Reflections on Instructional Rounds

So I’ve been away from the blogosphere for some time now, and the longer I was away, the harder it was for me to get the drive to develop a post.  I love my blog, and how it’s helped me to analyze, dissect, and fill out my thinking on practice, leadership, and education.  And now with my summer stretching out in front of me, I planned to luxuriate in a stack of books I have been wanting to read.

In the fall I skimmed “Instructional Rounds in Education”, and it was first on my list to re-read intentionally.  I had my pen, highlighter and post-its ready to make notes (my husband scratching his head on how I could categorize this as reading for pleasure), my couch cushions just right behind my back, and a large iced tea at my side.

One small 3-word sentence was the first to stop me in my tracks: “Language is culture”.  I couldn’t continue reading as my mind had gone to an altogether different place. I began thinking of all the ways in which we demonstrate the culture in a school building by our words, phrases, body language and tone of voice – not just the ones we use, but what we tolerate, and thereby implicitly accept and condone.  I’ve heard teachers in my building mutter “idiot” as they walked away from a student; I’ve had a teacher describe students as “retarded” as she’s describing their attempts at writing out a conflict that had arisen at recess.  One uses a harsh tone in every interaction with students and staff. There are teachers who speak about children – children – in the most contemptuous ways.  So what does that say about a school culture?  Lots.  Where does that leave me as a school administrator?

I also have heard teachers express real love and empathy for students in our building.  They’ve spoken excitedly about how the students are learning, about using a SmartBoard in their classroom for the first time, or about their first foray into blogging.  They regularly talk about and with students in genuinely caring ways.  Thankfully, this type of language is more common than the previous examples, but it is the negative that undermines our school culture and corrodes it from within.

Another point that resonated with me was the concept of separating the person (i.e., the teacher) from the practice. I often come across this with teacher who seem the most resistant to change of practice.  They feel that how they teach reflects who they are as a teacher, therefore as a person, and if there is an expectation that teaching practices should change then essentially they are being asked to change as a person.  No wonder they’re resistant.

Instructional practice does not equal the person.  Yes, as people in the profession of teaching we are driven and influenced by our values, commitments and beliefs, but our practice is merely a vehicle to getting to a result.  But we are practitioners of teaching, which means we hold a set of skills – skills that can be molded, that can evolve and that can change.  These skills are external to us.  If we cannot distinguish between a person’s skill set and them as a person, what does that mean?  As as administrator, you should expect that I can make that distinction.  If I couldn’t there would be a lot of people I disliked simply because their skill set was archaic, ineffective or contrary to best known practices, and vice-versa – teachers with strong skill sets that I wouldn’t necessarily like as people.

Embedded within this person vs. practice is the notion of “teaching styles”.  I’ve often heard teachers refer to their styles, or mention that their colleague just has a different teaching  style when in a parent meeting.  This trivializes the idea that as teachers we have a set of practices, and undermines the need for schools and districts to develop shared practices and shared understandings when it comes to teaching and learning.  Yes, we all want the same outcome (i.e., student learning and success) but to accept that we are all getting there in our own unique way does nothing to catalyze improvement in classrooms, schools or boards.  The authors use a funny analogy of a pilot announcing as the plane is landing that while his colleagues may land a plane one way, his style is to not use the flaps.  No big deal right?  Acceptable?  No.

Our school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, has adopted the principles and format described in this book.  For me, it has changed the way I intend to approach classroom visits, teacher performance appraisals, conversations with colleagues, staff and parents, and how I plan to embed learning into our staff meetings.  As our board continues its District Review practices, I’m confident that these principles will be visible and explicit in the process.  An exciting time for me to be an administrator!

8 thoughts on “Reflections on Instructional Rounds

  1. Great blog! I love how you talked about how teachers connect themselves as teachers with who they are as people. If we ask them to change their instruction, they often take this personally, and think we want them to change as people. This is so true. I’d never thought of it in that manner before, but I can see this. Teachers take their work personally because they care (most of them). Hmmmmm…. so how to do this in a way that they do not take it personally. I think I am going to have to get this book! Thanks for the inspiration!

