Building Learning Communities

BLC19 is less than a week away and one of my favorite events of the year. Whenever I can learn more skills about building learning communities – I AM IN. I am fortunate again this year to have multiple sessions, and I can’t wait to collaborate and learn. I took time this weekend to think about what or better yet, how to begin building learning communities, and a quote came to mind.

“Individual commitment to a group effort–that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

Vince Lombardi

School administration is empowered to lead and direct staff; however, the peer level is where work gets accomplished. Colleagues understand how an individual’s actions impact not only the classroom but also the other team/grade level members. Additionally, peers are more likely to confide in peers when they encounter obstacles that stand in the way of their growth or student success. This team dynamic creates a powerful and trusting relationship where feedback is more likely to be valued and appreciated.

When your school culture supports anytime peer support, colleagues can influence each other to change a behavior or make improvements in real-time instructional practices. This culture of instantaneous support can encourage rapid development and growth to keep your staff and the entire school on the path to success. Peer-to-peer support is one way to develop the POWER of Us in a school. Many words get thrown around when you talk about peers working together. I hear “peer coaching,” “peer mentoring,” “instructional buddies,” and many others. I view peers working together as support. There is no imbalance of power, and it follows in the “Us” mentality that we are here for each other. The goal of peer support is to aid in each other’s development to become more effective educators for our students. Support allows for each participant to equally focus on their colleague’s learning and development. It may be one or many. It may be once or ongoing. Using the word support allows of continuing collaboration. Peer support will enable colleagues to bounce ideas off a trusted thinking partner and overcome isolation.
Peer support is an effective learning approach to continue to grow in the profession because individuals use their resources and experiences to find solutions to questions or provide guidance. Peers can explore possibilities that they might not have thought about before collaborating. That is because when you collaborate and support, it is in a non–judgmental and trust-based environment, far less threatening to a discussion with a principal or evaluator. If there is feedback as part of the collaboration, it should be given constructively, encouraging the other educators and with the foundation of growth. This method of feedback will offer a confidential network of colleagues while supporting each other with real-time concerns or questions.
A few critical norms when creating a culture that encourages and celebrates peer support are:

Form a relationship: Supporting each other (or many people), can’t happen without building a relationship first.

Focus on the positive: The point of supporting each other is for growth. Nothing will be accomplished with criticism.

What ideas can you turn into action: Don’t let your collaboration turn into a gripe session. I understand sometimes you need to vent to let off a bit of steam, but limit the complaining if you want to invest in each other’s growth. The collaboration time should be productive and helpful to support and implement suggestions/feedback into your practice.

Be a good listener: Collaborating is not forcing your ideas and agendas but rather equally listening and talking.

Be open-minded: Educators who believe that they do not need growth usually consider peer support a waste of time. However, developing a culture of collaboration calls for individuals to have an open mind and be open to change, eager to give and receive feedback, and willing to appreciate new perspectives and alternative ways of acting and thinking.

Be curious: People with genuine curiosity are usually those who are willing to engage in any interaction and feel comfortable to share information and learn from each other.

Acknowledge efforts and build trust: This style of collaborating is not natural to everyone and is showing trust and vulnerability. A little affirmation in the efforts goes a long way.

Know yourself: Be as aware as possible of your own biases when supporting or giving feedback.

Be real: We all want to help and often jump in to support a colleague. However, don’t promise more than you can deliver; this will decrease your credibility and hurt your colleague, who is counting on you.
Keep confidentiality at the core: The goal of peer support is that it is a non-evaluative experience to improve practice. If a teacher finds out that you are talking about performance in another setting, the relationship and initiative will be questioned.

Peer visits

Often in the field of education, a classroom observation is evaluative by nature and linked to classroom performance. What if that model shifted when talking about educator “growth?” In a collaborative culture, teachers visiting other classrooms to learn by observation and by giving feedback is a form of professional development that improves teaching practices and in turn student performance. Peer classroom visits are a form of collaborative professional development. This kind of collaboration can yield its most significant benefits when used as a means of sharing instructional techniques and ideas between and among teachers.
Before any initiative involving peer visits launches, a culture of psychological safety and risk-taking must be developed. To effectively launch peer visits, the environment must nurture a collegial exchange of ideas and promote a certain level of trust. It’s a risky thing to have your instruction practice observed by colleagues because what was an isolated act (teaching) is now a public action. The goal of peer visits is not to make the teacher look bad or to place blame, but to support growth and establish an environment of collaboration and lifelong learning.
Peer visits should be part of a pool of professional development opportunities in a collaborative culture. Peer classroom visits can be beneficial if teachers acquire new skills or ideas at conferences and then model those new approaches for their colleagues. By observing new skills, the visiting teacher will be learning. When the role is reversed, and the visitor is giving feedback, it is important that any feedback be student-focused. The feedback should be on how instruction can be enhanced or targeted to ensure that students succeed academically.

