Monday, July 18, 2016

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Building COMMUNITY in Classrooms is EQUITY Work! (Podcast Parts II & III)

In parts II & III of this podcast on Community, Mrs. Jacqueline King and Mrs. Suzanne Causer pick up where Dr. Erica Walker leaves us off in part I.  In part II of this conversation, I ask Mrs. King and Mrs. Causer about some of their strategies for supporting community and the thinking that underscores those strategies.  In part III of this conversation, I ask Mrs. King and Mrs. Causer to talk specifically about some of the mechanics of their classroom community-building work with students. As you listen, I encourage you to think about, “How is the authentic sense of community established in your own practice?

Pt. II


You can find Pt. I of the podcast HERE:

Monday, July 11, 2016

Building COMMUNITY in Classrooms is EQUITY Work! (Podcast Pt. I)

America, we've got some work to do....

Certainly the Equity issues of racism, police brutality, social (in)justice, and poverty (just to name a few) are threatening the very stability of our American society. It raises the question: What's a teacher to do?

I have always believed that teaching is a profoundly social and human endeavor, and by that I mean the actions taken by great teachers (1) prepare students to be productive members of society and also (2) powerfully affirm their humanity.  This is accomplished through gestures small and large. Many teachers, however, while well-meaning and sincere about the cause of Equity, don’t know where to start to bring the many diverse parts of our community together.

There is no single easy answer to all that we as a nation are confronted by in this pivotal moment, but I do suggest a specific area of consideration for teachers…. As the next school year begins, I would encourage every educator to think long and hard and as carefully as possible about how an authentic sense of community is being established in your teaching spaces.  I’d encourage you to think about what a meaningful sense of community means to you and your students.

The following podcast is the first of a three-part installment featuring the voices of two teachers I admire and have worked quite closely with (Jacqueline King and Suzanne Causer) and Professor Erica Walker of Teachers College, Columbia University.  These are intended to be (relatively) brief conversations to spark thinking for educators about what Community means and how it can be nurtured in our schools. In this first segment, we are treated to the thinking of Dr. Walker as she shares research and insights on her work around Mathematics Learning Communities for vulnerable learners.  She writes about these themes more extensively in her book, Building Mathematics Learning Communities: Improving Outcomes in Urban High Schools (2012). 

I hope this gets you thinking.  Though Dr. Walker's work focuses on high school Mathematics peer tutoring models, there is a terrific range of application here. Look out for the following segments to be posted before your kiddos return to school!

Thanks for listening....

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The (top) five reasons why you should ignore any discussion of Equity and anything that is related to Equity work....

I’ve been reflecting about my last twelve months working closely with teachers, school leaders, and district administrators, and I’ve come up with a few key insights that I feel the need to share publicly.  Some of these are a bit disconcerting, but they nonetheless deserve full and transparent disclosure… because most of these are already known (though not always spoken aloud), and they undermine Equity efforts anyway – so I figure, why not just be real about this?


Reason #1 to ignore any discussion of Equity and anything that is related to Equity work... because Equity work is hard as ****!  I define Equity work as the sustained and thoughtful effort to reduce meaningful opportunity gaps that contribute to differences in performance outcomes between student sub-groups. Never doubt that pursuing Equity in educational opportunity is work. It is hard work. It challenges the status quo, it requires new ways of conceptualizing the idea of school, and in many cases, trying to change practices and policies in the interest of Equity is like telling people that the Easter Bunny isn’t real!  Equity work means something(s) must change, and the change must be profound in order to interrupt the way things currently are… and this kind of change-action is always and invariably difficult to do.

Equity work is so hard that it will likely require inter-organizational and cross-departmental collaborations which are notoriously difficult to establish. It means we must relent in the thinking that students’ needs can be met single-handedly by any one teacher or inside of any one classroom. It means that we must search for responses to behaviors and learning needs outside of our own tool-kits, and that means we must be vulnerable by expressly asking for support as we seek to support the well-being of our most vulnerable students. (For the record, I hate being vulnerable! I don’t blame you if you hate being vulnerable too!) It means we must forego the blame game in the pursuit of real solutions. Equity work means we must make the opportunities for all of our students – those with special needs, those who are reluctant learners, those with vastly different cultural experiences than our own, even those who present as incapable and disinterested – relevant and accessible through pathways of trust, relationship, and invigorating pedagogy.  Equity work isn’t a part-time or seasonal cause. It encompasses and intersects with everything that we do. It means we stand for something; and standing for something is much more difficult than being a resident skeptic. It means one has to be an agent of action rather than a critic of change efforts.  That’s really hard to do.

