Many people think that to coach colleagues through the twists and turns of improving their practice, you need to have all the answers. But we recently learned that teachers, through carefully constructed conversations, can offer support, wisdom and knowledge to one another and they can do so without ever offering an answer.
As part of a seminar on leadership, we were asked to observe a colleague, have a conversation about that observation and reflection on the process. In preparation, we explored specific protocols, watched videos of teaching, and role-played imaginary collegial conversations. Equipped with some background and practice with protocols and an earnest desire to fine-tune the art of collegial conversations, we set off to watch the happenings in other classrooms in our schools. Here we tell our separate stories, then reflect together on our experiences.
I teach 6th grade in a self-contained classroom at my school, where I have been teaching for 11 years. Faced with the charge of embarking on collegial coaching, I had to tackle logistics and a bit of fear. Because I do not have a special prep period, I decided to use my recess time. I asked a fellow teacher if she could walk my students to and from recess to allow me the 20 minutes I needed. Next, I asked a 1st grade teacher who is a friend and respected colleague if I could observe her. This teacher got her master’s in school administration three years ago, and during that time she chose me to do a similar task: pre-observation, observation, and debrief. I felt like this would be a comfortable setting for me to get my feet wet and that I would learn a lot from the process in terms of both teaching and leadership.
My colleague was amazing to watch, and she has admitted that her teaching has really improved over the past couple of years due to a focus on student-student and student-teacher interactions. I started the debrief by asking, “How do you feel the lesson went?” and then gave warm feedback on what I saw, piggy-backing on what she had said. When we were discussing grouping methods, I mentioned reading that I’ve done regarding the grouping of high level with low level students. That launched a discussion of past experiences, current practices, and the differences we’ve seen with different methods.
As we spoke, my colleague said that our discussion was helping her think about next steps in a more purposeful way than if she had just reflected on her own. Having to explain her thinking aloud made her question her choices in different ways, and having someone to bounce ideas off of and get feedback from helped direct her next steps. She is already very reflective and skilled, so an extension of thinking for both of us was the natural result of our dialogue.
I have only been a teacher for three and half years, so observing another teacher and facilitating a collegial conversation would have felt a little funny if it weren’t for the fact that my school has a system of peer observation in place already. In this system, two teachers are assigned to visit each other’s rooms as “observation buddies” and debrief the observations together. Then we get a staff development day to debrief the whole process.
On the day I visited my buddy’s room, she facilitated a beautiful Socratic seminar. Her question for me was, “How can I get more students to engage in the conversation?” I was impressed with how well her class went. On the day she came to see me, it was a bit of a different situation. I wanted to know if students in my class were actively involved in a writing peer critique. She didn’t come in on a perfect day. Oh no. It was a raucous, mildly productive day where the lesson on writing I was doing only partially went the way I wanted it to. This after her seemingly perfect Socratic seminar.
When my buddy and I met to debrief our observations, it was like getting together with a friend to discuss a question. Having specific things we were looking for was really helpful and allowed us to prepare clarifying and probing questions for one another. We started with reminding one another of our initial questions, and then moved to warm feedback and our questions for each other.
Here are some questions I had for my buddy: How did she decide on those that were in the seminar? Had she played with the number of students or the gender in groups before? What were the guidelines for participation? Were the seminars graded? What would an ideal seminar look like to her? What was she hoping to achieve with the seminar?
I like the protocol we used because it helped keep the conversation focused, allowed for celebrating the good, and emphasized questions rather than critique. The questions are the critique, but it is so much more comfortable to respond to questions than to listen to how to do things better or hear what the “right” answer is.
In the end, we had questions for one another that helped us talk more about our classes and ways to improve craft in productive, supportive ways. I liked that we observed each other. It placed both of us in the same position as teachers looking for feedback toward developing as educators.
As we compared our reflections on the observation and debrief experience, it struck us that successful collegial conversations contain four elements: a peer approach (“we’re in this together”), appreciation of a colleague’s craft, the use of protocols, and open-ended questions.
If the “coach” has a mind-set of mutual respect, the teacher is bound to be a more active partner in the reflection process. Being talked to as a peer alleviates stress and leads to a more productive conversation. It also helps the “coach.” Not only can it be intimidating to be observed, but it can be challenging to be in the coach’s chair—so daunting that we may feel safer staying in our own classrooms. However, it is truly a gift to be able to watch a colleague teach. We can glean new approaches, see strategies in action that we’ve wanted to try, and most importantly feel part of a larger community. We should not be isolated in our classroom “huts.” The walls should be transparent, the road should be travelled both ways as observer and person observed, and the air should be supportive and conducive to growth because we are in this together.
