During the debrief that followed the lesson, they shared positive observations with the host teacher, such as the frequent use of academic language in student discussions and students’ willingness to ask for help when they needed it—so that “everyone walks away with some new knowledge, some new gained perspective,” says instructional specialist Pauline Roberts.

Next Steps

The challenge for many schools is finding time for busy teachers to intentionally and thoughtfully connect beyond the occasional hallway or breakroom chat. Opening those doors can also provoke feelings of vulnerability—especially if teachers aren’t used to peer observation or sharing their lessons. Keeping the focus on professional learning, not on teacher evaluation, is an important step in building a more collaborative culture.

To encourage more teacher collaboration in your school, you’ll want to consider:

  • Time: Where will you find time within the regular school day for teachers to step outside their own classrooms and learn together?
  • Structure: How might a protocol or specific observation prompt help to focus the learning experience? Who will play a lead role in facilitating the teacher experience and encouraging reflection? How will you capture takeaways? The National School Reform Faculty publishes a number of protocols for professional learning, such as this one for looking at student work.
  • Follow-up: How are teachers applying what they learn together? How do students benefit as a result of teacher collaboration?

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