Reason #2 to ignore any discussion of Equity and anything that is related to Equity work... because people will accuse you of trying to take the moral high ground, and who needs that kind of pressure! A big part of Equity work is challenging one's own biases, privileges, and beliefs.  Have you ever brought up the word privilege in front of your privileged friends? Did they beat you up? Are they still your friends? I’ve found that people don’t like being challenged on our society’s tenuous relationship with the notion of Equity especially when it requires personal reflection on how they themselves benefit from inequitable structures. The most common and immediate reaction to initial Equity conversations is resentment. You will surely hear things like: “Who do you think you are to lecture me about fairness? That seems more than a little self-righteous if you ask me. Since when do you think you are so much better than me to bring up such things. I’m going to beat you up, and we will no longer be friends afterward.”

Most people tend to think of themselves as fair and decent people, and while they like the idea of Equity in theory, the effort to effect change can be terrifying to even the most well-intentioned among us. It can sting to have it pointed out to us that there are opportunity inconsistencies which we might have the capacity to affect... if only we have the gumption to do so. Most would rather occupy the safe political spaces where we invoke with caution some of the language of Equity without engaging in the hard work of creating fair opportunities for all students. (See Reason #1.) People will hurl all kinds of assaults in your direction to protect their own positions of emotional comfort and convenience. Alas, it’s just safer for you personally and professionally to avoid the conversations altogether.

Reason #3 to ignore any discussion of Equity and anything that is related to Equity work... because the pathways and destinations of Equity are unclear and the progress is nearly impossible to quantify. The question I most often get from my school- and district-partners is: “How long will this Equity work take?” It’s a fair question, and they are wise to ask at the onset of our work together.  Essentially they want to know, How can we be certain we are making the progress we need to make? What indicators of success will assure us that our Equity work is hitting its targets? This raises the most difficult issue of metrics in Equity work.

If there were a clear and direct pathway to Equity, it would have by now been unambiguously charted and replicated by every school district in the United States of America.  The persistent problem (i.e. truth) about Equity work is the process of leveraging an Equity lens is the most important goal of Equity work. (How maddeningly confusing is that!) That there is no single Equity course is frightening enough; but even more, there are no single trustworthy measures of which I am aware that can even accurately quantify the end goal of actual Equity itself. I certainly don’t trust the tests we use to measure academic achievement. The tests are repeatedly shown to be biased toward the privileged and affluent, and even grades are replete with subjectivity. Don’t get me wrong, tests have their place, but they aren’t nearly as valid as performance- and growth-based indicators that are more likely to tell stories of meaningful engagement, rigor, and development over time.  We can use proxy metrics, but those should be handled with great care.  Indicators that show patterns of things like chronic absenteeism, behavioral referrals, inclinations to make cross-content, project-based connections, and performance in key gate-keeping courses can tell us much about how well we are doing in closing opportunity gaps.  But that’s so hard to do, and it almost requires a dedicated research team to manage an effort like that because it forces us to look beyond the traditional silos of expertise, and it also requires us to carve out spaces to challenge long-held beliefs that contribute to critical subjectivity in discipline and assessments. (See Reason #1.) All told, this calls for new branches of methodology to emerge… and who has the time and energy to take that on given that these methodologies would need to be tailored specifically to consider the context of individual schools and unique change efforts?  To do the authentic work of measuring the progress of Equity work is too expensive and too cumbersome to implement on a large scale, and so, we are left with imperfect measures to track the efficacy of Equity work efforts.   That doesn’t mean we can’t know if we are making progress, it just means that the progress is extremely difficult to defend.

