Professional Learning in Virtual Classrooms
Peer walk-throughs and other strategies help build community by facilitating interactions between teachers.
Peer walk-throughs and self-reflection are common practices among educators that provide even the most seasoned veterans with fresh perspective, innovative ideas, and classroom best practices. I am the coordinator and principal of our district’s virtual program, where our K–8 teachers are fully virtual, spending the majority of their day teaching online via Zoom videoconferencing. Because we are smaller, we have only one teacher in most grade levels.
This small size can leave teachers feeling as if they are alone on an island. Use of peer walk-throughs and self-reflection can help deepen the sense of community among the virtual teachers as they visit each other’s classrooms and learn about virtual teaching strategies to engage students in learning. It is a way to open lines of communication, establish best practices in the virtual setting, and ensure consistency for students as they transition to the next grade level.
Here are three peer walk-through and self-reflection strategies that our teachers have found to be beneficial.
Strategy One: Synchronous Visits
Peer walk-throughs enable teachers to learn from each other. Walk-throughs can establish a collaborative school culture and help implement common classroom practices across grade levels. We can still preserve these benefits virtually.
The simplest way to facilitate virtual peer walk-throughs is to join a team member’s live Zoom session. These synchronous virtual walk-throughs allow for a similar peer-to-peer reflection following the live session. Synchronous walk-throughs have the benefit of building community among teachers.
The use of peer virtual walk-throughs has been particularly beneficial in bringing student engagement strategies to life. It is one thing to read about and discuss using breakout rooms to facilitate student discussions, or using Pear Deck to check for understanding, but seeing the strategies used with an actual virtual class provides an additional layer of understanding and confidence in implementing new strategies in their own virtual space.
The peer reflection questions used for this strategy are simple:
- What were your key takeaways from the synchronous Zoom walk-through?
- What strategies will you implement in your virtual classroom?
However, live virtual walk-throughs come with their own set of challenges. One challenge to a live Zoom walk-through is the potential student distraction. Students become accustomed to their teacher and their classmates in the synchronous environment and are aware when a stranger has entered the Zoom. Telling students in advance that a visiting teacher will be joining their classroom keeps distractions at bay.
Additionally, as the teacher moves in and out of breakout rooms, the lead teacher must remember to take the visiting teacher with them, so they can observe interactions with students in small groups.
Strategy Two: Recorded Videos for Self-Reflection
Being a reflective practitioner is an intentional practice. Reflective teachers continually analyze the strategies used in their classroom to determine the positive impact on student learning.
As we transitioned to virtual instruction, teachers used the Zoom recording feature to record their synchronous sessions, which were later posted on private channels for their students to view. We used these videos for teacher reflection as well, much like athletes who review their tapes after big games. The recorded lessons allowed teachers to process and reflect upon the lesson.
Before a faculty meeting, virtual teachers chose four of their recorded sessions and reflected on the following questions:
- What do you think you did well?
- What do you think you need to work on?
- Did you hear what you hoped your students would hear?
- If you teach this lesson again, what will you do differently?
- Insert an emoji to describe how you feel after watching the recording and reflecting on the lesson.
Teachers were given the opportunity to share their key takeaways on large sticky notes hung around the room. (A digital resource such as Padlet or Jamboard could be used to record teacher reflections in a fully virtual faculty meeting.) Some saw they were building community and getting buy-in from students, while others noticed they were able to cover the curriculum and utilize the learning management system effectively in a short amount of time.
The downside to this strategy is predictable: Most people do not like to see or hear themselves on a recording. We have found this does get better over time. One teacher remarked that she was learning to ignore “just how Southern I sound” and starting to focus instead on how students were learning.
Strategy Three: Watch a Video of a Teacher’s Class Session
The final strategy is a combination of the first two. A team member reviews the recorded Zoom session and provides asynchronous feedback. This reflective practice is beneficial for both teachers. They each get the opportunity to see another virtual teacher, reflect on that lesson, and provide feedback to their partner. This strategy is not distracting to the students, since the visiting teacher is watching a recording and not actually entering the Zoom session.
The reflective questions used with this strategy keep the conversation nonjudgmental and factual. Providing a sentence frame is also helpful for keeping the conversation flowing.
- What was the teacher saying and doing?
- What were the students saying and doing?
- What was the student task?
- The use of _____ is a great way to _____.
- Have you considered _____?
The challenge of this method is similar to that of the first two: Teachers are making themselves vulnerable to their peers. Again, this gets better over time. When working toward a common vision of building the instructional foundations of a successful virtual program, we all have room for growth. We learn over time that feedback and reflecting together as a team is not a form of criticism but rather a tool for growth.
Good teaching requires self-reflection and feedback from peers. In virtual environments, these strategies can help ensure that teachers still have access to practices that help them continue to grow as educators.