Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Peer Observations Can Make Us Better Teachers. Here’s How

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 22, 2023 18 min read
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Observing peers in the classroom, developing a Professional Learning Network, and focusing on priorities are a few of the recommendations in today’s post on realistic ways teachers can improve their craft.

‘Teaching Can Be Isolating’

Valentina Gonzalez is a former classroom teacher with over 20 years in education serving also as a district facilitator for English-learners, a professional-development specialist for ELs, and an educational consultant. Her work can be found on Seidlitz Education and on MiddleWeb. You can reach her through her website or on Twitter @ValentinaESL:

Have you ever read a recipe but struggled to make the dish? That’s me. I love seeing the process or at least pictures of each step. Cooking shows are very helpful for me because I learn from the chef how to do much more than just make the dish. There are many nuances and intricate details a video recording or live viewing reveals. I learn a new technique for chopping that I hadn’t tried or see a different way to roll cookie dough. Simply observing teaches so much.

We can do the same by watching one another teach. I inadvertently discovered the power of observing my peers when I became an ESL co-teacher after over a decade of teaching behind the four walls of my own classroom.

Why Observing Others Helps Us Improve Our Craft

Many teachers say that preservice education offered sparse observation opportunities. The opportunities that did exist were often with the same group of teachers, leaving little room to explore new ideas and learn from a variety of diverse teachers. After securing a teaching job, many teachers rarely experience seeing peers actually teach.

Yet, seeing colleagues do what we do can help us refine our own craft no matter how much experience we each have. I remember observing other teachers with more experience when I was a student-teacher. I watched as they effortlessly gathered young students to the reading rug and gently corrected misbehavior. On the other hand, as a “veteran” teacher, I have observed first-year teachers who gleefully built community among students. By observing, we see techniques we want to try and we also see and hear things that we realize we need to avoid. Walking into another teacher’s classroom as a student pushes us to think about our own classrooms and students.

How to Set Up Observations

Building a culture of trust and safety is first and foremost for teacher-to-teacher observations to be successful. Trust is essential because no one wants to feel that they are being judged or evaluated.

  • Start small. Starting a grassroots initiative of teachers observing teachers is a not a big deal, and you can do it. Begin by asking a trusted colleague if you can sit in on their class for a brief and scheduled time. And invite them to do the same.
  • As you become comfortable with going into classrooms and inviting colleagues into your own, broaden the invitations. Invite and make requests to visit a wide variety of classrooms. Don’t limit yourself to the grade level or content area that you teach. You will be surprised by how much you can learn from teachers that teach subjects different from yours and grade levels above and below the one you teach.
  • Keep up the momentum. Some schools have built a campus culture of collegial professional growth using Observe Me, Pineapple Charts, and Learning Walks.

I will never forget the time I saw a teacher pulling a small group of students for a reading-skills lesson. Until that day, I had only read about what small groups would look like. Seeing a teacher conduct the group while managing the remainder of the class brought what I had only read about to life. It gave me the confidence to go back to my own classroom and do it myself. It was a model of the Gradual Release of Responsibility. I read about it, saw a model in action, then tried it independently and saw it develop from theory to practice.

While teaching can be isolating (we walk into our classrooms and shut our doors to work), there are ways to increase peer observations and grow together. The type of job-embedded and ongoing professional learning that observing colleagues as they work with students, talk with parents, and navigate instruction provides is unmatched, and for me, it’s one of the best ways to refine my craft. As my beautiful and wise Baba Vera always told me, “Never stop learning.”

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‘Take Care of Yourself’

Michelle Makus Shory, Ed.S., is a lifelong language educator who has taught grades K-12. She currently serves her district as an instructional lead for digital innovation, adjuncts for local universities, and co-creates weekly resources for educators at bit.ly/ell2point0:

Keep Learning

The best teachers are constantly learning and refining their practice, so one of the best things teachers can do is commit themselves to constant growth. Taking classes, viewing webinars, attending professional learning sessions, reading books, and being a part of a professional learning network all lead to continual learning. Many teachers already take courses, attend PD, and read books, but they might be apprehensive about joining a professional learning network.

A simple way to connect with a PLN is to join Twitter and attend a Twitter chat. Twitter chats are online discussions with colleagues from around the world. Online chats provide tips, tricks, resources, support, and more. For those who are chat-curious, check out his list. Also, for first-time chatters who might be a little apprehensive, here are some tips. Also, “lurkers” can learn quite a bit from simply watching the chat. Also, try searching chat hashtags (for example, #EdChat) to find resources and ideas from educators in that field.

Additionally, educators can simply embrace their professional passions and find ways to learn more through other self-directed learning experiences. There are many learning platforms that are flexible and free. Subscribe to podcasts, read blogs, and set alerts for topics of interest on Google and Google Scholar. The best teachers share their excitement and love of learning with their students!