Reason #4 to ignore any discussion of Equity and anything that is related to Equity work... because your personal and professional shortcomings may be exposed, and you'll be vulnerable for attacks on your character and abilities.  If you’ve ever tried to help a friend or loved one break a bad habit, you know the defensiveness evoked in such circumstances can lead to harsh reactions.  You’ll get the Who are you to judge me? arguments.  And, the Well you aren’t so perfect yourself! responses too….  I’ve already told you that the moral high ground is dangerous territory, but it leads to a nasty pushback which will exploit anything perceived as a character flaw in order to invalidate your case for Equity work.  Since none among us are perfect, this leads to a particular vulnerability.  Many an advocate for Equity became silenced not through flaws in their arguments, but for fear of having personal failings broadcasted for the purpose of public humiliation. 

Relatedly, a common response to well-stated Equity arguments is that the advocates should take on the full effort all by themselves with almost no meaningful supports or allies. Okay, you’re not wrong, I guess… the counter-argument goes… but you have to make this work yourself.  You’re the expert. You’ve identified the problem. Now fix it. If you can’t fix it, it isn’t my fault that you weren’t good enough to get it done…. This triggers all sorts of personal insecurities and should lead any reasonable person to consider their own worth and ability in advancing the Equity cause. Plus, most people willing to call out the Equity gaps in their schools and districts already have a full plate of responsibilities and nearly all I’ve met aren’t so enthused about having their own dirty laundry aired for everyone to see. It seems too high a cost to pay… just to try to make things better for the students with the least amount of political capital to expend on their own (or your) behalf.

Reason #5 to ignore any discussion of Equity and anything that is related to Equity work... because it will move you (and your students) out of your comfort zone.... In my experience in schools and classroom, I’ve witnessed that most kids have been largely programmed to be compliant. Authentic equity – particularly with a focus on engagement – is likely to evoke unprecedented interest and investment from some students; and with that comes added responsibility for employing novel pedagogical approaches to teach students with skill and knowledge gaps. Many times I’ve made the Equity argument to teachers and gotten full agreement until that fateful moment when I ask them to stretch themselves beyond their typical pedagogy.  (It seems the theoretical concept of Equity is more appealing than the prospect of actually changing practices.) I’ve countered that resistance by teaching classrooms myself to show teachers first-hand the possibilities for increased student engagement.  I’ve also seen this back-fire as teachers realize the effort I’ve put in to prepare for the lesson is more than they want to give themselves; and I’ve also seen that teachers may feel intimidated by those students who demonstrate newfound interest and investment in learning. Authentic engagement renders null and void that unspoken agreement these reluctant learners too often have to sit quietly while the teacher ignores them. Now they want in! And that means the teacher has to be more thoughtful and creative in providing pathways for these students. It also entails that planning must be done with a more dynamic imagination meaning that the teacher’s script must be responsive to a range of student needs and interests.  Planning is so much easier when one can merely worry about teaching the content without having to worry about those pesky student questions or making connections to students’ background knowledge. Once students get a taste of responsive instruction with an Equity focus, they tend to insist on more of it… and that is a tussle one best learn to avoid!


So you’ve been warned. I could probably list a dozen more reasons why this Equity work business is for the birds, but these five should suffice for now.  Take it from me, the next time some consultant comes to your district making some specious argument for Equity, refer to these five points and head for the hills. You do NOT need these headaches in your professional life!

Friday, May 6, 2016

What do we mean by gaps?

To start a session this week with a district team, I asked the group to define what we mean by the term "Achievement Gap." For more than a decade now, Gloria-Ladson Billings and others have encouraged us to engage the term with a more critical lens so that patterns of social, political, economic, and also educational marginalization are considered in our interpretations of performance trends.

Our group this week determined that the term "Achievement Gap" is insufficient in that it does not highlight gaps in opportunities.  Further, we discussed how, in fact, the most meaningful gap is what we called the "Potential Gap." That is, what are the gaps we experience between what kiddos are capable of and how they are actually performing?  Granted, it is unlikely that any human being has ever fully reached their potential; and yet, some kiddos have more opportunities in school to get closer to their potential apices than others.

