Encouraging Classroom Visits and Peer Observations

Heather Anderson remembers the year she decided to go to art with her second grade class as “magical.” As she worked on art projects alongside her students, she saw children who struggled academically “shining in these different ways,” and she learned art techniques that she brought back to the classroom. The experience also helped her students see their teacher in a whole new way. “Our relationship changed because they saw me as a whole person and as a learner, just like them.”

When teachers spend time in one another’s classrooms, the benefits can be tremendous, not just for teachers and students, but for the whole school.  Colleagues who observe one another strengthen relationships and pick up new teaching strategies. When they see their students in other contexts, teachers gain insights about what those children need to thrive. And students also benefit from getting to know the adults in their school better.

Yet for many of the adults in school, making time to observe one another can be quite challenging. This is one area where strong support from school leadership can make a significant difference. Here are some ideas to consider if you want to try to create more opportunities for classroom visits and peer observations at your school:

Provide Release Time or Coverage

By giving teachers time to observe one another’s classrooms, school leaders convey the message that adult learning and collegial relationships are important. Dennis Copeland, principal of Ironia Elementary in Randolph, New Jersey, provides release time for teachers to observe each other, and also makes a point of establishing that all meetings and observations should have a purposeful, positive tone. “At Ironia,” he explains, “there’s a schoolwide understanding that teachers collaborate and observe for the purpose of supporting each other as professional practitioners.”

At Newman Elementary in Needham, Massachusetts, a group of teachers established a program that allows small groups of adults to observe a colleague in action in his or her classroom. The program, called Lab Classrooms, also allows time for groups to plan and debrief about what they saw. Classroom coverage for teachers who want to participate is provided by teaching assistants. (For more about this program, see the article listed under “Further Reading” below.)

Make Morning Meeting Schoolwide

Morning Meeting is a great time for specialists, administrators, and other school staff to visit classrooms. School leaders can facilitate this by scheduling a schoolwide Morning Meeting block: twenty to thirty minutes when all classrooms hold Morning Meeting. No pull-outs, push-ins, or specials classes take place during that time.

Principal Stephanie Bisson at Woodlawn Elementary in Alexandria, Virginia, has done this, and it’s made it possible for specialists at Woodlawn to attend Morning Meetings daily. The specialists choose one classroom to visit during the first quarter and then rotate to other classrooms throughout the rest of the year.

Joining a classroom’s Morning Meeting can help adults see the children they teach in a new light. Here’s one example: at the school where I was an administrator, I remember a physical education teacher who sat in on a classroom Morning Meeting and was surprised that a boy who struggled to stay on task in PE was so attentive and focused. The physical education teacher identified some nonverbal supports the teacher used to keep the child engaged (seating him near her, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder) and later tried them herself, successfully, with that student in the gym.

Share Leadership of Morning Meetings

Getting all the adults in school actively involved in Morning Meetings also builds capacity and common knowledge about this key Responsive Classroom practice. Adult visitors should participate in Morning Meeting greetings, sharing, and activities; in many schools, once a regular visitor becomes familiar with the routine, she or he may also lead some parts.

When all the adults in a school attend Morning Meeting each day, specialists become familiar with the routine and can even provide coverage for homeroom teachers when needed. For instance, at Penn Valley Elementary in Levittown, Pennsylvania, on days when a class had a substitute teacher, a staff member would often help get things off to a good start by leading Morning Meeting. Keeping this key routine in place, led by an adult familiar to the children, helped the rest of the day go more smoothly for the children and the substitute.

Working Together for Children’s Sake

Getting teachers into one another’s classrooms isn’t always easy, but any steps you can take in this direction will yield benefits. Teachers will get to know their students better, and they’ll also get to know their colleagues better. The results: better teaching, better learning, and a stronger school community.

Babs Freeman-Loftis, Responsive Classroom professional development specialist, was assistant head of the lower school at the University School of Nashville for nine years, and before that, a physical education teacher.

Tags: Building Schoolwide Community, Classroom Visitors, Guest Teachers, Professional Community