Get to Know Students

This sounds like a straightforward suggestion, but REALLY getting to know students is one of the best ways to grow as an educator. As Maya Angelou stated, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Of course, Angelou was right: Feelings actually have a lot to do with learning. Countless studies have found positive emotions improve cognition, memory, attention, reasoning, and behavior. Here are a few simple ways to build meaningful connections with students:

  • A first step is learning to pronounce students’ names. Additionally, check out a site called pronouncenames.com, where native speakers pronounce names from around the world.
  • Dialogue journals can build yearlong connections. Use Google Docs or a notebook to have an ongoing conversation with students. Don’t worry about a prompt; the conversation takes off once the student and teacher start writing.
  • One-on-one conferences are also essential. Use independent work time to talk with students. Ask how they are doing, set goals, provide feedback, and answer questions. One-on-one meetings can be highly motivating and allow educators to learn more about their students and vice versa.

TCOY

Finally, educators should remember to embrace TCOY (take care of yourself). The National Education Association reports that more than 50 percent of U.S. teachers are considering leaving the field because of burnout—a form of extreme exhaustion caused by physical, emotional, and mental stress. While stress in education can’t be avoided, it can be managed.

To stay healthy, educators should embrace breaks, exercise, eat well, drink water, and go out with friends—even on a school night. Boundaries are also essential. Set up office hours—and stick to them. It is also OK to say no to extra opportunities. Select tasks that are meaningful to you. Happy teachers are the best teachers, and students learn best in positive learning environments.

gettingtoknowshorty

Time Management

Tara Bogozan is an English teacher who has taught both middle and high school in the Atlanta metro area for over 19 years. You can follow her @mrs_tbogo on Twitter:

Google “improving your craft as a teacher.” Know what pops up? List after list of more items to add to teachers’ already full plates, such as joining professional learning networks, attending more professional-development sessions, and refining classroom structures. All of these lists offer great ideas and advice. However, my family life is unbelievably full and busy, and I cannot add more to my current workload. Because of the multiple demands on my time, one small way I attempt to improve my efficacy as a teacher is to manage my professional time, the actual hours spent at work or working, intentionally.

The first time-management tool I use is the ABC list of organization. An ABC list is an old and straightforward method of making a to-do list; simply write out everything that needs to be accomplished and place an “A” by what MUST be done, a “B” by what SHOULD be done, and a “C” by items that would be nice to get done. When I mentor student-teachers and novice teachers, I find this method is helpful to teach them how to navigate demands that feel time-sensitive versus demands that are actually time-sensitive. Using this system, preparing for tomorrow’s parent-teacher conference is an A, completing special education paperwork due next week is a B, and grading essays collected today becomes a C, which makes the workload seem more manageable.

Another way I use time-management to improve my craft involves how and when I interact with my email. Email is ubiquitous and embedded in our daily workload, so we rarely consider how we use it. The first strategy I use is to keep my email closed and notifications off when I am incorporating direct instruction or collaborative structures during class time. If my email is open, I know I will read and respond to it, which means I cannot focus my energy on the students in front of me.

It is easy to fall out of this habit because every email from colleagues or parents feels urgent, but I just remind myself that the time I have in front of students is limited each day, and the email will still be there in 10 minutes when students are working independently. I also utilize the scheduling function in email, so that I can work and respond when needed but know that the recipient will receive the email first thing in the morning or during the next work week as appropriate. Finally, it is important for every educator to have a system for organizing emails and responding to emails. If a teacher does not respond to an important question or attend a required meeting because they missed an email, that teacher can be seen as ineffective, regardless of his or her classroom performance.

Additionally, I manage my professional time by utilizing on-demand professional learning opportunities. While most teachers have some required courses or sessions of professional development scheduled within the school year, I find that I learn much more from professional-development sessions I select for myself. When I have time to devote my full attention to a session of my choosing, I am more likely to incorporate what I learn into my classroom.

There are more resources than I can list here, but some of my favorite free resources for on-demand professional learning include: AVID, Nearpod, and Next Gen Personal Finance. All three of these resources have select free tools, webinars, and programs that any teacher in any content area can use. As an English teacher, for example, I find Next Gen Personal Finance is consistently one of my favorite resources to use to incorporate real-world topics such as the minimum wage or the value of a college degree into my argumentative-writing unit. By using on-demand resources, I can evaluate and plan to use new ideas whenever it is convenient.

Even though ABC lists, organizing and using email intentionally, and on-demand professional learning sessions are not ground-breaking, innovative ideas, these strategies give me a concrete way to manage my limited professional time while refining my craft year after year.

icannotaddmoretara

‘Listen for the Strength, Not the Deficit’

Dan Feigelson is a national and international literacy consultant and author. An early member of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, he worked for decades as a teacher, staff developer, curriculum writer, principal, and local superintendent in New York City. His title Radical Listening was published by Scholastic in 2022:

The most impactful teaching is when we sit one-on-one with children, meeting them where they are, and honoring their individual identities.

