Why Training Matters to Improve Classroom Observation
It’s summer. The grass is green, the pools are open, and our five Network for Educator Effectiveness trainers rack up the miles on the road for training. For educators, summer is a time for renewal and a time for growth. From our beginnings, NEE has looked at our summer training sessions through that lens: renewal and growth.
The role of training for educator evaluation
It is a renewal and growth that we hope to cultivate for each of our participants, but also a renewal and growth of our own efforts at providing the NEE Advantage. Throughout the rest of this article I am going to share why renewal and growth matter as we work with district and school-level leaders.
The role of instructional leadership cannot be overstated in how critical it is to the success of students, the growth of teachers, and the general improvement of the school. Throughout the year, educational leaders are pulled in many directions with multiple responsibilities. We seek to create a space during our trainings to focus attention on instructional leadership.
There are two types of workshops through NEE: an initial Year One Training for first-year evaluators and a yearly Recertification Training for returning evaluators. Both workshops provide a space for district and school-level leaders to engage with activities, reflection, and conversation around instructional leadership. Initial Year One Trainings cover two days around classroom observation essentials, our online evaluation system, effective feedback guidance, and our online professional development library, EdHub. Our recertification sessions focus on classroom observation recalibration around specific indicators of effective teaching practice and further guidance on effective feedback and instructional change.
The focus is clear: Let’s practice classroom observations, let’s practice giving feedback on those observations, and let’s work towards growth of ourselves, teachers, and our schools.
Continuous classroom observation improvement
One way to think of training is as a learning cycle for an evaluator’s own classroom observation skills. A dirty secret (maybe not so secret) of classroom observation is that it’s truly not an educative skill. Evaluating classroom observations is actually evaluating complex human behaviors and interactions. To become effective at the evaluation of those complex human behaviors takes hours of initial practice and continuous recalibration cycles to grow and sustain accuracy.
We begin to grow accuracy through our first-year training. We first work to grow an understanding of a specific effective teaching practice, one that is widely chosen as a focused indicator by our current school districts. That understanding includes a walkthrough of the language of the rubric for that specific indicator of effective teaching practice, a discussion around how the teaching practice may look in different classrooms, and a process of evaluating teachers in classroom observation videos. Throughout the two days of training, we follow this same exercise with six indicators. The idea is to get our evaluators comfortable using the rubric and confident in being able to see that effective teaching indicator in classroom practice. At the end of each day of training, participants take an exam to measure their skills and provide NEE a baseline of their evaluative accuracy.
As participants leave training, one key discussion point NEE trainers share is to begin this journey of evaluating complex human behaviors in a low-stakes and collaborative manner. We encourage our school leaders to begin classroom observations as soon as possible in actual classrooms and to continue those as frequently as they can. At first it can be awkward, it can be unnerving, it can be hard. It’s a new skill, and evaluators may be outside of their comfort zone. But evaluators can only improve their skills through a commitment to practice those skills. And it is best to complete the first round or two of observations with others – experienced or new. It gives a chance to grow accuracy across multiple school leaders, and it gives a chance to talk through the evidence that was collected through the observation. It is during the school year that leaders must become accountable for their own growth in evaluating effective teaching practice.
After evaluators go through the first-year NEE training, they come back every year for recertification. Recertification continues the process of growing and sustaining accuracy of classroom observations. As NEE trainers and school leaders come back together during recertification training, we re-engage with rubrics, assess more videos of classroom observation, and complete another exam to assess accuracy in teacher evaluation through classroom observations.
The cycle is one of renewal and growth. It is a cycle between guided practice during our NEE summer workshops, individual practice with feedback via the exam, and self-practice through the classroom observation process in each specific school through the year. The skills to be an accurate evaluator of classroom observations are just like any other skills: They are a continuous learning cycle.
Develop skills to provide teachers effective feedback
A difficult piece of instructional leadership comes in developing the skills to provide effective feedback that elicits growth in teachers. Like classroom observation practice, the skill of how to deliver feedback is never covered in graduate school classes, nor is it readily available in most leadership professional development opportunities.
From the beginning of our training and implementation in schools, a constant desire of our instructional leaders was more practice with providing feedback. Over the past couple of years, our own research and emerging research from educational evaluation has shined a light on the need to increase the chances for evaluators to learn how to give feedback to teachers.