    • When you read the book (please do – highly recommended) you’ll see that the authors encourage – actually demand – that in order to keep the person separate from the practice, you keep your observations descriptive, specific and focused on the instructional core (What are the students saying and doing? What are the teachers saying and doing? What is the task?). It’s hard to be non-judgmental, or focus on what you DON’T see (i.e., the teacher gave an interesting lesson, I didn’t see any anchor charts on the walls, etc.), but it’s necessary to keep pushing members of the network along.
      Thanks for the comment!
      Erin

  2. Hi Erin

    Thanks for putting the post out there. had the chance to take the Rounds training with a team from Harvard just last month and found the process, and the philosophy that supports the process, to be logical and focused on building our efficacy and internal accountability.. I appreciate how Elmore et al define learning as not being a part of our work, but actually being our work.

    I also appreciate how the ‘theory of action’ is derived from problems of practice. The idea that the issues, and students, who pose the greatest challenge could also be the source of our learning is long overdue.

    Recently, I asked my staff to consider how they would respond if they took a loved one who was ill to the doctor and were told that there was a treatment, but the doctor didn’t know how to do it, and would not be inclined to learn how to do the treatment- would they consider it acceptable? Professional?

    It is indeed, an exciting time to be a school administrator 🙂

    Brian Harrison

    • Hi Brian – I asked an experienced teacher the same thing not too long ago before school ended. A bit of context – he taught a small class of 8 students with behaviour issues. He had a certain skill set that, for 2 students in particular, tended to trigger the outbursts and behaviours he was trying “control”. He made the comment that his way of teaching has always “worked”, until these 2 kids were in his class. It didn’t occur to him to look to himself. So I asked if his daughter was sick, and he took her to an experienced doctor who treated her condition like he always had with no results, would it be acceptable to you if he kept repeating the same treatment, expecting different results, or worse, blaming your daughter for not getting better?
      Thanks for your comment!
      Erin

  3. Our school implemented instructional rounds last year and one of the hardest things for many members of the staff was to be descriptive in feedback and not jump into judgement right away. That alone really inspires a whole new way of thinking. We honestly felt that if we got staff better at just doing that then we would be better able to implement rounds this upcoming school year. The process is definitely a multiple year journey of improvement. And I loved the book too, and underlined it as much as it sounds like you did.

    • LOL! I did just that! I can’t read professional books without highlighter, post-its and countless notes on the pages. I also have a carefully planned page-folding system – small dog-ear fold for some info that I want to recall, larger dog-ear if there’s a chart or graph I want to remember, and half the page is folded if I found most if not all the page to be something I want to refer back to. The non-judgmental feedback was some of the most powerful reading for me. Rounds aside, this is going to be something I remember for every walkthrough, teacher-performance appraisal, interivew/meeting, etc.
      Thanks for the comment!
      Erin

  4. Pingback: I’m a Plunger | It's All About Learning

  5. My reply deals mainly with this quote, so I’ll copy/paste it below:
    “Embedded within this person vs. practice is the notion of “teaching styles”. I’ve often heard teachers refer to their styles, or mention that their colleague just has a different teaching style when in a parent meeting. This trivializes the idea that as teachers we have a set of practices, and undermines the need for schools and districts to develop shared practices and shared understandings when it comes to teaching and learning.”

    I found this part really intriguing…I think part of this is due to lack of knowledge of best practices and how to implement them. I know it is important for us as professionals to keep current. That being said, I just started reading info about the Numeracy and Literacy Secretariat http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/moreinfo.html when preparing for interviews in the spring. I am positive I had heard the term mentioned before in staff meetings as a casual reference when talking about School Effectiveness Framework and other things that we’ve learned about. But I really didn’t know that since 2004, there have been guidelines about best practices. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but after talking to some other teachers, they didn’t know about it either.
    Going to that site again tonight, I am having a hard time finding what I was looking for – the page talking about best practices for classroom set-up. For example, I read that groups of 4 (to 6? – can’t remember) students should be facing each other. So why aren’t all (or most) of our classrooms like this in the board? Have we been told this is best and why? I really don’t know, but I feel a real disconnect between the board & teachers about some elements that should be key for us to know. I wish we had a week prior to school beginning where all staff was present for training in initiatives & new directions for the school year. If we all got the same training, then we could all do what we’re meant to be doing.
    This isn’t meant to be a rant or a trail of excuses, but a possible reason why some people just aren’t doing what they should be doing. Maybe they simply don’t know any better.

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