Frank McCullough essay

“Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this…” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I reflect back on my twenty years of teaching, I am actually quite amazed at how little time I have spent working with other teachers and administrators with a specific focus on my teaching and student learning.  In large, district secondary schools my colleagues never came to my room and my principal observed me and my class once a year, checking random boxes on a district form that I then was asked to sign.

Moving to a charter school, this situation improved.  The common expectation was to collaborate with other colleagues, plan together and occasionally “team-teach”.  We worked together in “Professional Learning Committees” and “Critical Friends Groups”, sharing dilemmas and looking at student work.  This brand of professional collaboration-with actual conversations about teaching and learning- was rather transformative for me as an educator.  Although it was far better than the isolated and sterile version of the craft practiced in district schools, I still felt we neglected the “in-the-moment” classroom practice -how teachers organized and managed classrooms, and our direct work with students.  After all, this is where the rubber meets the road, right?

As I have transitioned in to an instructional leadership role, I have pondered the relationship between the administrator and teacher, and how this relationship can lead to improved student engagement and achievement.Fortunately, years ago, I was introduced to two foundational concepts that have shifted my thinking:  the fractal theory, and the ‘provoke and support’ model.   To put it simply, my interpretation of the fractal theory in education is, what adults are asked to do shouldn’t look entirely different from what students are asked to do. In short, I have come to believe that modeling is everything.  We, as adults in schools, should always strive to “be” what we expect our students to be.  We should place high expectations on ourselves academically, intellectually and behaviorally; endeavoring to model ethical and empathetic conduct.  And through intellectual provocation and social and emotional support, we can model and teach our students to strive to do likewise.  So, by applying the fractal metaphor to my new role as well as the guiding principle of provoke and support, shouldn’t my work with teachers look similar to how I worked with students?

Pursuantly, I now try to ground my work as an instructional leader in day-to-day classroom presence and observation, with the goal of building relationships and engaging with teachers using the ‘provoke and support’ model.  I utilize different types of observations including the 3-5 minute “pop-in”, the 10-20 minute visit with written feedback, the full- class scripting visit, and class video taping.

The text The Three-Minute Classroom Walk-Through; Changing School Supervisory Practice One Teacher At a Time has helped me to address the issue of limited time for administrators to visit classrooms.  We simply have to contend with this restraint by taking advantage of any time we might grab for quick, 3-5 minute class visits with a specific focus on student safety and engagement and the curricular and instructional decisions that teachers make.  The text also gives the reader strategies to follow-up with teachers and engages in brief yet meaningful discussions regarding teaching and learning.  I have found these visits helpful in maintaining classroom presence, keeping me generally informed regarding classroom practice (a colleague recently paid me a complement by stating, “you know our work”), and providing me with “snapshots” of information that can then inform follow-up discussions about classroom practice as well as individual and whole-group professional development.

The 10-20 minute visit with an accompanying note practice was inspired by Larry Myatt, who also recommended the ‘fractal’ theory and the ‘provoke and support’ model.  As Larry describes it, the practice of initially keeping the notes low-stakes and strengths-based energizes the teacher and builds trust and credibility between the administrator and teacher.  As we move through the school year the written feedback I provide evolves from celebratory and supportive, to more provocative with an effort to provide less experienced teachers with specific strategies and engage more experienced teachers as a reflective partner.  As I have incorporated these visits I have noticed that teachers will even begin to seek more critical feedback.

I have used hour-long classroom scripting activities for both more formal observations focusing on problems of practice as well as yearly teacher evaluations.  Typically for this format I will first meet with the teacher to identify a specific area of focus.  This is the “lens” through which to view the class and the script is an evidence-based, descriptive document that focuses on teacher and student actions and tasks.  I will also embed questions and prompts in the text which we will discuss in a follow-up debrief.

            Video taping can be used in various formats:  I have watched video clips with the presenting teacher as a teaching and learning discussion spring board, shared clips in teams with a specific content-area focus, and shared video with the whole faculty to foster school-wide discussions regarding teaching and learning.  Like student portfolios, I feel there is great potential using video as artifact and a text for documenting and measuring growth in practice.

From the text Instructional Rounds in Education, I have learned to ground feedback for teachers in concrete and specific terms, being mindful of “staying low on the ladder of inference”, avoiding judgmental language and striving to meet the overall goal of being descriptive.  Now I quite frequently use, “I heard”, “I saw” statements when communicating with teachers.  In fact, through classroom observation, I have begun to shift my overall perspective and outlook-making me more sensitive towards descriptive, specific, evidence-based language versus “climbing up the rungs” to evaluative and judgmental statements.  Ironically, in my position, I am responsible for faculty evaluations.  However, I have learned from the text to not classify teaching practice as “good” or “bad”, but instead, to simply pose the question, “What is the next level of work for this classroom?”

Another important learning for me was distinguishing between when teachers have the capacity and energy to fully engage in reflective practice, and when teachers simply need additional support.  Unfortunately, in my experience, teacher observation and evaluation was often an end-of-year activity, a compliance issue of “dotting i’s and crossing t’s”.  Could there be a less optimal time when folks are worn out, managing end-of-year projects and performances, wrapping up finals and grades, and ready for a much needed and well deserved break-to be trying to engage as a reflective partner and foster professional growth?  No, this is best done earlier in the school year, when people are able to hear constructive feedback and have more time and energy to implement change.

In my experience, consistently visiting and observing classrooms breaks down walls and builds relationships with teachers, particularly when one initially takes an assets-based approach.  As a colleague at my school said, consistent presence in teacher’s classrooms “opens the door to conversation” regarding teaching and learning.  She also identified the shift from “once-a-year” evaluative classroom observations to an ongoing presence with grounding in day-to-day instruction and that “teachers know that you have a helpful perspective as to how their class runs.”

Frank McCullough is the Director of Instruction and Assessment at the Amy Biehl High School in Albuquerque, NM. Prior to that, he was Curriculum and Instruction Coordinator at the Native American Charter Academy, and a Humanities teacher at Amy Biehl HS. He is also a musician and outdoor enthusiast.