Reading and writing have always been a means to forge identity, to find our place in the world. Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) reminds us that books can be windows into new possibilities; mirrors in which we see ourselves; or sliding glass doors that invite us to “walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created … by the author.” Through writing, we learn to articulate our unique points of view. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

For a teacher to improve her craft and reach even the hardest to reach students, it follows that she should work on her individual reading and writing conferences.

The key to conferring successfully is listening to children but in a different way from what we may be used to. Naturally, it is important to assess through the lens of curriculum—but it’s also critical to understand who each individual student is as a reader and writer.

There are, of course, many ways to listen. I’ve found that four in particular open doors for students and teachers.

Four Principles of Listening in Reading and Writing Conferences

1. Concentrate on learning before you worry about teaching.

One of the greatest sources of anxiety for teachers when they sit down to confer is deciding the perfect thing to teach. It’s easy to second guess our decisions and feel enormous pressure to get it right.

In the first minutes of a conference, it is wise to prioritize learning over teaching. What is this student thinking about, struggling with, excited about? Is there anything I recognize as a pattern? Of course, we want to address predetermined goals, but it’s important to not let these good intentions get in the way of listening to and learning from the student.

2. Be curious. Ask questions.

Most people who choose to become teachers do so, at least in part, because they are interested in the way children think. In a conference, we have the opportunity to reclaim that fascination. Taking the time to be curious is a win-win. The student feels honored that a significant adult is paying attention, and the adult gets to enjoy each child’s unique perspective.

One way to channel this curiosity productively is to ask students to elaborate on their initial thinking, rather than jumping in or moving on after the first words they say. A general rule of thumb is to listen for the most interesting parts of what a student says and ask her to “say more about that” at least three times before leaping in with teacher content.

3. Listen for the strength, not the deficit.

When a teacher sits one-on-one with a child, the usual tendency is to listen for what that student can’t do. Yet it’s important to keep in mind if the usual subject of a conference is what the student does least well, that child is not going to look forward to the conversations.

Put simply, it is more effective to confer to the strength than the deficit. Recognizing what a student is starting to think about, putting a name on it, and then inviting her to go further makes the learning (and teaching) feel like a collaborative effort. And from the child’s point of view, when the teaching point comes from something they are noticing, it creates a feeling of ownership. She looks forward to the next conference.

4. Listen for the general in the specific.

Children are concrete thinkers. When it comes to reading or writing, today’s lesson is about the text or piece they are working on at this moment. It’s easy for teachers to look through a similar lens. The problem is, when students move on to their next book or writing, they often don’t see how the strategy from yesterday’s lesson connects to today’s work.

The key move if we want our teaching to stick is to start with the specific and then move to the general. In other words, begin the conference by referring to today’s book or writing, but then name the teaching point in language that can apply to the work they will do tomorrow. Make the lesson transferable.

References:

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

becuriousdan

The Classroom Is a ‘Partnership’

Ashley Kearney is an award-winning educator focusing on systemic changes that can support the whole child:

One thing teachers can do to improve their craft is to seek and implement student feedback. Having the data from the exit ticket is good, but what could make it better is students communicating about their learning experience in your class as a result of your teacher actions or lack thereof. The learning environment is a co-created partnership that must be monitored with the understanding that everyone wants the same thing—student success.

seekashley

This is the seventh post in a eight-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, Part Five here, and Part Six here.

The question of the week is:

What do you think are the best one-to-three things a teacher can do to improve his/her/their craft?

Carissa McCray, Ph.D., Latrese D. Younger, Kayla Towner, and Verónica Schmidt-Gómez, M.Ed., started this series in Part One.

Carissa, Latresee, and Kayla were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Aisha Christa Atkinson, M.S., Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., Meghann Seril, and Altagracia H. Delgado contributed their suggestions.

In Part Three, Ron Berger, Nancy Frey, Ph.D., Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., and Mary K. Tedrow continued the discussion.

In Part Four, Jennifer Orr, Jennifer Casa-Todd, Ann Stiltner, and Rebecca Alber shared their thoughts.

In Part Five, Sheila Wilson, K. Renae Pullen, Ruth Okoye, Ed. D., Chase Orton, and Shaeley Santiago added to the conversation.

In Part Six, Lauren Merkley, Cindy Garcia, Cheryl Abla, M.Ed., Kathy S. Dyer, and Nawal Qarooni to contributed their commentaries.

Today, Valentina Gonzalez, Michelle Makus Shory, Tara Bogozan, Dan Feigelson, and Ashley Kearney offer their ideas.

Thanks to Valentina, Michelle, Tara, Dan, and Ashley for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.

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