The notion of the "Achievement Gap" lacks rigor in the sense that it ostensibly quantifies what we are told to think of as performance and ability differences amongst America's students based on an unchallenged normative measure of achievement. Even more problematic, the notion of the "Achievement Gap" assumes equality. It assumes that all students start in similar places and have access to similar opportunities -- in and out of school.  As we know well, that isn't the case.
Noah Geisel, 2013 ACTFL National Teacher of the Year, tweeted out recently that "Some people have better worst-case access than others." Robert Putnam refers to this as "social air bags, the advantages provided by affluence and access that exacerbate inequities.  It would be impossible to honestly and credibly measure an "Achievement Gap" without a deliberate consideration of how "worst-case" access and social air bags enhance students' capacity for school success.  Anything else is more accurately a study of privilege and not anything that could be considered a metric of individual ability.

Our group, in referring to our primary interest of concern as a "Potential Gap" brings to bear what I believe is an essential task in any equity agenda.  Before we can speak with any reliable conviction about how well our kiddos are performing or what they need to perform better, we must be sure to give them baseline learning experiences that are rich, rigorous, and engaging EVERY single day.  It's why my emphasis with teachers is always on the quality of planning in the design of learning experiences... because while one may be aware of the risk factors any one or group of students face, if a well-considered, carefully-aligned lesson isn't offered, one has no way of knowing specifically what students need in order to reach higher performance levels.
I saw this great tweet just yesterday when following the #whatisschool Twitter chat. While I love what this teacher is doing with these children, it struck a chord with me because I want to see more of this kind of innovative pedagogical thinking in high-impact schools with students who are perceived as being on the wrong end of the "Achievement Gap."  In that short video, I see (and feel) an investment from the students in the learning of Spanish that must have been profoundly facilitated by a teacher unwilling to allow any scripted pathway to learning to interfere with his interpretation and application of pedagogy that he believes will allow his students to take greater ownership of their learning.  This is just good teaching! And I'm comfortable calling it good teaching because it feels apparent to me that these students have a more meaningful opportunity to fulfill their own personal potential in this learning experience than in more traditional methods that I have too often seen (over-)emphasized in schools where their students are implicitly perceived as less capable and less invested.

To be clear, I am not ignoring the impact of socio-economic structures beyond the classroom.  We know of the consistent and strong correlation between social segregation and poverty and school performance. We must make the commitment to interrupt societal inequities that contribute powerfully to the predictability of performance patterns in schools.  In the meantime, teachers are challenged to do all they can for their students today! Teachers don't have the luxury of waiting for society to commit and then do the work of opportunity reform (even though teachers unduly receive so much of the blame for the problems social inequities incur on children).  The teachers I most appreciate and respect are committed daily to figuring out what their students need in order to reach their full potential.

The language of "Opportunity Gap" and "Potential Gap" should evoke a greater sense of awareness that teachers and the designs they create for powerful learning experiences are a baseline, protective factor for students.  These protective factors -- innovative, rich, and rigorous learning experiences with a focus on student engagement -- are absolutely essential as a starting point for us to develop a clearer sense of how well our students are performing relative to their potential and further, what they need in order to close the gap between how they perform today and what their highest possible performance looks like.

Until and unless we make this critical pivot in our thinking, we will fail to recognize the opportunities we have to create more meaningful gap-closing experiences for our students, and our debt to under-served communities will remain unfulfilled.  Anything short of a profound re-conceptualization of the "Achievement Gap" will leave unchallenged the notion that, in effect, our most vulnerable students should be more like the children of privilege and affluence in order for them to achieve in ways that are most valued in school.  That it not the mindset needed to redress the unacceptable patterns we experience now.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

From the What Works Clearinghouse, "Preventing and Addressing Behavior Problems"

See the article with links to evidence-based strategies HERE:

An interesting team exercise might be to download the reports on the interventions studied and unpack the core elements in order to project how a similar strategy might be employed with your most vulnerable learners.  That kind of thinking can help to clarify a team's thinking about the nature of risk and options for protective factors.  At the very least, it should help build greater context around the team's beliefs in re student behaviors.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Jason Pryce Memorial Fund

Please consider making a donation to the Jason Pryce Memorial Fund established to support deserving students going to college. This fund was set up by my friend and former student in loving memory of his childhood friend, Jason Pryce (1984 to 2012) who left us too young after a valiant battle against cancer. No donation is too small.

