By T.D. Flenaugh
Even good teachers fail sometimes. I have been an educator for sixteen years, and each year, my job has required that I continue learning by teaching new standards, integrating improved technology, or implementing research-proven techniques. I am learning anew, and sometimes failing anew.
Recently, a teacher from another school visited my school to watch how we implement technology. While she was in my classroom, I guided my students in viewing an excerpt of a Presidential debate. Afterwards, they discussed what they saw face-to-face and in an online chat. The goal was to help them articulate their preference of candidates by citing his or her stance on policies. This was not the first time that my students used online chats but, in this case, I badly underestimated their emotional connection to the topic. My students couldn't focus on facts. Instead, they fell into calling candidates "stupid" and repeatedly posting "Feel the Bern" to support Bernie Sanders or "I Luv Tacos" in reaction to Donald Trump's anti-immigration comments. In other words, the lesson failed.
Because of the lack of time and funding, the visiting teacher and I weren't able to debrief on the lesson. The lack of a structured observation conference was a missed opportunity for both of us. She missed a chance to understand my thinking behind the lesson and how I scored learners on their work. I missed a chance to hear her feedback on how this lesson could be better organized and to get ideas on how to follow up with students to increase learning. The observation without a reflective conversation left me struggling alone to remedy my instruction. Teaching in isolation is ultimately harmful to students. Yet, it is the norm.
The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has earmarked about $2 billion dollars in funds for the states to support improving education. The ESSA is a huge step in the right direction, and determining exactly how these monies are spent is a critical decision for California. The focus should be on nurturing the effectiveness of all teachers -- from first-year novices to seasoned veterans like me.
Teaching in my school, as in many schools across the country, is largely a private practice. It is rare for other teachers to instruct in front of one another. Making peer observation and feedback a regular part of every school would go a long way towards creating a collegial learning environment for all teachers -- and improving instruction for learners. The ESSA funds should be used to transform the culture of isolation in teaching into a culture of teamwork towards improving every classroom experience.
At the beginning of my career, it seemed impossible to facilitate small group activities with my whole class. After observing and conferencing with another teacher, I developed lessons that divided my class of thirty-four students into seven pods. Within each group, every student had a role that challenged them. From that one experience I learned that observing my peers and implementing their techniques is the fastest, most efficient way to improve my classroom instruction.
ESSA provides monies that California can use to "create opportunities for effective teachers to lead evidenced-based PD for their peers." Teacher leaders who know what it's like to teach in isolation can ensure that teachers feel safe during their peer observation conferences to stumble and remain focused on solutions. If these teacher leaders have hybrid roles, combining the teaching of students with coaching of other teachers in their classrooms, they will have the time to plan with colleagues and set-up productive teacher-to-teacher observations.
At the beginning of each year, teachers in a school can develop a list of their strengths and weaknesses. Educators can then team up to develop their areas of need and serve as supports for others. A plan for improvement would follow. The plan could include scheduling observation and feedback sessions throughout the year, lesson planning with a partner, analysis of student work with colleagues, attending self-selected professional development workshops, and having partner teachers observe new lessons or techniques.
Education is ever-changing, and it requires that teachers acquire new learning and new skills. Schools need to make each teacher's improvement a focus. Structured peer observations and feedback build an environment conducive for learning for educators and their students. If every Every Student is supposed to Succeed, there needs to be a plan for every teacher to succeed as well. Classroom teachers need to iron out the rough parts, implement new strategies, and continuously grow. Just like my students will need support if they are to succeed academically, I need support getting my students to where they need to be.
T. D. Flenaugh teaches 6th grade English and history at Paul Revere Charter Middle School - Math, Science, & Technology Center in LAUSD. She is a National Board Certified teacher and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.