We have responded to all of those insights, and we are excited about the emerging feedback learning NEE is able to provide. First, we developed the NEE Guide to Effective Feedback Conversations. Second, we introduced feedback learning into our recertification sessions during last summer’s workshops. For 2019-2020, that feedback learning continues in recertification workshops and is integrated within our initial Year One sessions as well.
NEE summer trainings provide the unique opportunity of observing classrooms with other district and school leaders in the same environment. We take advantage of that opportunity by asking workshop participants to engage in practicing feedback through guided practice. The NEE Guide to Effective Feedback Conversations serves as the template for the conversations. The videos we use for classroom observation evaluation serve as the generating source for the feedback. Both pave the way for leaders to determine how to provide feedback, where to focus their feedback, and how to coach the teacher toward instructional improvement. And what better people to give feedback on that feedback practice than other instructional leaders? We believe there is no one better.
Together NEE grows and improves through guided practice that can only occur in an engaging training environment. That begins the renewal process. The instructional leader emerges from training with new skills on how to deliver feedback that they can then use throughout the year. They are able to grow as leaders through the new skills, their teachers are able to grow through better feedback being provided for them, and the school is able to improve through a focused and continuous growth cycle that accompanies the evaluation process.
Engage in instructional leadership and educator evaluation conversations
Henry Longfellow once said, “A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.” Each year as we develop the curriculum for our NEE trainings, we consider that same crucial element: conversation. We seek to provide opportunities for both structured and unstructured conversations around instructional leadership and educator evaluation.
We develop chances for instructional leaders to engage with each other in evaluating and scoring classroom observations, discussing possible feedback to give to teachers, and mapping out ways for instructional growth in their districts or schools. It is exciting to hear the thoughts, the plans, and the camaraderie that flourishes among training participants. Instructional leaders at all levels – whether they be superintendents, assistant superintendents, district-level directors and coordinators, lead principals, assistant principals, special education directors, instructional coaches, subject area coordinators, and sometimes even teachers – support each other, generate ideas from each other, and share out how NEE works for their districts and schools.
And that is just what happens during the structured conversation.
Our workshops, and our trainers, are also flexible enough to engage with instructional leaders on the questions and issues that are most concerning to them and their experience with NEE. Our trainers are experts in the Network for Educator Effectiveness and all come from practical experiences within schools as superintendents, directors, principals, assistant principals, and teachers. Each trainer is able to speak on their own experiences as an instructional leader and how NEE can improve that experience. Each is also able to honor the questions and discussions that may arise during a training. We like to say to our workshop participants that they should not leave the training without their questions answered. And we mean it. We are there for the learning of our participants, and we want to make sure we give each participant the attention, the advice, and the answers they deserve.
Those structured and unstructured conversations provide a renewal: a renewed understanding of the evaluation process; a renewed engagement with indicators, scoring rubrics, and educator evaluation essentials; and a renewed interest in providing effective feedback that leads to instructional growth.
Hopefully both conversations also provide for a more cohesive and collaborative network. We have the great advantage and honor of serving approximately 2,000 instructional leaders in our network. Each goes through the same growth process and training session. As those leaders talk with each other in training, we hope those connections are continued and a personalized learning network emerges for each of our instructional leaders. Instructional leadership improves when other instructional leaders can serve as peers, mentors, and supporters. We encourage our participants to be a true network member and rely on the expertise of those peers, mentors and supporters whenever needed.
Training for improvement
Why do we do annual trainings? Because of how important it is to renew and grow instructional leadership.
Classroom observations are at the core of instructional leadership and school improvement. To be able to be a leader and lead a school toward continuous improvement, the observations have to be accurate, and evaluators must be confident in their abilities to assess complex human behaviors. That process is not a one-off event. It is a continuous growth process that can always be honed and furthered.
Yet conducting classroom observations is lost without effective feedback. Effective feedback is its own process. It works with classroom observation skills but has its own independent skillset that needs to constantly be renewed and grown. NEE is fortunate to be able to provide the environment that allows for the growth of feedback skills in conjunction with the practice of classroom observation essentials.
And we know practice happens through guided and structured conversation built within our training sessions. But it also occurs through unstructured conversation and independent practice. It is the growth that happens for each individual that is critical, and that can only happen in evaluation during the school year.
After each year, the renewal comes. It is a chance to reconnect with NEE, to share what worked and what did not. It is a chance to renew understanding. The chance to grow accuracy. The chance to emerge with new skills. A commitment to training is how we grow and renew. As a network. And as individual instructional leaders.
The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.