I recommend selecting one focus of the visit not to have an overwhelming feedback discussion. Some examples of a peer visit focus can be :

  • Lesson preparation and organization
  • Instructional strategies
  • Classroom management
  • Clarity
  • Wait time
  • Presentation skills
  • Rapport with students

Peer-to-peer visits are a powerful initiative for teachers to improve their practice. However, merely having teachers visit other classrooms will not reach the goal of improving instruction and, ultimately, learner experiences. This initiative must be structured for both emotional safety and organization. It is good practice to have peers sit down before the visit to establish if the visitor is going to learn by the visit or be a critical friend and give feedback about the lesson observed.

Another step in establishing a culture of productive peer-to-peer visits in encourage dialogue when the peers meet. Some questions to guide the pre-meeting can be:

  • What is the purpose of the visit?
  • What is the intended learning outcome?
  • How will the learning activities support the intended learning outcome?
  • How would you like feedback, if at all?

For peer-to-peer visits to work, there needs to be time: time to meet and establish the goals of the visit, time to plan the visit, time for the visit, and time to debrief after the visit. Expecting teachers to use their already limited planning time will result in a less fruitful experience and is likely to be met with resistance. This initiative requires leadership support. Providing this opportunity will benefit school leaders by providing educators the opportunity for reflective dialogue with and among teachers with a focus on student achievement. Additionally, there will be an increased sense of shared responsibility and increased trust and collegiality among staff by providing this time. Finally, show the staff you are invested by asking questions about the initiative. When you see the teachers or when you are in the staff room, ask:

  • How’s it going?
  • What’s working?
  • What can I do to help?
  • The time is there; make it happen.

Collaborative Journeys

Peer visits are one way to get a colleague working with another colleague to observe best practice and grow. There are ways to increase that with collaborative journeys in the school. Collaborative approaches for administrators and educators to work together to improve practice, support improvement in educator instruction, and be present in the classrooms. Being present as a leader is critical in building a collaborative school community. The two collaborative journeys I recommend are Learning Walks and Instructional Rounds.

Learning Walks

A Learning Walk is a brief structured classroom visit that provides school administrators and teachers opportunities to reflect on what students are learning, learning strategies, student interaction with the content, and student engagement. A Learning Walk is conducted by a group of school-based educators working with the building administrator (Feeney, 2014). Once the Learning Walk team is developed, a structure is followed to keep consistency. Often, a data-collection instrument is selected by the school administrator for the Learning Walk team to collect and organized observed information. The Learning Walk instrument could be a checklist, narrative template, or electronic photo device. The goal of the Learning Walk process is to develop a deep understanding of teaching and learning and allow educators to reflect on professional practice (City, 2011). Additionally, educators can reflect and identify how to incorporate those practices into their instruction.

A Learning Walk has three components, beginning with a pre-walk meeting (Lemons & Helsing, 2009). The goal of the pre-walk meeting is for the learning team to identify the instructional focus to be observed during the walk and which classrooms to visit (Feeney, 2014). Depending on the team, a short discussion on why classrooms have been selected may be necessary. Some examples of an observation learning focus can include, but are not limited to: questioning strategies, classroom management, differentiated instruction, cooperative learning, wait time, and classroom development.

The classroom visit follows the pre-walk meeting and should last between 5–10 minutes. The team should split up into small groups to visit multiple classrooms (Jove, 2011). Team members will take notes of the identified focus while in the classroom. The identified process for classroom visits should remain consistent throughout the observations. Student questions can also be developed in the pre-meeting and then asked during the Learning Walk.

Following the observations, the Learning Walk team assembles for a post-meeting (Feeney, 2014). At the post-meeting, each observing team member shares his/her observations and provides evidence to support any claim made about the observation. The team members identify instructional tendencies, patterns, areas of instructional strength, and areas for educator growth. After the sharing, the team members reflect and can offer recommendations to the administrator about the next steps for the school. Marzano and Watters (2005) believe that the more information a school leader has, the more ability they will have to lead and support teachers.

