A New Conversation…

“Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” – Pasi Sahlberg

Recently the consistent flow of tweets across my Professional Learning Network (PLN) has sent a resounding message…a message which has made two things very apparent for me as an educator…

  1. We aren’t going to improve education by getting rid of teachers
  2. Our current evaluation models are not sufficient for improving the profession

Let’s quickly run through those two concerns and determine where we are at…

First, if we are going to improve our current model for education then it will be necessary to both invest in and support those providing the frontline services to our students.  Both Dylan Williams and Pasi Sahlberg preach investment over banishment.  Dylan William does a tremendous job in his new book on formative assessment providing reasons why termination is a timely, costly, and ineffective practice for reforming our current system.  While Pasi Sahlberg is currently keynoting across the globe the benefits of the Finnish system and their deep professional investment in the ongoing learning of their educators.

With this information in hand it becomes more and more obvious that we have to move our system towards improved support of our educators in the profession.  We have to level our efforts towards the enhancement of their craft for the benefit of our students and for the increased intrinsic value that it will bring to them as professionals.  However, be very clear on this, it will be no easy task and will take a concerted effort from district office and schoolhouse leaders if we are going to create any type of serious inroads to improving the overall strategies and abilities of every teacher in every classroom.

Second, our current models of evaluation are not providing the sufficient support, guidance and feedback necessary to focus and improve professional practice.  Very often, the evaluative processes we utilize are cumbersome and unwieldy.  Many times serving as mere checklists for our administrators.  More often than not it  becomes more about creating a tight ship running smoothly than it is about ongoing growth and improving professional practice.  At its worst, it can serve as a contentious and antagonistic process that creates distrust and divisions on our school campuses.  It can create an us vs them structure between our teachers and administrators, the very people the process is intended to support and grow.  However, in most cases, the evaluation process eventually fails to accomplish what it was intended to do, provide support the ongoing growth and learning of our educators.

So what does this tell us?  What does it say about our system and those that work in it?  It tells me that the dismissal bells are ringing on our current conversations…we are clamoring for a ‘new conversation’ in our schools.  It is time to ‘change the conversations‘.  For too long the conversations occurring in our classrooms and schools have struggled to grow and improve our practices.  Our evaluations have run the margin of meaningless and/or do more harm than good in improving the profession.

Yet, we must realize…

…teaching as a practice and profession is such an extremely complex process that no one person could master the craft over one or even several lifetimes.  And even if we could, our current learnings in regards to teaching and learning are constantly evolving and changing at such a rapid pace that our educational landscape is often displaced on a daily basis.  It is too much for one person to ever know or learn.  But that does not mean we ever stop trying, learning, or evolving.  Rather, we have to look for ways to simplify the complex…

So if we understand that teaching is a complex and constantly evolving craft and the evaluation system that is in place to improve the craft is either deeply flawed or broken…how can ‘changing the conversation’ as instructional leaders provide a new perspective and guide us forward?

I want to start the change with the writing of Harvard Professor, Dr. Richard Elmore and his work in Instructional Rounds.  Past practice has focused leaders on the teacher and teaching.  Dr. Elmore asks us to take on a new lens or perspective in the classroom.  He is asking our instructional leaders to focus our efforts at the level of the student desk.  Which is not an overly complex concept.  Many of us will even say we do…but honesty will allow that many of us approach it with a surface level depth.  Dr. Elmore is asking us to dig in and really determine what is happening on the student desk and is it a reflection of the instruction?  Is the instruction truly affecting what is happening on every student’s desk?

In the same manner that Rick DuFour urged us in our Professional Learning Communities to turn our focus from the teaching to the learning…Dr. Elmore is asking us to move our focus from the teacher and the front of the room and place it squarely on what is happening on the desk of the student.  Not very complex, but very powerful.

For the majority of the classroom observations in our schools this a byproduct rather than a focus of our administrative visits.  We spend our observation time focused on the teacher ‘presentation’ rather than determining whether the instruction is finding its way down to the learning level of the individual student.  We are captivated by whether our teachers are incorporating the newest and greatest strategies than whether it is truly affecting the learning of our students.

However, we have to ensure the depth of the process doesn’t stop at the classroom observation level.  Unfortunately we approach the post-observation conference as a duty to review the ‘presentation’.  Many administrators are uncomfortable with the evaluation process and want to quickly move through the meeting as a rote checklist review, rather than an authentic opportunity for collaborative discussion, feedback, and next steps for growth.  Very seldom do the conversations in the post-observation meetings reveal the depth necessary to hold much of a chance for changing practice or behaviors.

Usually one or two things happen in these meetings…one, the teacher can relax and breathe a sigh of relief as the administrator recalls the great instruction and strategies that were implemented during the observation…or the conversation turns defensive or antagonistic if the observer provides any hint that they were less than pleased with the instruction or lesson.

In the end, what is usually left missing in the process is the learning.  And all parties involved end up losing.  When we approach the process as a checklist rather than an opportunity for collaborative feedback and growth, everyone loses.  And very often we end up creating a divide that hampers any further possibilities for enriching collaboration and feedback.

That is why there is such value to the work of Dr. Elmore in Instructional Rounds.  He shows us how vital and yet simple it is to improve our ability to serve as instructional leaders for our schools.  When our observation efforts become about what is happening at the level of the student desk, our perspective and focus changes substantially.  We remove the spotlight from the teacher…and transfer it to the learning.  Which, as Stephen Covey often referred, is “keeping the main thing the main thing of the main thing.”

And when this happens…when we shift our focus to the student desk…we are also required to shift  and ultimately ‘change the conversations‘ that are happening between administrators and teachers.  We move the conversation away from the teacher…it is no longer about what strategies you were or were not using, rather the conversation turns to students and why or why not the instruction was having an impact on their learning.  It is a paradigm shift…it is the next level of moving our focus from teaching to learning.

So how do we ‘change the conversation’ in our schools?  However, before we get to that question, I want us all to agree that the one thing we know about most teachers is that they are all ‘in’ for improving the learning and achievement of their students.  And if that statement is true, then what they desire most as a professionals is to increase the learning and achievement of their students.

And if that is the case…

Then we must turn our conversations to the students in the classroom.  We must shift our conversation.  When we focus the concerns and questions on the learning that was taking place during the observation we invite engagement from the teacher.  We invite them into the conversation.  A conversation that is no longer about the administrator having the right answers for what was effective and what needs to improve.  Rather it is about asking the right questions.  Questions that create dialogue and increase learning.  Questions that improve trust and build stronger relationships between our teachers and administrators.  It is much easier to dive into questions about why a student was struggling with the instruction or assignment than it is to discuss why the observer believed the teacher failed to utilize the appropriate strategies to support the concept they were teaching.

When we turn the conversation from teacher ‘presentation’ to student ‘learning’ we create an entirely different dynamic and atmosphere to our observation dialogue.  We move from defensive to engaged.  And when you engage teachers around discussions to improve the learning of their students you create and open a natural channel for collaborative dialogue and feedback.  Which is what we really want to occur through an effective evaluation process.  When we ask the right questions as instructional leaders, when we move away from always trying to provide the right answers, we create an environment for learning and growth.  And we all know the learning is much stronger when people are given the opportunity to come to their own realizations and answers.  And furthermore, we have created stronger relationships with those we serve and started to build a more trusting environment.

But let’s be real…in the end it is much easier to just take the checklist route and ensure a smooth running building than it is to ‘change the conversations’ that upset the status quo.  Yet, when we change the conversation, we change the environment.  And we change the system.  And isn’t that what a learning organization is all about.

Just a thought…



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