Observation + Reflection: Making Instructional Rounds Meaningful

Disclaimer: This post is long.  I got excited!

At the beginning of this school year, each Middle School Head of Grade for Mount Vernon Presbyterian School identified areas of focus and goals for this school year.  A common theme with all of our answers was feedback.  We are all yearning for valuable feedback from our peers and our leaders.  What I did not realize at the beginning of this school year was that it was not really feedback that I was seeking, it was authentic coaching.  When I thought about it deeply, I realized that when I mentioned feedback, I was really wanting someone to give me feedback on my terms.  That feedback looks and sounds like this:  “Great job today!”  “Very creative and engaging lesson!”  “You are a great teacher!”  “Keep up the hard work!”  This is the feedback I wanted, but not the feedback I needed.  I thrive off of this type of feedback that’s on my terms, but I also recognize that I’m trying to be a part of educational change. Continuing to participate in an unsatisfactory traditional path of teacher evaluation and feedback will not help any of us accomplish this.   So, how do we create a culture of feedback and observation in schools that is not simply praise for a great lesson, or to congratulate you for earning your contract renewal, but actual coaching and collaboration with colleagues and leaders in order to truly improve our practice?  The answer I have found is Instructional Rounds.

With our pilot of Instructional Rounds, each Middle School Head of Grade has been observed unannounced by a team of four leaders and colleagues periodically. It is meant to be strictly observational and to provide the teacher with another set of eyes in the classroom.  It also provides the teacher with statistical data over a period of time in order to see correlations and patterns.  Let’s be honest, it’s impossible to see every single detail when we are teaching.  While I pride myself in being on top of things in my classroom, I can’t see every computer screen, hear every conversation, and ensure that every student is always 100% engaged.  Each of the four members conducting the observation use the same form in which to record their data.  It records things like student engagement percentage, seating configuration, and the percentage to which our School’s mindsets are being infused.  Ito also provides blank space for each observer to record what they are seeing and hearing.  Observers are usually in the room for 30-40 minutes.  At the end of the day, each Head of Grade is sent their data and this is where the the value of instructional rounds comes to life.  I print it out, and I study the comments and things that were observed.  I make notes in the margins to ask questions that might serve useful in our debrief.  A few days later, all Heads of Grade and our four observers meet to debrief. In this setting, we are encouraged to ask questions regarding our reflection of the instructional rounds and gather ideas from our colleagues regarding the lesson.  This is how you make instructional rounds meaningful.  If this process is used correctly, there is so much growth and development that will occur not only from the Heads of Grade being observed, but with the observers as well. 

 You see, Instructional Rounds will be pointless without teacher reflection.  If you receive your data, and you do not analyze it for questions and “I wonder” statements, then it merely serves as an observation.  I will be the first to tell you that I was skeptical of this process at the beginning of the school year.  Being a new teacher to the School, I placed enormous pressure on myself to be perfect at any given moment in fear that the observers would walk in.   I can’t have these four leaders and colleagues who I respect tremendously see me struggle or have a less than stellar lesson plan? Right? Once I changed my focus, and my outlook on Instructional Rounds, I did begin to gain new ideas, question existing ideas, and begin to grow in my practice.  For example, in my last observation, I was piloting a new method in my classes this year: mind-mapping.  I have mind-mapped many times before, but I wanted my students to practice this as I think it can be a valuable learning tool.  I had read research that suggested you should mind-map at the beginning of a unit when students are in the discovery phase.  Contrary to this, other research I read suggested it was better to do it continuously throughout the unit or to even wait until the end.  I chose to take a risk, and try it at the beginning of our Imperialism unit.  It just so happened that this day was also the day that our team of four observers chose to come in for instructional rounds.  If this had happened last year, I would have been horrified to see them walk in because I would have treated it as an evaluation of a lesson that was not necessarily my best.  This was a risky lesson,and it could either be engaging or it could prove to be disastrous.  Because I have embraced the value of Instructional Rounds, I was excited to see them come in.  Through reading their data and debriefing as a team, I asked them their thoughts and opinions on the lesson and choosing to have students mind-map at the beginning.  I wanted their coaching on student engagement and how I can make this process meaningful and effective for all students. In the debrief I not only received this, but my colleagues gave me new ideas, one of which involved taking a different approach and having students research for their mind-map differently than I had previously had them do it.  I had one more class the next day to teach, and I decided to implement this feedback and give it a try. It did not go as well as what I had originally done with my previous classes, but that is ok.  Some things to do not work well with some classes.  How will I ever know this if I do not try different strategies and allow myself to receive coaching from my colleagues? I started the lesson with one strategy and walked away with another alternative thanks to my time in our Instructional Round debrief and the encouragement of my colleagues to give it a try.

 This is the beauty of Instructional Rounds.  It is as much about reflection as it is observation.  In order to make it meaningful and part of your growth as an educator, you must view observational data as the means to which you explore other options, make connections, and foster a growth mindset.  This process can be scary at first, but it can be so valuable to you if you give it a chance.  It’s hard sometimes to acknowledge that colleagues and leaders that you respect so much are going to be observing you in what might not be your best lesson or day.  Being vulnerable in those situations is hard, but if you can remember the purpose of coaching and Instructional Rounds then those worries begin to subside, and you start to crave Instructional Rounds more.  As I close, I am reminded of one of my favorite sayings in life- “They never said it would be easy, they only promised it would be worth it.”

Published by Alex Bragg

Alex is the Upper School Teaching and Learning Specialist at Woodward Academy in College Park, Georgia. She is passionate about student driven learning, the art of giving and receiving authentic feedback and coaching, innovation in the classroom, balanced and authentic assessment mapping, and school redesign.

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