As Covid continues to be disruptive for schools, educational leaders live in the tension of returning to important priorities, while caring for teachers moving through trauma as we think about a return to a semblance of normalcy. How do we strive toward continuous quality improvement and care for ourselves – at the same time? As part of my professional growth and renewal plan this year, I sat down with our school’s principal to offload three major responsibilities, leaving room for me to be present for my primary role: visiting classes and having reflecting conversations with teachers about student learning – helping teachers think and act in new ways. These class visits and resulting conversations are mission-driven and correlate to the way in which we desire to proceed as a school.
As a reference for my work, I created a faculty composite that includes:
- teacher-created growth and renewal goals,
- specific areas to observe and discuss based upon school initiatives, and
- targets for the number of visits/year, specific to each teacher (in consultation with our principal’s team).
In addition, I simplified the class visit rubric. After each class visit, I email teachers concrete, observable feedback on the rubric, along with suggesting a specific time for a 20-minute reflecting conversation – usually within 24-48 hours of the visit – instead of asking teachers to schedule a follow-up conversation time with me.
So far, I have visited 44 classrooms and provided written feedback based on observations to all 44 of those teachers. I have also had 40 conversations (to date) with teachers, which is an increase by nearly 75%, compared to the same time period from years past. Not only has there been increased activity, but also our post-visit reflecting conversations are more focused on specific components of the class and concrete student actions. Reflecting conversations have 9 qualities that make them impactful for teachers.
Reflecting conversations are scheduled within a few days of the class visit, making it easier for teachers to recall the events of the particular class and reinforce the importance of taking time for meta-cognition. These conversations take place when we both “remember what happened and are interested in using that information as a springboard for further professional growth” (Brookhart, Moss, ASCD).
Brief & Structured
In my post-visit note, I remind teachers that the reflecting conversation is brief – 15-20 minutes – easing anxiety and tension around just another added responsibility in an always crazy teaching day. Keeping conversations brief is an excuse for structure and focus – we want to make the most of our time together. Upon entering the reflecting conversation with the teacher, I am clear about the time and purpose. I set the conversation context by saying:
- This is a different kind of conversation than we may have had in the past. It should last between 15-20 minutes.
- This is a structured conversation about the class I most recently visited and any other areas you’d like to think through to improve. It is about your experiences.
- It is not a conversation about my opinions on what I saw during my visit. I will also refrain from offering you insights, opinions, or suggestions – unless you ask for them.
- The intent of this conversation is to allow you to think through your class, student learning, patterns you have, and choices you make – so that from your reflections you can think about future ways of proceeding. Again, this conversation is not about me. Rather, it’s focus is on you, your class, and student learning.
- Therefore, I will ask you sequenced questions, I will note your responses, and I will take a picture of the notes I’m taking about your reflections, to send to you, so that you can use your own reflections as a resource for your future.
During reflecting conversations, I ask a series of sequenced questions based on the Cognitive Coaching Reflecting Conversation Map. These questions also correlate to the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm that we use in our school (context, experience, reflection, action, and evaluation). These questions are intended to “strengthen professional performance by enhancing one’s ability to examine familiar patterns of practice and reconsider underlying assumptions that guide and direct action” (Costa, Garmston 5). Here are the questions I ask teachers (and I have similar questions I ask counselors):
- This conversation is about the class I most recently visited and any other areas you would like to think through, to improve. Think back to the particular class I visited. What happened? Share your impressions of the lesson. (IPP – Context, Experience, Reflection)
- In thinking about some of the particulars you saw from students, what stands out for you to point out some of the student learning you had hoped to see (data)? Did your lesson achieve what you desired for your students to achieve? How do you know? (IPP – Experience, Reflection)
- What factors during the class led to student learning? (IPP – Experience, Reflection)
- How is this class similar to or different from other classes you teach? (IPP – Experience, Reflection)
- Have you had the opportunity to look at my reflections from the lesson (my email)? What reactions do you have about it? What would you like to talk about? (IPP – Experience, Reflection)
- Based on this class and our conversation today, what will you use in your classes in the future? (IPP – Action)
- How has this conversation helped you? (IPP – Evaluation)
These questions focus the teacher’s reflection on the particular class components and impressions, student learning and data, factors that impact student learning, comparisons and contrasts, and the future.
The reflecting conversation advances the thinking and action of teachers. Similar to the role a retreat director plays with a retreatant during the Spiritual Exercises, the role I play during this reflecting conversation is as facilitator of the reflecting process / as a mirror to the educator. Having this particular conversation presupposes that any meaningful teacher growth comes about as a direct result of the teacher’s thinking and self-discovery. “Self-discovery is a process of reflection that is built into coaching as a learning habit. Self-discovery is a process that reaches the colleague on both an affective level and a cognitive level. It is designed around a set of questions that the person must think through and react to with concrete responses (Costa, Garmston 39).
By reflecting on a specific classroom experience and its broader implications, then by thinking about their own thinking, teachers engaged in a reflecting conversation will hopefully surface priorities for when they move into the future – areas they choose, not areas I mandate or suggest.
