Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Want to be a better teacher? GET THE HECK OUT OF THE CLASSROOM!

Friends, I believe my title says it all.  I've been a literacy coach now for a little over 15 months.  I've worked with many teachers individually, as groups, and as entire staffs.  I have had the absolute pleasure and fortune of now observing dozens upon dozens of teachers in their classrooms teaching either reading or writing over these past 15 months.  Dozens- kindergarten through fifth grade.  I have been out of the classroom for over a year, and am a much better teacher because of it.

Imagine how much better we'd be as teachers if we
devoted time to actually talking about teaching? 
To best illustrate why I'm a better teacher, I have a few colleague shout-outs to give:

-Last school year, I saw the power of doing one to one guided reading for a first grade reader in Shawn Harvey's classroom.  Shawn is a complete master at responding to students' reading behaviors during guided reading lessons.  I am a better reading teacher because of that observation.

-Last week, I watched Beth Estrada give her fifth graders choice in a way I have never considered before.  Beth helped me think a little differently about the power of choice with students. This has made me a more thoughtful listener and teacher.

-Earlier today, I participated in a lab session with Eric Hand, a Teachers College Staff Developer.  Eric discussed using Boxes and Bullets in a way I had not previously considered.  I'm now a stronger writing teacher because of that conversation with Eric.

-Last year, while co-teaching with Heidi Deveau in her kindergarten classroom, I learned about the power of adjusting a lesson on the fly!  Not everything always goes as planned- especially in kindergarten.  While I was the one supposedly teaching the "model" lesson, Heidi gave me great tips to improve how to help kindergarteners share and talk with each other.  I am a much more skilled writing teacher in all grade levels due to that one time co-teaching with Heidi.

-Earlier this year, I rethought about the way I view leveling upper grade classroom libraries after a conversation and observation in Jennifer Ford's fifth grade classroom.  Jennifer showed me a new way to think about leveling books for older students.  My long held beliefs about leveling started to change after I saw the brilliant way Jennifer went about leveling books in her classroom.  I'm now challenging my once strong held beliefs due to being enlightened by Jennifer's methods. 

-A few months ago, Brian Hubbs, a third grade teacher, shared a couple things with me during an observation: both his method for record keeping during student writing conferences and the way he addressed his class of writers.  I have since shared Brian's creative methods with many other teachers in our school district.  Not only am I a better teacher because of Brian, but so are so many other teachers.

Truly, I could go on and on.  I could share Barbara Lindsay's passion, Tom Culbertson's thoughtfulness, or Jennifer Aza Allan's patience... My point is, all of our colleagues have talents and gifts to share.  Imagine if we start sharing all of these unknown teaching methods, strategies, and ideas with each other in person?  Sharing online through Twitter or Pinterest is great, but it truly does not compare with witnessing master teaching or engaging in face to face conversations in person.  If you want to be a better teacher, get the heck out of your own four walls!  Learn from the massive amount of talent that is hiding among the other four walls in your building.  

Ways to Get Out of the Classroom to Observe Your Peers... 

-Ask to observe a grade level partner during your prep time.  Then, return the favor and offer to have your grade level partner observe you.

-Ask your principal for a 1/2 day or full day substitute to vertically observe at your school- start in kindergarten and work your way up with a specific lens.  Perhaps you'll observe with teacher language in mind, or perhaps you'll look at anchor charts.  If vertical observation is not possible, observe a teacher in the grade level below you and the grade level above.
Images from a lab day where we observed each other
teach... then talked about it! Such powerful learning.

-If a sub is not available, ask your principal to cover your classroom for 30 minutes so you can observe a colleague teach something in particular.  When thinking about all of the principals I work with, I know every single one of them would support this idea.  30 minutes of observation can provide ideas for hours upon hours of valuable teaching and learning.

-Set aside time to talk- seriously talk.  Call it a PLC, grade level meeting, study group- whatever you want to call it!  If something is important, prioritize it, then talk.  Before school, after school, at lunch, during happy hour, anytime when you don't have students.

-Explore the idea of lab days.  This is where one teacher or instructional coach teaches a lesson while others in the grade level are released from their classrooms to watch.  Following the lesson, there is a focused debrief.  It's similar to lesson study, but not exactly the same.  If this is something that sounds appealing, check out a more detailed write-up here

Please know, I am under no delusion that this is easy.  When I was in the classroom, I rarely made time to observe or talk with my colleagues.  Knowing what I know now, I would have made the time.  In fact, I would have insisted upon it.  I would have been a much stronger and much more skilled literacy teacher earlier in my career if I had made the effort to observe Shawn, Heidi, Brian, or any of the others while I was still in the classroom.  We have so much to learn from each other.  Simply put, we have to make it happen.  We owe it to our kiddos.

Remember, if it's really easy, it's probably not worthwhile.  Observing each other is not easy, but it is perhaps the most worthwhile thing we can do as teachers.  Friends, I challenge you to set up a time or two to get the heck out of your classroom to observe other teachers in the coming months.  It won't be easy, but it will be worth it.  I promise.

Happy learning, friends! 


  1. Christina,
    We are doing this in Michigan...in fact our entire district is doing it! One thing that has made a big difference....is that we have a set protocol to follow when we go into each others' rooms. It helps to have some ways to think about and reflect on the learning that was just seen. If you are interested I will try to scan and copy our booklets :)
    Laura Robinson Ins coach
    Kent career Tech Center

    1. Hi Laura,
      This is exactly where my district in Alberta is heading and I'm very interested in learning more about your set protocol. Is there any way you or Christina could share with me I'd greatly appreciate it. My district blog site is http://gpsdliteracy.blogspot.ca/ where you could email me also.
      Thanks for sharing!
      Crystal Hershey
      Literacy Coordinator

  2. Hi Laura,
    Wonderful! I'm so glad to hear your entire district in Michigan is doing this. Observing each others' classrooms through a specific lens helps all of us grow as educators in big ways. Our entire school district is now on the road to doing this as well- we're almost at 100%! Thank you so much for sharing your learning! I'd love to see your booklets- you can email them to me using the email icon at the top of the blog page. Thanks again for sharing. Sharing with each other makes all of us stronger teachers!


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