Saturday, September 16, 2017

Recruit/ Retain/ Support Highly Effective People: Support- The Instructional Focus Document, Our answer to the Walkthrough

Thank you to Wes Bradley, principal of Thomas Nelson High School for the inspiration for this document.  We sat down over the 16-17 summer and talked shop, and one of the most impressive things I took from the conversation was how he gave feedback, a living document in his building.  He uses something similar in his school, and like most things in education that work, we adapt what we like from it, turn it to our purposes, and give our spin to the work.  @wesbradley_ if you want to give him a follow.  Guy has a sharp mind and his school is rocking.

For this post I’m going to talk about the priority instructional initiative in my school this year: our Instructional Feedback document.  I’m painting myself into the corner with this post, as right now as of this writing we’ve rolled it out, and started to have it filled out among our staff.  Below I’m going to describe the document, its purpose, and what I hope to achieve.  Later on this year I’ll write an update on whether or not we actually got any value from it, or it fell flat on its face.

A bit of a risk, but why not?

This fits into the theme I've been writing about: Recruit/ Retain/ Support Highly Effective staff by speaking directly to the support notion.  I think a supported staff is one that has consistent feedback to drive instruction forward.

I don’t as a general rule like walkthroughs tied to metric numbers.  As a profession I think we are killing some of the art of teaching and learning by tying such a variable heavy field to metrics (like the ELEOT).  While these are useful for snapshot data points in our schools, I question the validity of using them to really drive whole school improvement.  This thought process comes from a basic question: “Do I want to get better because I want my number better?”  I’d rather have our staff live in the realm of anecdotal, descriptive feedback to improve practice.  John Hattie will tell you that descriptive feedback is what drives growth.  I know in my own practice both as a teacher, and evaluating teachers, descriptive feedback brings questions to the table, and improves practice.  To that end, I wanted to work with a document where we did just that, and hopefully will do it often.

A couple basic premises I wanted:
1. Descriptive feedback is the basis.
2. Divided into both a Cultural goal and into an instructional goal, determined by the teacher
3. Living document, ongoing that can updated in real time

I am not a staunch advocate of the Danielson Framework.  I don’t think it was ever really intended to be used in the manner many states are using it, and I feel like it’s rollout in my own state was rushed.  It has engendered a fair amount of bad press, gnashing of teeth, and dislike by educators.  That being said, it’s here, and it has its high points.  It does create a common language for a staff and district to speak, and it does have indicators that can be referenced to improve instruction.  It is easy to point to the indicators of the framework, and the myriad of examples out there tied to framework to improve specific practice. 

Bearing that in mind I struggled when creating this document and whether or not I should tie it to the Danielson framework.  In the end, for consistency and cross walking to our evaluation system, I chose to align it to the framework.  One change that I made is that there is to be no assignment of level of performance when using this document.  I don’t feel that serves the purpose of the document, and if we did that, I think most people would just look directly for their “rating” and not the feedback.  The purpose is drive instruction, not to give a couple dozen ratings throughout the year.  We have an existing evaluation process to fulfill that purpose, and this document is to give living feedback throughout a year when someone comes into the class, be it for five minutes, or a whole period.

Despite my misgivings for the Danielson Framework, I do like that it has common language that we can use, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  For the purpose of the document, I simplified the sub-domains into sentences for ease of consistency and reference points.  For the cultural goal, we aligned it to Domain 2, and placed the school's shield next to it.  The shield is what we use when we talk about culture, athletics, or for general usage.  

The instructional goal is tied to Domain 3, and we place the crest next to it, which we use for academic functions, graduation, and the traditional school functions.  In my mind, this also represents the art (culture) and the science (instructional practice) of teaching and learning.

Essentially a teacher picks a goal, delineates how it will impact their students, and how they will know when they have achieved it.  I’m not picky here.  I want to see a teacher think about their practice, reflect on what they want culturally in their classroom, and then put it on virtual paper.   Once complete and they meet with their admin, theoretically we roll forward and utilize the document throughout the year.  Below is an example:

How I see this playing out for the year is thus:

1. An admin, either their admin, or any other, or district personnel come into their class, open the document on Google Docs that’s tied to them and give feedback to their goals.  They put the date, their initials, and their descriptive feedback in the white boxes next to the domains.  They need to center their feedback on the teachers goals, but can certainly spread the feedback to whatever they may want to during the course of a walkthrough.

2. Once they’re done they can meet face to face, or correspond in the document for further clarification.  What i'd like to see is that the feedback is genuine, descriptive, and if possible tied directly back to the focus they have written above.  My thought process is that if a teacher wants to improve upon that goal, the best way is to see what's going on in the classroom, receive feedback on the goal over a period of time, and be able to reflect and refine based off that feedback.

3. The next admin or coach comes through and gives feedback.  As the document grows over the year it should get quite long, and be a useful tool for the teacher to see trends according to their goal and be able to discuss, react, refute, or refine based on the feedback given.

Now in the realm of instructional nirvana i'd like to see it become a truly collaborative document.  We all know that we're busy, and that if it seems like more work it's probably going to become cumbersome rather than useful.  That being said, the example below is what I will encourage happens.  I say encourage because especially in year one, it's way too much to require.  If this type of collaboration happens on it's own, then I will be one happy principal.  In the example below a teacher responds to the feedback left, making it a truly living document.  Asking clarifying questions about specific students, and asking an admin to expand on a somewhat lazy comment.  Somewhat lazy because "great walkthrough" isn't descriptive, it doesn't tell the teacher anything but a throwaway affirmation.  Sometimes we need that, but if we are improving instructional practice, it's just noise.

A secondary benefit I want to see is that we will review this in our admin team meeting, with all of us bringing examples to the table.  For this i'm looking for a few things:

1. Are we all doing it often.
2. Are we seeing more teachers than those just on our 'list'
3. Are we descriptive in our feedback, or is it general affirmations.
4. Are we calibrated.

It will allow all of us to see how we give feedback, what we write, and be able to track growth among each other.  I think this will be a powerful tool for our admin PLC to sharpen our abilities as administrators.

As the year goes on and we manage this process for 150 teachers, and try to make it a process that grows instruction i’ll come back here and give some updates.  My basic hope is this: provide living breathing descriptive feedback for our teachers that will help them to improve their instruction.

We’ll see if it works!  If not we will refine, or I will post here about the abject failure the process was.  

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