The Learning Walk process allows for educator collaboration around best practices and administrator opportunity to observe classroom practices and other areas in which educators work. It is not recommended to use the Learning Walk as the formal educator observation, but data from the visit can help shape the understanding about the teacher and his/her practices and dispositions and support the evaluation process.

Instructional Rounds

Instructional Rounds are an orderly observation method for educators to collaborate and improve instruction. The Instructional Rounds method of observation is similar to a Learning Walk; however, the focus of Instructional Rounds is firmly on the instructional core and the “relationship between the teacher, the student, and the content” (City 2009, p. 21). She believes administrators too often concentrate on the teacher in front of the students rather than the students themselves. Successful rounds generally focus on “one rich problem based on students’ learning as opposed to the classroom teaching” (p. 22-23).

The Instructional Rounds process is adapted from the medical rounds model that doctors use in hospitals (City, 2011). The medical profession incorporates rounds with physicians in teaching hospitals to teach and share knowledge based on diagnosis and treatment of patients. Instructional Rounds help educators look closely at what is happening in classrooms for specific students in a systematic, purposeful, and focused way. Educators who participate in rounds should expect to learn themselves; whereas in the formal or informal observation, only the person being observed is anticipated to learn (City, 2011; Roegman & Reihl, 2012).
As with Learning Walks, the building administrator is part of the Instructional Round team. Educators’ focus during this process is on instructional practice growth, but an administrator can use this time to learn more about his/her teacher to assist in supporting growth and fairly evaluating them due to the rich observational data gathered. Teachers can use skills observed during rounds to improve practice, whereas the administrator is gaining a deeper understanding of the instructors in his/her building.

The initial step in the instructional rounds process is to meet as a team and identify a problem of practice then, as a group, look for the problem in practice during Rounds (Marzano; 2011; Roberts 2012). The problem of practice focus and observation is to “gather information directly on the work of teaching and learning” (City, 2009, p. 99). It is important to note that during the rounds, educators are asked to make observations and describe what is seen during instruction–rather than making judgments.

Following the rounds, participating educators meet and debrief their observations. The purpose of the debrief meeting is to discuss the collected evidence of the group and what learning arises from the observation. During this step, educators should describe, not judge, the data that is relevant to the problem of practice and listen and learn from colleagues to analyze patterns that emerge. Finally, educators will identify the next level of work for the school or his/her practice at the close of the debrief meeting (Marzano, 2011; Roberts, 2012).
Learning Walks and Educator Rounds are both collaborative and intended to produce educator growth. Compared to formal and informal observations and walkthroughs, these methods are not a direct observation of an educator by an administrator. However, participating in Learning Walks and Educator Rounds will provide a view of the school that a building administrator cannot get from a formal observation alone. Learning Walks and Instructional Rounds assist administrators with having a pulse of the school while allowing them to accumulate a running account of teacher instruction, interactions with students and other faculty members, and observe student work in the classroom and posted. All of this rich observational data will provide a full scope of the educator’s work as an instructor and as a professional.

How will these collaborative journeys enhance a culture of collaboration?

Provide opportunities for district leaders, school administrators, instructional coaches, and teachers to have enhanced dialogue about teaching and learning.
Assist the school to develop and model a common language around instruction and instructional methods.
Build professional development calendar collaboratively through information gathered in the class visits and debrief.
Observation of classroom practices and conversations from launched initiatives or school trainings to ensure effectiveness of ideas.
Over time, trends will be seen and can affirm accomplishments or add clarity challenge areas in a school.

These collaborative journeys are processes that enable staff to learn and describe and identify effective teaching And learning throughout the building is an opportunity to dive into the learning problems and discuss practices. This level of collaboration will create a shared understanding between all staff members and enhance the community of learners. The collaborative journeys are not an opportunity to evaluate teachers. They’re geared toward collaborative discussions to ultimately articulate next steps and reflect on the work being done throughout the school.
As you start to build your learning community, think about this question: Do I utilize my colleagues as a resource to support my growth as an educator? What can I do to increase collaboration with colleagues?

I would love to learn from your two. Share ideas to @MatthewXJoseph and keep conversations and learning going.

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