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Job Embedded Professional Development for Teachers: Teacher Led Observation to Improve Practice (4/5/14)

It is a well-known fact of practice and research that the classroom teacher is the single most important factor in determining the quality of education that students receive in the individual classroom each year. More specifically, the quality of instruction that the classroom teacher provides, dictates the depth and richness of students’ education. Because this is true, teachers like professionals in all other practice based professions, must constantly focus on refining their craft which is centered on three areas curriculum, instruction, and assessment. While school administrators and other school and district level support personnel are responsible for providing teachers with ongoing feedback on their practice, for teachers, as adult learners, to clearly see and truly internalize the need for refinement of practice, they must be active participants in the deconstruction and analysis of their teaching.

Teacher led observation provides a vehicle for teachers to become active participants in the analysis of their practice. When executed through the work of a school’s instructional teams or professional learning communities (PLCs), teacher led observation has the potential to serve as a powerful job embedded professional development tool for teachers. The key in achieving this is to have clearly defined formats for the observations and protocols for the deconstruction and analysis of the observation results. Three models that lend themselves to this practice are walkthrough observations, focus walks, and lesson studies.

The walkthrough observation is a staple of the instructional monitoring process of any effective school. The walkthrough generally consists of a set of school-based standards of practice or instructional nonnegotiables that are being monitored for quality implementation in the classroom. The duration of these observations is anywhere from 3 – 15 minutes.

The role of the PLC in helping the walkthrough to become a teacher led practice is twofold, preparation and debriefing. In the preparation phase, the PLC must identify which classes will be observed and provide training, usually with the help of an instructional coach, for the PLC members on use of the instrument. The training also provides the opportunity to establish consistency/reliability in ratings among the team members. Training can be done during PLC meetings with the use of videos, mock lessons, or by observing teachers in other grade levels/departments. Regarding observation of the PLC by its members, administrators must provide release time for teachers to execute a designated number of walkthroughs because the team members are typically teaching classes at the same time during the day.

Finally, during the debriefing phase, PLC members must analyze each walkthrough, element by element, and discuss evidence for the rankings. These rich discussions, supported by evidence, will provide the impetus for change as well as reinforcement for use of effective practices.

Focus walks are a second form of instructional observation tool that can be used for teacher led observation. The focus walk is very similar to the walkthrough observation in style, format, and duration. One key difference, as defined here however, is that the focus walk targets 1 or 2 key practices instead of the 5 – 10 that might be observed in a walkthrough observation. The targeted practices can be identified through expressed need of the PLC members for learning in an area that they want to improve in. Prior walkthrough and student assessment data can also provide insight on areas of practice where the PLC needs to improve. Once the target has been selected however, the same training, observation, and debriefing as used in the walkthrough cycle should take place. This process allows teachers to generate deep, precise information on discrete areas of their practice to improve on. Also, through the collaborative discussion of the observations along with a view of research and literature on a given practice area, teachers will gain perspective on alternate approaches for improvement during the PLC meeting; this practice is at the heart of effective job embedded professional learning.

A third format of instructional planning and observation that can be used as a teacher led process is lesson study. Typically under the guidance of an expert educator, like an instructional coach, instructional teams or PLCs collaborate to plan a lesson, then all team members observe one member teaching the lesson in a class of students, finally the team reconvenes to analyze the lesson and in many cases plan for a second cycle of implementation based on recommendations for improvement.

The lesson study format is particularly effective when introducing new curricula or when examining a question of practice because it gives teachers the opportunity as a group to: interpret standards, provide insight on past experience, plan a lesson based on their collective knowledge of the content, then assess its effectiveness based on how the planned lesson translated to actual delivery and student learning. When implemented with fidelity, lesson study is a powerful teacher led observation tool that provides effective job embedded professional learning.

In closing, to improve student achievement in the United States we must include an “every classroom up” approach in our practice. This means making a commitment to helping every teacher improve their individual practice so that all students learn. Teacher led observation is one method to achieve this goal, because it simultaneously places the teacher, as the adult learner, at the center and the helm of the monitoring process for improvement. As a result, the individual classroom teacher experiences the impetus for change where needed and has the support to change/make leaps in practice that will result in improved student learning; and this is the common goal that we all must remain is focused on.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO


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