Professional Learning
Why We Need to Open Our Virtual Classroom Doors and See Each Other Teach
Katie Martin
I have heard from multiple educators across schools and districts that there is more collaboration than ever to design new models, practices, and support students. This is the time to increase collaboration and open our virtual classroom doors to observe, learn, and improve.
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I asked a group of teachers how they were feeling. At first one asked, do you really want to know? Yes, I responded, I really want to know how you are feeling. One teacher shared,

It’s up and down like a roller coaster. There are moments when it’s exciting and I am using new tools and new strategies that are so much more effective than my previous ways, even in person. Then there are moments that I am so down and in tears (and he was visibly close to tears even talking about it). I feel like my first year. I spend a lot of time planning and I am heartbroken when it doesn’t turn out. Professional let down of it not going well takes a lot of stamina that I don’t have. This is challenging in ways I didn’t expect.

His raw response captures so much of what I hear from a lot of teachers. I am going to state the obvious here just to get it out upfront: Teaching, learning, and leading in a pandemic is hard, whether you are virtual, hybrid or face to face. It is new and there are so many more things to manage that require different skill sets and models to design and facilitate learning from a distance not to mention we are in the middle of multiple crises that take a toll on our emotions and capabilities (please tell me that’s not just me!). To try and manage this challenge, many have tried to cling to what is known and comfortable and take a 6 hour school day and replicate it online through virtual tools. Some are using synchronous and asynchronous models and we are seeing success when learners can collaborate to engage in meaningful and engaging experiences.

I have heard from multiple educators across schools and districts that there is more collaboration than ever to design new models, practices, and support students. And yet, still too many are designing and teaching in isolation without having seen others teach in these new models. This means that teachers are limited by what they have seen or experienced in staff meetings, collaborations, or their own imaginations. This is the time to increase collaboration and open our virtual classroom doors to observe, learn, and improve.

Prioritizing the Important Over the Urgent

It might feel that with so much going on, there is no time to set up an observation of a colleague or ask for feedback on your lesson but consider how much time you could save by learning something new or picking up some tips on how to organize your day and specific lessons. As I was working with school and district leaders this week, many administrators shared that although they were overwhelmed with the urgent (and there is so much that is urgent) they were grateful to get into classrooms, observe practices to better understand what was happening, see kids and celebrate their teachers. It was what they needed to be grounded in what matters most and help prioritize next steps. Seth Godin puts it this way: “There’s a queue of urgent things, all justifiable, all requiring you and you alone to handle them. And so you do, pushing off the important in favor of the urgent.” It’s so true! As busy educators, we must remember that if we are always reacting to the urgent, we will never have time to improve and if we don’t use this time to learn and grow, we are going to miss out on a tremendous opportunity to evolve in our roles and reach children in new and better ways. Everything feels new and is hard but we can’t expect to do it all on our own without learning with and from others.

Here are 4 ways to open (virtual) classrooms:

1. Celebrate What’s Working

Inboxes are filled with complaints and challenges and it feels impossible to please everyone. It is easy to get bogged down by the challenges but it makes such a difference when we focus on the positives and celebrate one another.  Taking 5 minutes to highlight what you notice in others and focus on what is going well can and build each other up. Try to find time with your students, your colleagues, the families, and just on your own to intentionally focus on the good. It is important to create rituals that remind us to celebrate what is working, giving kudos to individuals to help people feel seen and valued and inspired to keep going. Now more than ever we need to identify the positive, focus on progress, and create the space to build each other up.

2. Observe Each Other

Despite the fact that researchers and teachers have linked observations as some of the most effective professional learning, it is still rare for teachers to observe one another.  Teaching has long been an individual event behind closed doors and shifting that paradigm is not easy.  But as educators are required to shift practices, learn new tools and routines and communicate with students and families differently, observing others and being observed to get feedback is critical to elevating and sharing effective practices and addressing challenges.

In typical circumstances, it  takes time and money and scheduling but in an era of COVID-19 where we are teaching and learning online, and our schedules are more flexible, you can more easily observe a colleague in your same school or across the district, visit a teacher in another state or even country at the click of a Zoom button. In this new era of teaching and learning, teachers benefit from seeing their colleagues teach to understand the possibilities (and pitfalls) in their own classroom practices. Observations help ground the conversation about teaching and learning and allow for a much richer dialogue. They also prompt reflection about their own practice -both validating what they do and stretching their thinking

3. Collaborate and Learn Together

I have talked to so many teachers who are creating everything from scratch in isolation. This can be so overwhelming and ineffective. Since much has to be redesigned, this is a perfect opportunity to collaborate as a team or grade level to develop lessons together, share videos and resources and co teach so everyone doesn’t have to do it all. When you plan together and co-teach lessons, the collaboration can spark new ideas, limit the isolations and reduce the workload. Win-win! Learning something new doesn’t have to come from a formal professional development session or conference.  So often the most impactful learning can come from a peer who is teaching the same groups of kids and understands the context.  Taking time to teach one another is important in learning communities. Take turns teaching a new strategy, tool, or lesson learned, read articles, and try something out.

4. Problem Solve What’s Not Working

Once you have celebrated what’s working, it’s also important to get the challenges on the table and work together to create better solutions. Presenting challenges, providing feedback and creating actionable next steps are valuable exercises that help improve learning experiences to positively impact students. Clarity of directions and assignments and organizing information is new for many teachers and  is one of the biggest frustrations from students and families that I am seeing. One protocol that can be adapted in many ways to get and give feedback in a safe learning environment is the tuning protocol. It helps provide a structure to dive into learning experiences or look at clarity of directions and resources.  This usually takes between 30 minutes to an hour and is helpful to have a facilitator and timekeeper and follows this basic structure:

  • Present the context and the problem to be examined
  • Clarifying Questions- More specific questions about the context
  • Feedback- Kind, specific, and helpful
  • Discussion- What are the implications?  What else could make an impact?
  • Reflection- What was learned?, What might be next steps?
  • Debrief- How did the process work?  What could make it better?

Creating the space for people to put problems of practice on the table for the group to collectively solve builds capacity and trust in a team. When teams take turns sharing a problem of practice, they can leverage the expertise of the group to collectively solve challenges and although they are usually specific to one person they usually have implications for the rest of the team to learn from.

“If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they aren’t good enough but because they could be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve. This is one of my favorite quotes from Dylan Wiliam and I truly believe that to support each other in distance learning it will require teachers to open our classrooms and share practices.  To create this culture requires prioritizing time and experiences that help us learn and improve.  We need to make time for celebration, teaching and learning together, observing each other and problem-solving what isn’t working. If we use this time to focus on what matters most and learn together, we can take some valuable lessons that will impact our students now and in the future.