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Breaking Down Classroom Doors: The Role Leaders Play

Peer observation has long been seen as a pivot point for the improvement of teaching and learning, but seldom has the role of building leaders to get that started been examined.

Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (1990) coined the term “public teaching” 35 years ago. It refers to teachers teaching in the presence of peers and having productive conversations afterward. Richard Elmore (2008) wrote some years ago that “it is virtually impossible for teachers to improve their practice if they can’t watch each other teach.” There are many echoes of that sentiment back over the decades. For example, Heibert, Gallimore and Stigler (Ed Week, Nov 6, 2003) wrote, “The process starts by learning to analyze the details of ordinary classroom instruction, with all its warts and foibles, and then learning to see more effective ways of teaching. But to do this, to even begin down this path, teachers must be willing to open their doors. They must be willing to allow others to use their lessons as data that can be examined and discussed . . . a professional activity open to collective observations, study, and improvement.”

There is evidence that when peer observation is frequent, student achievement rises beyond expectations (see the decades-long track record of Elmont Jr.-Sr. High school in Nassau County, N.Y. featured on The Education Trust website).

In order to support frequent peer observation, teachers must believe they can be vulnerable in front of their colleagues without being judged or disdained. Some lessons will not go as planned; that is inevitable. Mistakes are opportunities for learning, and surprises are routine! So, to create the conditions of basic trust for peer observation to be effective, leaders need to model vulnerability themselves.

Safety to be vulnerable is the liberator. To be sure, if my leader does not have basic competence to keep the wheels turning (student entry and dismissal, cafeteria behavior) then I won’t have trust, to say nothing of respect. The same goes for having my back with parent complaints. But if that leader also builds trust that it will be safe to be vulnerable in front of peers, then the pathway is open. Such trust building begins when the leader is willing to model it herself.

The take-off point for the improvement of teaching in a building is the willingness to be vulnerable in front of one another so that we can go deeply into problem-solving and the inventive thinking and sharing among staff that goes with it. In addition, the parallel job of leaders is to acknowledge the complexity of teaching and the huge range of knowledge and skills that are continually learned over one’s career. Learning is never done.