Teachers are artists. Our classrooms are our canvas. It is important to be mindful of this when entering a classroom for an observation. In a lesson, every word, worksheet, activity or grouping strategy is carefully crafted. It is all part of a plan that was likely the result of many hours of imagining, researching and planning. The difficulty, however, is that children are not paint or clay. They have lovely little minds of their own and do not always agree with, or cooperate with, the plans that we so carefully crafted. An observer may witness a lesson gone awry from time to time. When that happens, what should we observers do? Gloss over it? Pretend it didn’t happen? Make sure the teacher who was observed knows you saw it? For times like these, one of our mentors had good advice.
“Don’t throw frozen snowballs” is what he advises. This icy metaphor refers to comments or questions aimed at highlighting flaws in a lesson or practice. Since most of us teachers are artists and professionals, we are our own worst critics. Ask us, “How did it go?” and likely we already know what went wrong, and are probably harder on ourselves than any visitor. Getting hit with a “snowball” is painful, especially if we have already jumped into frozen water of our own volition. Thus it helps to use a protocol that starts with warm feedback and then moves to open-ended questions. Usually, creating a safe place for teachers to talk about their lesson will be enough to encourage them to share what they honestly saw as the highlights and lowlights of the lesson. As both parties discuss these, both parties learn how to better deal with challenging situations in the future.
We wish we had a protocol for every important conversation in life. Imagine how much more productive talking with our parents, siblings and spouses would be if every word were accounted for and planned. There would never be a thoughtless comment that slipped out and unnecessarily hurt someone’s feelings. There might never be a fight in households ever again! That may be a bit of a stretch, but a good protocol can have an immense and positive effect on conversations we have with people we respect and work with.
The protocol we used is adapted from The Power of Protocols (2007), which offers protocols for all manner of professional development. The conversation begins with the person who was observed: what their takeaways were, what their thoughts were, what questions they have. Although both parties learn and grow from the observation process, the focus in the conversation is on the growth of the observed. Starting from their perspective and understanding is key. The goal is to allow the person who was observed guide the conversation. Let them take you where they feel it is safe. You will likely go most of the places you need to in the conversation from there.
The time allotted for “warm feedback” is crucial. It is so important that it is often the starting point in any protocol aimed at improving or discussing teachers’ work. Whether a brand new teacher, or a teacher of many years, it feels good to be celebrated for all of the hard work that goes into the art of teaching. Allowing the conversation to do just that validates the experiences of teachers, and better prepares them to push themselves to grow in a safe and comfortable way. When we have been told what is working, we hear that we are good. When we know we are appreciated, we can discuss areas for growth, knowing that that discussion enhances our value as artists and teachers.
The goal of observation and conversation is to foster growth and learning for all parties. Sometimes, this requires digging a little, pushing ourselves to question what we did, what we saw, and what we would do differently or similarly in the future and why. Questions, not answers, are key. Giving advice can help a teacher for a moment in time, but asking open-ended questions can help a teacher grow indefinitely. The questions we ask as colleagues shouldn’t be ones with right or wrong answers. If instead, you ask things like, “How do you feel the lesson went? What are your thoughts on __? If you could do this again, what would you do differently?” you are opening the door to conversation. We use these types of questions with students after they have finished a project or presented their work. We use them with ourselves after a lesson, unit of instruction, or year of teaching. We can use them with our colleagues as well to enrich our conversations and thinking.
When open-ended questions are the foundation, they provide a longer-lasting effect because teachers can ask those questions any time, even without a coach. The benefit is that the questions become so much a part of our subconscious that they lead us to reflect continuously, and then flame our desire to seek out conversation with others. After all, when we ask ourselves questions, we look to many places in order to find rewarding answers.
Being a successful collegial coach may not be what you think. It is not about being better than someone else. It is not about giving right answers or lots of advice. It is instead about using a peer approach, appreciating the craft underlying any lesson, adhering to protocols to keep conversations constructive, and asking open-ended questions. With these four elements in place, not only will you nurture mutual respect, but you will also help improve the practice of a colleague and likely yours as well. Most of all, you will instill the yearning to be part of a larger community of educators who seek out that never-ending conversation about our principles, our practices, and our daily lives in classrooms.
McDonald, J., Mohr, N., Dichter, A., & McDonald, E. (2007). The Power of Protocols: An Educator’s Guide to Better Practice. Teachers College Press: New York.