Collaboration and Lemon Pancakes

Yesterday I met up with 4 other English teachers from my school to discuss Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action by Harvey and Daniels. We gathered at one teacher’s house, where we were greeted with breakfast – fruit salad, coffee, and lemon pancakes that were so good, they made me happy to be alive.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes by Patent and the Pantry

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes by Patent and the Pantry

As we ate, we talked. The conversation melded formative assessment, Understanding by Design, inquiry, the information search process, Web 2.0, quality questioning, and state and national standards, among other things. The extraordinary learning came from talking with other teachers who do not teach the same courses as I do and hearing about their best practices and working through areas of concern for implementing new strategies.  I found myself wishing that I could audit their classes because they sound so incredible.

And that’s not the first time I’ve thought about that. One other teacher in the group wondered how it would change our school’s dynamic if other teachers were in classrooms, learning alongside the students. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to take a physics class or an art class or a German class as I rush past those rooms on my way across campus. There are so many learning opportunities available in a high school for all of its stakeholders. Our superintendent said recently that historically we have given amazing educations to those who want to take advantage of the opportunities we offer, but too often  students slip through the cracks. The same is true for teachers. We have a wealth of knowledge and support available, but we are rarely given the chance to tap into it. It’s an exclusive practice that departmentalizes colleagues by subject and sometimes by courses. But I don’t think that needs to be the case. I think as lead learners in a school, adults need to start taking advantage of the possibilities that exist in our school communities by reaching out to other teachers, learning from students, and collaborating with all staff.

If we were able to sit in on each others’ classes (and not for evaluative purposes!), I wonder if students would start to see the way all of our disciplines connect.  I imagine a practice like that would at least spark some questions from them; the first, I would guess, is “what are you doing in a physics class?” If those questions were answered with genuine replies about wanting to learn and about connections we see among the subject areas, I think the impact could be tremendous.

That also got me thinking about the roles of administrators in creating a climate of learning. In the last few years, my department supervisor has been popping into classrooms for a few minutes here and there just to see what’s going on and to talk to the students about what they’re learning. At first, I was terrified when I saw him walk into my room. The scars from a couple of shaky observations my first year of teaching were still too fresh for me to be confident in my practice with an administrator around. However, after he came in a couple of times, I realized that this was not something to be afraid of. The pop-ins have become fodder for real talk about teaching and learning. He commends risk-taking, and he offers advice, not with an air of superiority. Instead, he recommends that I talk with other members of the department who are trying similar things or who have success with strategies that might compliment what I am doing. He asks questions, and he listens. And when it comes time for annual evaluations, he has 4 or 5 classroom visits and 4 or 5 in-depth discussions to draw from. The evaluations are much less about one specific class period during which he came in to nit-pick about classroom policies or to decide how well I could showcase a lesson with the most razzle-dazzle. They are now reflections of a year’s worth of professional development.

My professional growth has been incredible through those processes, and I think that collegial professional development should be expanded even more. My school really does have a wonderful group of administrators who truly have the best interest of the students in mind. I see almost all of them attend professional development courses and workshops to stay up to date on curricular shifts and progressions. Unfortunately though, not every teacher in my school has had the opportunity to work so closely with our administrators on curricular initiatives. They haven’t seen some of them tear up at the possibilities that lay before us in this time of globalization and free web technology. They haven’t listened to them discuss dreams they have for communities of learning at our school. And they certainly don’t see them research and talk with other professionals outside of our district to find out about school-wide and even curricular strategies that could revolutionize the way we all teach. Somehow that discussion and that side-by-side professional learning needs to open up among all staff members.

Similarly, I have seen very few administrators in the classroom, except when there are disciplinary issues to be taken care of or yearly evaluations to write for non-tenured teachers. That immediately limits the amount of professional development they can participate in because they don’t really know what’s going on in the classrooms around our campus. I can’t help but think that if students and teachers got to see those administrators learning with them, the entire school dynamic would change. If we could all participate in the same type of talk that exists among my supervisor, my students, my fellow English teachers and me, the positive effect for students and staff would be beyond my imagination.

Of course, I think these practices would be met with a lot of resistance from teachers who, like me, have been personally hurt by a less than stellar observation in the past and who worry that administrators are only there to catch them doing something they don’t approve of. But what I think they might quickly understand is that our administration is just as dedicated to professional and student growth as teachers are, and as long as administrators can show that by observing without judgment, that cultural shift could happen.

If we truly want to have inquisitive, creative, and hard-working students who are interested in learning, we need to model that behavior. All of us. Teachers, supervisors, administrators, and parents. We need to become part of student and teacher learning in and out of the classroom. We need to show kids that learning is fun, meaningful, and above all continuous. It doesn’t stop when we leave the building or the class, and it isn’t restricted to our content areas. Teachers and students need to see administrators join in on their learning.

Now, the question is, can we integrate administrative, supervisor, and teacher visits to classrooms throughout a school without too much uproar? And, should that be a concern? Is there an easier way to create this kind of collaborative culture without teachers worrying about the “gotcha” paradigm that exists when another adult walks into the classroom? Maybe we could just start by giving lemon pancake breakfasts as peace offerings. 🙂


8 thoughts on “Collaboration and Lemon Pancakes

  1. Well said. This captures perfectly everything we discussed and then some. I want to imagine a time where teachers and administrators listen to each other without judgment and without defensiveness. I’m at a loss as to what that first step should be, however.

