On Thought Experiments and Russian Dolls

Planning instruction for twenty or thirty learners in one room, for one hour, on one day, is a challenge. And, when we talk about planning instruction for in-service days or professional development sessions in which schools invest considerable time and money, we might be talking about hundreds of participants, in various venues, from distinctly heterogeneous teaching backgrounds and many hours of instruction. It’s a significant challenge. However, as I have written about here, it’s a challenge that we must overcome.

Many of my thoughts about school leadership revolve around applying the same practices that make classroom instruction effective. Imagine it as a series of Russian Dolls – the practices at the classroom teacher-learner level a nested microcosm of the interactions at the professional teacher-teacher level. At my school, we have adapted Charlotte Danielson’s teacher evaluation rubric as part of our teacher appraisal process. However, what if something similar were created for professional development sessions or in-service days?

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The purpose of the adaptation would be as follows:

  1. As a planning checklist for organising professional development sessions.
  2. As an in-depth reflection tool to rigorously assess the quality of any professional development session and for facilitators to adjust their practices accordingly.
  3. To articulate a shared understanding of the components of high quality professional development sessions.

I’d remove the evaluative aspect of a rubric, replacing it with a series of standards and guiding questions to encourage professional growth. Though there are a variety of schools of thought on the effectiveness of coaching versus supervision models for driving positive change, assuming you have the people in place willing to improve, it’s the feedback, not the ranking of progress, that will drive improvement. Now, I’m not saying you couldn’t construct an evaluative rubric, it’s just that a simpler, more professionally respectful starting point is to use standards as a supportive coaching tool, not an evaluative one.

And, if you followed my thinking, you might be left with something like this.

I wonder what insights are revealed by reflecting on the last professional development you facilitated ,or participated in, by examining it through this new lens?

Infographic summary



On Listening Carefully

Twice a year, I run a survey with my students to gain insight into their experience of my instructional practice. This isn’t the only time I seek feedback from them. I’m in the habit of asking for ‘pluses’ and ‘wishes’ every few months, as well as touching base with a few students at the classroom door to ask questions like, ‘Do you enjoy X activity?’, or, ‘Did you find Y helpful?’ The full survey, though, is a mash up of:

  1. Questions I’ve acquired/developed over the last ten years.
  2. Questions developed to align with our school’s version of domains two and three of Charlotte Danielson’s teacher evaluation rubric
  3. Some of the questions that came out of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s research into teacher appraisal

I developed essential agreements for our use of this survey in our own high school English department. Here is the Google form version of the survey itself, which you could copy if you wish.

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When I do the survey, I time it to coincide with student reports, so it becomes a moment of instructional quid pro quo. And, this year, I debriefed the survey with a small ‘focus’ group from each class. By seeking feedback on how I interpreted the students’ response, I noticed how it helped me to better understand and appreciate their perspective and experiences. One of the questions I found most valuable during this conversation was, ‘If I were to observe one colleague to help me become a better teacher, who would would it be?’ This made me think about how much more powerful professional development might be if we listened more systematically and more thoughtfully to the insights the students already have to offer us. They, after all, are the ones who have daily experience of our craft. So, I’m left wondering if high schools committed to on-going professional development could:

  1. Use teacher-tailored student voice surveys as a raison d’etre for collegial observations.
  2. Have teachers use student input to guide their own professional goal setting.
  3. Have teachers follow a student for a day once every year.

Does anyone already have experience of practices like these?