Toward the end of a successful reflecting conversation, teachers should verbalize their own areas for focus. Here are some examples of responses to one of the final questions I ask: Based on this class and our conversation today, what will you think about or use in the future?
- I am a fine arts and computer teacher now, but I want to teach math in the future.
- I need to be doing a better job of collaborating with a colleague who I said I would collaborate with earlier in the year.
- I’d like to focus on the freshmen building project, with our maker-space bins. Where are they?
- I want to work with my department to create an art show on our campus, for grade-schoolers.
- Designing and teaching this class for the first time, I want to keep in mind what’s essential and what I can eliminate – for next semester.
Each of these responses originates from reflective teachers, not me. In fact, most of their responses happily surprise me because I have no premonition, design, or ulterior motive during reflecting conversations. These reflecting conversations are intended only to help teachers think and plan for themselves.
The final question I ask during reflecting conversations is evaluative: “How has this conversation helped you?” This allows teachers to step back to think about their own thinking. Often times, teacher responses include new ways of thinking and acting. Often times, though, their responses honor reflection, for reflection’s sake:
- Talking through my class with someone else is a good practice that I rarely engage in but need to do more of.
- This conversation provided me with a reflective framework and road map.
- The conversation was for me and about me.
- The conversation gave me confidence.
- It helped me to vocalize reasons for doing what I do – with another person.
- I don’t ordinarily think about the class after it happens. This conversation helped my thinking.
- It’s good to talk things through and debrief – about where I am headed and how I revise my plans.
- This conversation helped me to think about what works and what doesn’t work – an opportunity for me to think about how I can be better.
How can I be better? Ultimately, a reflecting conversation leads teachers to think about how past experiences drive future actions – to improve student learning. Although this is not a planning or problem-solving conversation, the reflecting conversation produces self-driven action. I ask, “Based on this class and our conversation today, what will you think about in the future?” Here are a few examples of action items that teachers develop from reflecting conversations:
- Agree upon student success indicators and create a student behavior expectations poster as a classroom reference.
- Have more department conversations following up on our summer curriculum work.
- Depend on the experience of others in helping me manage stress.
- Work on the specific growth and renewal goals we (just) identified.
- Track evidence of student learning during class activities.
- Follow up with a colleague about our collaborative strategies we identified earlier in the year.
- Create more structure to my syllabus, providing students with a clear idea of my expectations
- Create student-based examples, as exemplars.
- Reference course outcomes more frequently with students.
- Observe a colleague’s class, to get class management ideas.
These action items did not originate from me and are not mandated by me. Rather, they surfaced as a direct result of teachers reflecting on their own experiences.
Teachers receive immediate written feedback on the visit rubric (after my visit, via an email) and on the photo I send them immediately after our reflecting conversation. Teachers reference this feedback, and I reference their reflections during subsequent class visits and conversations. I use notes as conversation starters and to help teachers track their own growth.
My hand-written notes during post-visit reflecting conversations have the date and conversation time, along with the name of the teacher at the top. The one-pager includes the sequenced questions I ask and teacher reflections. I box important threads during the conversation, and I highlight action items. We also talk briefly about their growth and renewal goals, as well as other areas of focus that I note at the bottom of the page (based upon the composite I create at the beginning of the school year). Below is an example of a photo I send immediately after our conversation.
Awareness & Autonomy
As teachers participate in their first few reflecting conversations, they become introduced to what might at first be perceived as a rigid framework. But, they also experience a new way of thinking about their work –that sidelines my input, opinions, and suggestions and promotes teacher self-awareness. I began these types of conversations 15 years ago after an introductory Cognitive Coaching Seminar. I have always kept in mind a pivotal comment one teacher made to me 10 years ago, after engaging in 5 reflecting conversations over 2 years. She said, “You are teaching me the habit of thinking about my actions, identifying my own issues and challenges, and problem-solving for myself. When you left, I had the tools for my own growth.”
That powerful comment is affirmation and consolation that this particular Cognitive Coaching map, the reflecting conversation, achieves its goal, “teacher autonomy: the ability to self-monitor, self-analyze, and self-evaluate” (Garmston, Linder, Whitaker). Isn’t that what we want for our professional development and for teachers? Take People Where They Are
What about those teachers who are not in a position to engage in a reflecting conversation post-visit or those who need suggestions? Of the 40 conversations, two stand out – for two reasons.
When I entered into a reflecting conversation with one veteran teacher, I soon realized he was not in the mental or emotional state to have a reflecting conversation about his class. Even though I was clear about the conversation framework and attempted to redirect his reflections to align with the class and his students, this teacher was unable to put aside other concerns – both personal and professional. After about 5 minutes, I put aside the reflecting conversation framework and we just talked about what was on his mind. He left having felt listened to by me.
Another teacher, newer to education, participated in a reflecting conversation but needed concrete suggestions and specific strategies. When he asked for suggestions, I stopped the conversation and said, “Let’s step out of this reflecting conversation, and I’ll offer you a few suggestions.” He was grateful for the suggestions he could use with students.
When teachers need something other than a reflecting conversation, I abandon the goals of the reflecting conversation and give them what they need.