  2. Hi, there! I just asked a very similar question on my Leadership Day blog post…we really are in sync! I think that your suggestions of side-by-side learning and non-judgmental visits are a great start to closing the teacher/administrator divide. Terrific post!

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  4. To address Brien’s question, I think the two key points here are relationships and communication. Ideally, if we could tear it all down and start a brand new school, I’d like to minimize or do away with entirely the linear hierarchy we find in public schools (teacher – supervisor – principal – superintendent, or what have you in each school), which would go a long way toward minimizing the judgment and defensiveness. Maybe instead of supervisors, mentors? I don’t know exactly, but as long as we have what we have, those feelings will always exist somewhere in the system.

    If we have to work within the existing system of superiors and subordinates, however, I think it’s incumbent upon the party with greater “power” in the relationship (in the case of classroom teachers, the department supervisor or whoever the immediate superior is) to communicate very clearly (as our mutual friend always does, or did with me) the nature of these visits. To go back to relationships, I think that there’s a unique dynamic at work there, since the supervisor in question used to be a teacher in the department. There’s a collegiality that exists between he and the people he once taught with that I doubt can ever be replicated with the new hires. That’s not at all a strike against the supervisor (you all know the high regard in which I hold him); I think it’s just the nature of human relationships.

    Better yet, move toward a more global model of peer coaching and/or portfolio evaluation for teachers. That eliminates entirely the sense of getting evaluated on the basis of one slice of what you do in the course of a year.

    You spoke of taking the model of the English department to the rest of the school; to what extent does that happen already? Is there a schism between “old school” and “new school” supervisors? I hate to point to age as being a demarcation line for this sort of thing, because often I think it’s intellectually lazy to do so, but I have to wonder if some of the supervisors of a certain vintage would be more or less opposed to that sort of thing.

  5. Thanks, Damian! Great questions I absolutely plan to explore! I completely agree that within our existing system, it’s up to the supervisors to build that type of rapport, but I think more than just telling teachers that they’re pop-ins are not judgmental, I think they really need to follow through. Like I said, it took several mini-observations and follow up discussions with my supervisor before I realized that I shouldn’t be threatened or worried when he came into my room. I love the feedback I got from him this year, and I feel truly privileged to have discussed my pedagogy and practice with someone so in tune with my teaching.

    I think the move toward portfolios and peer coaching would be ideal because they allow for the same type of reflection as I received from my supervisor this year. There are several problems that go along with that though, too. I know of several people who don’t like the format because it is more work for the teachers. Considering all that we do on a regular basis, I suppose that is valid; although it also seems like they are opting for the easy way out, which I doubt they would accept from their students. Additionally, I know that there have been instances where supervisors do not honor or value the peer and self evaluations. Perhaps it is due to a lack of control, or maybe it’s something else entirely, but whatever gets in the way of genuine reflection, prohibits true growth for the educators.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure how similar the supervisor practices are to other departments throughout our school or other districts, but I wouldn’t mind seeing higher level administrators of all districts adopt these practices. As the primary decision makers of any district, they should be kept abreast of daily classroom practices and should use that understanding to help guide and improve things like professional development opportunities and curricular aims.

  6. Great post, and you’ve really expressed a lot of the feelings that I have about the great opportunities that lie before us.

    I don’t necessarily see the problem, though, as a divide between teachers and administrators. My department supervisors (and other departments supervisors and administrators) are very supportive and open-minded regarding risk-taking and experimentation.

    Rather, I see more of a divide between those who embrace new ideas and tools as opportunities, and those who view them as threats to be opposed. I’ve been shocked, many times over the past year, to hear my colleagues dismiss 21st Century Skills as “just another initiative” and complain about “not fixing what ain’t broken.” These people tend to view technology as something being forced upon us, and also think “machines” when they hear “21st Century.” These teachers seem very fearful of the rapid changes occurring.

    This is understandable, though, considering that teaching has been traditionally viewed as a safe, secure, profession. As a result, it has tended to attract those who are comfortable following established rules, patterns, and models. Unfortunately, things are changing at an incredible pace, and these changes will likely have a Darwinian effect upon the teaching profession. Those who are excited about exploring what education can become are in a good position to become future leaders; those who remain fearful may face professional extinction. I feel very fortunate, personally, to work for a school that places such a high value on continuing education and professional learning.

  7. Cathy, well stated. I am thankful though that our district is supportive of what we are doing and where we want to take the profession. Can you imagine how scary it would be if the climate was not conducive to this work? I think as we take the steps forward that we are taking we will see the change we want to see. The few times I popped into your classroom when we were on break today made me feel awesome b/c so many different teachers from different disciplines were in there, and they seemed generally interested in practical uses for 21c skills. I’ll try and join in on the group more frequently this coming year. Are you all camping out in the IMC again this year?

  8. One baby-step could be to co-plan and co-teach a unit with a colleague after introducing the kids to the idea and the colleague and frame the unit so that the colleagues are facilitating lead learners, interacting and modeling their learning alongside the kids. You could then invite others to join in in a co-learner capacity as they are inclined to do so. They would know the framework of the unit (the texts and tasks) and could drop in for a little learning. Are you game?

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