By Kip Hottman and Gail Sowell
Kentucky’s Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES) gives teachers a deeper understanding of how their practice directly impacts what happens in the classroom. Peer observation, once utilized by only a few, is now an integrated part of improving practice for Kentucky’s almost 44,000 teachers. We are both convinced of the power of peer observation to facilitate teacher growth. Here’s how that experience worked for us.
Setting a focus
Kip: At the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, after looking at data from the previous school year, my professional learning community decided that our students needed stronger instruction in reading skills. This decision prompted me to reach out to my school’s literacy coach for some peer guidance.
Gail and I had already committed some of our time to work together on developing my classroom as a lab for other teachers to visit. This opportunity enabled us to collaborate with a focus on two topics: preparing the classroom as a lab and working intentionally on my professional growth plan.
Gail: One of my assignments was to prepare the teachers in my building for classroom visits that showcase targeted teaching strategies. Kip’s first period Spanish 2 class was selected as a lab for our district, a proposition that was equally exciting and nerve-wracking for me as a new coach.
I knew Kip was a strong, reflective teacher who had a solid understanding of the targeted teaching strategies. I also knew that I would be doing some intense coaching work with him to ensure these strategies were consistent and transparent for all classroom observers. This work was my first experience coaching a teacher for a wider benefit than just his own students, and the prospect of other professionals visiting his room to learn from his practice made me feel exposed in my work. Thankfully, I had received beneficial guidance to build my coaching skills, including peer observer training, so I had tools to use as I worked with Kip to develop his lab classroom.
Gail: We knew there were specific strategies that needed to be visible in Kip’s classroom for the visitors and that as much as possible, he wanted to focus on reading instruction. We set up a schedule to address only one focus area at a time, which kept the work feeling manageable.
Typically, we would get together during Kip’s planning period and talk about our focus, such as classroom discourse. We reviewed professional resources and I asked Kip to describe what quality discourse would look like in his classroom. Kip shared his learning targets for the upcoming lessons and we discussed options for increasing the quality of the discourse he had planned.
Next, I came into his classroom to gather data. I recorded student discourse and his instructional moves. After gathering this information, I met with Kip to determine what was working well and what was not. Kip then adjusted plans for upcoming lessons in keeping with what he was learning.
Our process had two key elements: collegiality and openness. We approached this work with mutual respect as teammates working for the good of students. I knew that Kip had expert knowledge of his students and of his curriculum standards and techniques. Kip knew that I was well trained in the targeted teaching strategies and in literacy strategies. This collegiality allowed me to enter Kip’s classroom with a spirit of cooperation, without evaluation or judgment. Further, Kip had to fling open his doors and allow me in to see lessons, no matter how they were working. I had to open myself to thinking through learning activities in ways that differ from how I might have done them. We both had to be transparent and trusting to examine the real, daily work of Kip’s classroom in the most beneficial way possible.
Kip: My original goal was to tweak my planning for the lab classroom experience and receive guidance for reading instruction. After completing my first observation and listening to Gail’s reflection, her feedback immediately resonated with me and peer observation made sense. I had an extra pair of eyes absorbing various facets within my classroom that I might miss during a typical lesson.
Gail time stamped all transitions and recorded the important student discourse that happens when a teacher is out of earshot in the classroom. After a thought-provoking discussion, I asked her what I could do to deepen student discourse and she suggested active listening. Hold the listening students accountable by having them record and provide evidence to their speaking partners. Game changer! This was one simple step that I had never included in my lesson plan. She took my intentional planning to a new level simply because of the opportunity that existed for us to engage in peer observation.
Gail: This work in Kip’s classroom showed me the potential for change that lives in the peer observation process. Personally, I was reassured that I don’t have to be a fount of pedagogical wisdom to be a valuable resource to my peer. Kip did not need someone to come in and prescribe new plans or expert fixes. He needed an objective set of eyes and ears in the room; he needed a thinking partner for planning and reflecting; he needed an alternative perspective about the work his students were doing. I could provide that! And it paid dividends.
Kip: I never understood the power of peer observation until living and breathing it last year. Our collaboration was different than many peer observations, but it highlights the possibilities. No one talked about peer observation when I entered the profession; now it is a normal part of how we do business. The closed classroom door is an idea of the past. Instead, we must promote a practice of open doors and meaningful reflection with those who know our work best, our peers.
Kip Hottman is a Spanish teacher for the World Language Department at Fern Creek High School (Jefferson County) and was a state fellow for the Hope Street Group from 2013 to 2015. Gail Sowell is the literacy coach at Oldham County High School, and she partnered with Hottman as a peer in his classroom last school year. While this experience exceeded the minimal requirements of peer observation as defined through PGES, Sowell and Hottman were both convinced of the power of the experience to facilitate teacher growth.