This past week was a big one for Pope. I guess it was not so much a big week but more a week that we had been leading up to. We had our District Review this week as 18 administrators and central staff visited our school to tour classrooms and look for student voice to give a third party interpretation of what is going on in the school. There is a pretty comprehensive process to the review in that it really starts the year before as the staff looks to choose a couple of things that the review team is to focus on. Generally what they are looking for is something that the community feels they are actively working on and something that they are quite proud of. The team visits classrooms, observing the learning environment and talking to students about their learning and their feelings about the school. The day is rather interesting as classroom teachers are really not used to other adults being in their room while they are instructing, but I found the entire process of district review much more interesting and useful.
Don’t get me wrong, I look forward to the more detailed report that will be coming to the school in a couple of weeks to see what all the observations were but they visited classrooms for 15 minutes. They team will offer a small snapshot of a moment in time so anyone looking at this report will have to take that into consideration. I find the reflections and discussions that came with District Review to be much more interesting. We have spent really the entire year taking a look at our own practice in anticipation for the visit. Even though this was not an evaluation of any kind, there is always a sense of wanting to put your best foot forward when guests are over, so there was a spirit of preparation around the school this year.
What I found as key is selecting and constantly revisiting a central focus or foci in the hopes of making improvements in these areas. We chose descriptive feedback as our focus this year, and I would argue that the process will probably stay pretty consistent for the next couple of years. It has been interesting to see how one educational practice can permeate so many aspects of the classroom. Descriptive Feedback has been the central rally around which our work on the Third Teacher has spun. When looking at your learning space if you design for the purpose of student feedback, it becomes impossible to stay in rows with a focus on the front of the room. IF you consider how best to lay out your room so that students have access to the teacher, their peers and even people from all over the world to give and receive feedback and thus improve their work, you cannot tell me that an Industrial Revolution-inspired classroom works the best. You have to think totally differently and I have started to see some of that in our rooms.
This reflection on descriptive feedback has also been central to the technology that we have bought. Staff is considering how technology can assist with offering feedback to students and this has them exploring iPads, D2L, Edmodo and other tools meant to enhance learning.
The impact of descriptive feedback has truly been central to the work I have done as principal as well. Some people on staff will say that I have come in and made a lot of changes in my first few months here, (some may even say too many), but the truth of the matter is that I have done very little. I have not, and would argue even, cannot actually execute much in the way of real change in a school. The teachers and students have to do that. The most that any principal can do is to create avenues and channels for discussion and then be willing to accept feedback from staff about how the school should function. Changing the way staff meetings are run was not my idea and has not been something that has had much to do with me. Aside from saying, “That sounds like an interesting idea…let’s give it a shot.” I really had nothing to do with that. I asked staff if they were interested in taking part in some discussions about 21C Learning and then helping to make decisions about technology purchases, PD models and school improvement endeavours, lots of people jumped on it. I showed a 5 minute video at a staff meeting showing people thinking differently about their classrooms and then I said that I would fund people if they wanted to try the same, and in the space of a couple of months 10 classrooms look much different. While I would love to take credit for the amazing stuff that people saw at our District Review, the truth is that it has very little to do with me.
The real impact this year, I feel, has been professional reflection. Taking a look at your own practice and then considering what you could do better. What you could try to add energy or a new perspective to what you are doing. It is quite easy to fall into a certain level of complacency in education because you get a new audience every year. Your lessons, no matter how recycled, could seem new to every grade 9 class but the truth is that change is what keeps us fresh. To add to this, real change is ONLY possible with genuine reflection and then an environment which allows for professional feedback from colleagues to help everyone improve.
I have seen plenty of this since our District Review process started and so I am truly sad to see it end. I would gladly go through the process every year and I think that the best schools must basically do this type of process internally every year. They should be looking for opportunities to visit each others classrooms and offer insight into what they see. They are open to hearing criticism from colleagues without misinterpreting it as judgement or insult. They offer feedback to their administration in regards to the way that the school is being run. They resist the tempting but ultimately unprofessional practice of complaining about things in the staff room and then never bringing it up. The principal and vice principals at the best schools in the world have to constantly seek out this feedback and look for ways to accept advice and suggestions while also accepting the responsibility of having to be the one to make the final, (and sometimes unpopular), decisions.
In my next post I will discuss an exciting PD model that we are going to pilot throughout our school this year and it, (not surprisingly) centres around the idea of professionals taking the time to be reflective and to help other professionals with their own reflection. I am very excited about the possibilities that this plan may offer but until then I will sit for a few moments reflecting on the success of this year’s District Review and counting my blessings that I found my way to this most amazing school.