Lean on Me: The Power of Learning Walks

“Please, swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you won’t let show

You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’ll understand
We all need somebody to lean on….”

I suspect that when he wrote “Lean on Me,” Bill Withers had something else on his mind, but listening to this classic tune got me thinking about classroom teaching. Although time consuming, I became a big fan of teacher:teacher collaboration some time ago. It is a means to put heads together, to “lean on” one another and capitalize on each others strengths. For example, in lesson design, my strengths are in planning, organizing and execution, but creativity isn’t my natural bailiwick. Not only do I have an opportunity to bounce ideas around, I have a partner, someone with whom I can refine and tinker to improve lessons, units and assessments. Personally, I find collaboration energizing!

A practice I engage in less, though it must have equal if not greater value, is peer observation and feedback. We tout the gains students can make with timely, effective feedback. In fact John Hattie’s research suggests this strategy’s .73 effect size can provide over a year’s academic progress for students. Because feedback has potential for such a monumental positive effect on student growth, it follows that it must also be a powerful tool when used by teachers with other teachers. Peer observation/feedback adds another’s eyes, ears and data to the conversation where collaboration alone falls short.

On November 3rd, I had the opportunity to join nine other secondary educators with facilitator Marsha Moyer as we visited four classrooms throughout the day, two high school classes in the morning and two middle school classes in the afternoon on a district sponsored Learning Walk. These classroom visits were not about evaluation; they were about learning from each other. Although we didn’t provide feedback directly to the teachers we observed, we had rich conversations about our craft with each other.

The Learning Walk was a full day activity, but no single observation was more than 15 minutes. Prior to our classroom visits, we met and identified three areas on which to focus our observations: Classroom Procedures, Engaging Students in Learning, and Questioning and Discussion Techniques, which helped us direct our post-observation discussions. Overwhelmingly, those post- discussions were filled with collegial respect, as we identified practices we saw in our own teaching (some we want to continue and some we want to improve upon), as well as practices we want to emulate.

Luckily, that Learning Walk was only the first of the school year. As of last Friday, the January 8 and May 19 Walks still have spaces available for a few more teachers. Contact Jodi LarsenAssistant to Teresa Ketelsen, to join. I know prepping for a sub is difficult; I know leaving your students feels like you’re letting them down; I know there are a million reasons why it won’t work for you to be out of your class, but I guarantee this is time well spent.

Still if you can’t possibly join in on one of the district sponsored walks this school year, you can arrange to do your own peer observation. Most principals with whom we’ve talked are more than supportive. Your friendly Literacy and Math coaches, too, are available to facilitate the process or provide you the same service by observing you in your classroom. We are not evaluators; we are here to help you hone your craft.

I get it; you’re maxed out in your teaching day. How could you possibly subject yourself to spending precious prep time observing another teacher, then sit down with him/her to discuss the teaching? And the flip-side…invite a colleague in to watch you? I’m with you. As I said, I rarely took advantage of the opportunity myself. I call it an opportunity because, if we can get past ourselves, this learning may be the most insightful professional development available. As the song says:

“For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on….”

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