Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Power of Conversation


November’s edition of Educational Leadership is dedicated to teacher evaluation.  The work of Marzano, Danielson, Frontier, and Mielke fueled the discussion about teacher improvement.  Regardless of model, the emphasis of the research was on the conversations with teachers about instructional improvement.  It’s interesting how we talk and talk about conversations, but they tend to be one of the first things that get pushed to the side when the day takes over.  As an administrator, I think the conversation lost its rightful place in the everyday fabric of what our job should entail.  I think the reality of the out of control student, the parent concern, and the paperwork took over the places where conversations should reside.  This year the power of conversation took center stage in our new observation model.
Most school days consist of 6.5 hours of instruction. Multiply that by 180 days and there are potentially 1,170 hours to coach our staff.  However, the model we have worked with in the past placed 2-4 formal observations of 30 minutes each into the fold.  Essentially, we are basing our decision on whether or not teachers are good at their jobs on 2 hours of a 1,170 hour school year, which translates to less than 1% of said school year.  One of my staff members tells a story of when he was doing his student teaching and his cooperating teacher had an “observation lesson” that he taught every year when his principal came into the room.  Historically, the teacher evaluation and observation model didn’t lend itself to coaching teachers to impact their professional growth.  We were “catching” teachers.  Either we caught them doing well for a 30 minute period or we caught them doing poorly for the same period of time.  In many districts this happens every third year!  We need to get away from having a process happen “to” our staff and move to a process that works “with” our staff.
With the help of Paul Mielke, we changed the model this year and the results have led us closer to a place where teacher improvement and overall staff growth is a reality instead of something that we all say needs to improve.  Our framework institutes a number of walkthrough observations, which have become much more popular in schools.  However, I think more of the same doesn’t make any better, it just makes more frequent.  Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.  So, adding more observations with no conversation just perpetuates the problem. 

As indicated in the research, the real jewel in this model for me has been the conversations.  We have our staffs at each school configured into 3 groups.  Each group is on a 2 week walkthrough schedule that continues after all groups have cycled through.  During the 2 week session we meet multiple times and discuss what great instruction looks like, specific to a component in Danielson’s model.  We learn through conversation and the discussions we have had over the course of the last 6 weeks have been outstanding.  I see staff members who feel more comfortable in a smaller group setting speaking up and contributing, I hear about conversations happening outside of our meetings between colleagues that focus on teacher growth, and when people stop into my office for a piece of candy inevitably our conversation leads to instruction. Our administration, consisting of three principals, recently went over 200 walkthroughs since the beginning of the year.  We have committed ourselves to 10 walkthroughs for each staff member through the first semester.  Again, the number of observations we take on is only a piece of the puzzle.  Getting into the classroom and focusing on instruction has helped drive the conversation about deliberate practice to improve teacher growth.  Our administration meetings can touch on logistical items and then really dive into how we are coaching exceptional practice.  Our teachers need that…and they deserve it.
I am so proud of my group…something I talk a lot about on this blog.  They are wonderful teachers, but wonderful teachers deserve to grow as well.  Telling someone they are good at their job twice a year never moves them forward.  Everyone needs coaching on some level and this format gives us that opportunity.  The knowledge that their current performance in the classroom is the baseline and the sky is the limit for them is a feeling that is hard to convey in written terms, but is so empowering when I see it everyday.  It is extremely hard to get into classrooms and make time for conversations regarding practice when the everyday minutia of what happens in schools takes over.  However, we owe it to our staff members to be there for them to grow…and that should start with a conversation.

3 comments:

  1. Great points, Joe. A few years ago I was doing this, but many factors contributed to this being put on the back burner. One of which, was the difficulty in finding time for "the conversations" after walkthroughs. I need to refocus on this. Question - do you have a form that guides you in the walkthrough process or is it totally open-ended?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Bob! We use Teachscape Walkthrough for the Danielson
      components observed. When I send the feedback to our teachers I ask a
      few questions for self reflection and have them review the critical
      attributes from a component. The question I ask on the rubric revolves
      around where they would place themselves and what they would do to
      maintain or enhance their position...all for self reflection. I am
      hoping the critical attributes allow teachers to place themselves
      without me telling them where I think they are based on 15 minutes of
      observation. So far I have really enjoyed the process and I hope our
      staff feels it is helpful!

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