Today's guest post is written by Michelle Corbat who is an Elementary Principal in Michigan!
In the rush of school days, it can be easy to get caught up in lots of “housekeeping” conversations with colleagues, which doesn’t often leave time for more thoughtful sharing about teaching and learning. Teacher labs provide a great space to start and continue those vital conversations. These are the conversations that can both affirm what is best about our practice and challenge us to grow both individually and as a community.
Heather Loney, 5th Grade Teacher, Morrish Elementary School
Imagine this...you are sitting in a large room with no windows at a table with 3 or 4 other educators. You came to learn more about best practices to grow as an educator. You don’t know anyone. Someone in the front of the room, the “expert”, is reading each and every Powerpoint slide aloud with very little time built in for engagement within the group. You begin to drift away mentally and break the norms established at the beginning of the “Professional Development” day by reading your Twitter feed or checking your email or texting a friend about how much you can’t wait to get out of there. There are 40 or 50 other tables in the room that look exactly the same as yours....disconnected.
Now imagine that you are in your school district sitting with 6 or 7 colleagues in a meeting room. One of your colleagues is a facilitator for the group. You have all gathered to discuss best practices aligned to your school or district goal. Each person takes time to reflect upon his or her practice, first in writing, then by sharing aloud with the group. Common struggles and challenges arise. The facilitator shares that the colleague they are about to observe has had similar challenges and has learned a few ways to overcome these challenges. The group walks to the this colleague’s classroom and observes for an hour, like flies on the wall. Everyone takes notes jotting down ideas, questions, and reflections. The hour flies by and the entire group moves back to the meeting space. Each observer shares noticings with the host teacher and asks questions. The host shares her learning journey with the group...how she got to the place where she is today, with this observation. Everyone sets goals and meets again a few months later. A few days pass and you have a question that you forgot to ask during the meeting. You walk down the hall on your planning time to the host teacher’s classroom and wait for an opportunity to ask. She smiles and talks with you for a few minutes, reassuring you. You head back to your classroom, excited and ready to try out what you have learned!
Which learning experience do you want to be a part of - a disconnected, sit and get or a collaborative learning environment with risks and support? Which one will make a difference for children in our classrooms?
What are educator labs?
“Change occurs as teachers learn to describe, discuss, and adjust their practices according to a collectively held standard of teaching quality.”
J.W. Little, 2003
Fortunately, I have experienced a job embedded professional learning model in Swartz Creek Community Schools that has made a difference for children. Two years ago, Lisa Madden shared the components of this teacher lab model with district leaders. A lab classroom includes a host teacher, a facilitator, and observers. The host is not an expert, but is someone willing to share his/her practice publicly. The facilitator organizes and communicates the schedule, prepares paperwork and materials, and leads collaborative discussions before and after observations. I have been both a facilitator and a host. The focus for the first year of teacher labs in my district was reading instruction. Every elementary classroom teacher spent two half-days in another teacher’s classroom.
The components of our half day included:
- Pre-Observation Meeting
- Establish Norms
- Establish focus for inquiry
- Observers share successes, challenges, and goals
- Observers visit host's classroom as a 'fly on the wall'
- Take notes for feedback and reflection
- Observer's name and notice
- Host reflects on noticings and verbalizes intentions
- Observers ask questions & Host answers
- All reflect-making intentional plans for our practice
The focus for the second year of teacher labs was math instruction at the elementary level and reading instruction at the middle school level. Additionally, the first administrator lab was held and I was a host. Eleven other administrators observed me leading a staff meeting with Morrish Elementary educators. This included a pre-observation meeting and debriefing. The feedback I received from my colleagues, other principals, helped me to plan my next staff meeting.
“Collective work in trusting environments provides a basis for inquiry and reflection, allowing teachers to raise issues, take risks, and address dilemmas in their own practice.”
Ball & Cohen, 1999
What impact do educator labs have on students?
A culture of learning is built on trusting relationships. Teacher labs and administrator labs provide the opportunity to talk out the ‘why does this matter?” and “what’s next?” in a non-evaluative way. Don’t our students deserve for us to have these conversations? Observers having an opportunity to share and reflect on what they noticed - not only what the teacher was doing or saying, but what the students were doing or saying too. To me, this is far more valuable! Observers bring up noticings that the host might not even be aware of and the host has an opportunity to verbalize her intentions in her teaching – why did she make those decisions? Don’t our students deserve that we reflect on the ‘why’ of what we do?
During teacher labs or administrator labs, all learners make intentional plans for their own work– What will I do differently? What will I explore? What will I try? And everyone is held accountable by sharing plans and reflections with one another. These experiences allow educators to see practice in action and the “behind the scenes” real work of teaching. Teacher and administrator labs promote professional growth, self-efficacy, and reflection. These labs lead to greater implementation of a systemic change and ultimately to building a true culture of learning. Don’t our students deserve that we do better when we know better?
The video below shows what Swartz Creek educators and students had to say about the teacher lab experience. I hope that you will watch it and share the idea of educator labs with others in your school. Children deserve authentic learning experiences based on inquiry, observation, conversation, reflection, and time. And so do the adults that teach them. We are all in this together because #KidsDeserveIt!