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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Leaders: Do You Lack Follow-Through?

By Peter DeWitt — August 12, 2015 3 min read
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New mandates...



No assistant principal...

There are many challenges when it comes to being an instructional leader. Leadership in general is filled with challenges. Those listed above are just some of the obstacles that leaders face from day to day. Perhaps even hour to hour.

But our profession should be based on continuous improvement. Faculty meetings and teacher observations are two areas where leaders and teachers can work together on improving teaching and learning in their schools. But we seem to be missing a step in that improvement process.

In a recent blog about why we might not always welcome feedback, Madlon Lester, a former teacher with varied US and international experience, commented,

I only observed student teachers in Beirut for a few years, and was so rarely observed by any principals I had for my 42-year career, that the only observation I do recall was when my first principal visited my class, and then took over to share how she "used to do this lesson." I had a couple of visits during my last 27 years in our middle school here. I can't remember any follow-ups though. With my student teachers, I usually cited the positives, and asked a question or two about what I felt were the weak spots. Feelings are fragile.

There are many reasons why observations historically have been a waste of time, and here are just 3 of them, but Madlon’s comment really illustrates the fact that so many teachers have spent their careers not getting formally observed, or when they did, it was seen as something to get done...instead of something to get done right.

Authentic observation and teacher evaluation really depend on true collaboration between the school leader and the teacher. Yes, I know that doesn’t happen often enough. But, learning is not just for the students during this process. Teachers and leaders need to approach observation and evaluation as something they can learn from as well. Collaboration is not easy, especially if it is supposed to happen in a school climate that is more hostile than inclusive.

Jones (2014) writes,

In the world of education, collaboration does not just happen; it is proceeded by structure, planning and groundwork. In addition, the need for continued support and monitoring is vital. If effective collaboration is going to succeed, it is essential that part of the duties of the many instructional leaders at the system and the school level are related to fostering, nurturing, and supporting these structures" (p. 86).

Even in the best situations...

Working with leaders can be awesome. I have the luxury to work with so many great leaders in my role. When the topic of teacher observation and evaluation comes up in conversation, I hear from leaders that are approaching it with a great deal of integrity where they can learn from the teacher, and they hope the teacher learns from them. It’s not based in arrogance that one knows more than the other, but on the premise that we all bring something special to any situation.

When we consider a teacher evaluation, which should focus on improvement, the best case scenario for those observations includes a pre-conference, observation and post conference. If leaders and teachers truly collaborate on the goal to focus on during the observation, many times the piece that is still missing is a 4th step to go back in and check to see how the goal is progressing to truly close the cycle.

This is why the instructional coaching model is so important for schools, but there are many schools that lack the coaching model, and they have to rely on instructional leadership. How do we follow through with one more step to make sure that the learning process that should be a part of observation doesn’t get lost in the 4th step?

It seems to be more than just time management. Leaders need to make a conscious effort to put the 4th step as part of their process. Time is often seen as one of the biggest obstacles to any new learning, implementation or change, but that last step is vitally important to the improvement process. How do we hold ourselves accountable to do it? And yes, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the word accountability.

In the End

I once heard a friend say that teachers are often accused of being resistant to change. He said he disagreed with that sentiment because we all change a great deal. In education we are asked to change every year, sometimes more than that. He felt that where we fall down is when it comes to improvement. We spend so much time changing that we don’t always focus on improvement.

Are we all really sure that we have a firm grasp on what improvement looks like?

That’s why the 4th step is so important. It’s more than meeting about a goal, observing the class and doing a follow-up conversation to go over the lesson. There should be a 4th step that requires all of us to see how the goal is progressing, which means we also have to bring evidence to the table to look at that improvement...or lack there of. It’s not about making someone feel badly about their teaching, but it is about focusing on how we can improve learning for students in the classroom.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of Eric Kilby

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.