Learn more about how the fund and make a donation HERE:

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The paradigm for data use in instructional rounds...

As children, many of us had our first lessons in writing numbers and letters by being directed to trace over the outlines of other more experienced writers’ numbers and letters.  It’s an appropriate strategy for introducing young writers to the nuanced curves and angles of the tools of language.  We take our first steps in the extended learning associated with being a writer by mimicking the actions of more advanced writers; but those lessons of mimicry don’t give us any sense of voice or even the true purpose of writing.  We don’t yet know anything of the inspiration that underscores great writing….  We are merely copying the creative gestures of others.

In some ways, we try to prepare teachers according to a similar paradigm.  We ask them to trace over the outlines of more experienced teachers’ nuanced designs for learning experiences in order to imitate a skill.  The theory being that the imitation of this skill can be developed into a capacity for its own uniquely inspired creative output. 

There is a problem with this mindset for teacher development, however.  The creativity and innovation that inheres in effective teaching can't be outlined.  It can only be created; and to create brilliantly, one must become skilled in the language (tools) and nature of inspiration.

When we prepare teachers for working with students by exclusively focusing our support and direction on the observable strategies and actions inhering in effective instruction, we are essentially asking them to trace the creations of others.  That amounts to a disingenuous effort at quantifying the skill(s) of effective teaching.  We seek formulas that are fool-proof and universally transferable – an unlikely proposition considering the complexities of the tasks of teaching.

Teaching is a skill-set that is developed throughout one's full career – from the very first day until the very last – and while there is no single, infallible method for developing efficacy, a powerfully constructive way to learn the craft is through careful observation, discussion, and reflection of authentic teacher practice.  The deliberate and intentional contemplation of practice allows for individuals (and teams) to improve the design, impact, and output of teaching in ways that can richly deepen the capacity for thinking about what students need in support of their engagement and, further, what that requires of teachers. 

I use this image of two people admiring Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein to illustrate the sense of reverence necessary for learning from the observations of the engagement of students in a learning experience. The portrait of Gertude Stein was a commissioned piece which is currently displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It is said that when Ms. Stein, the benefactor, first saw the piece, she expressed profound disappointment in the product telling Picasso that the painting looked nothing like her.  Picasso’s response was that it would look very much like her… in 20 years.

While that could not be considered an even remotely flattering thing to say to one who has commissioned a portrait of themselves, it does allow for tremendous insight into the inspiration of the artist.  Picasso was not attempting to produce an image of what Ms. Stein perceived as her own appearance.  Rather, he was creating a piece that reflected what he was inspired to show.  His mastery and artistic vision was channeled through that inspiration which in turn produced a portrait that has been admired for the better part of a century by audiences on multiple continents.

The wrong way to view any work of art is to take Gertrude Stein’s approach – which is to assume that the artist shares her same sense of inspiration for a product.  To view art is to try on the skin of the artist rather than to compare how one might themselves have attempted to represent the subject.  That kind of comparison is an act of judgment.  That is, to compare is to say, “I wouldn’t have created that way.  I would have created another way.”  The true appreciation of art, however, assumes a different position.  The true appreciation of art requires that we ask, “What is the artist’s intent?  What is the artist trying to do with this piece?”  To understand the master artist’s intent can be hugely instructive for the novice artist because it then can be followed with thoughtful consideration of how the tools of choice contribute to the effect which is the feeling one gets through viewing.  In this way, we are able, as viewers, to experience the artist’s inspiration for ourselves; but not so that we can replicate that same inspiration but rather so that we can be more inclined to find authentic inspiration for ourselves.


Teaching is an artistic endeavor based on scientific principles.  Masterful teaching, like the output of masterful artists, is driven by both inspiration and the skill for employing certain tools and devices in order to evoke an effect.

I think of the inspiration of effective teachers as being embodied in the sense of (1) what it is they want their students to feel in the context of a learning experience and (2) what they want their students to understand.  To understand the choices of effective teachers (and never doubt that teaching is a function of countless choices both in the design and implementation of lessons), the viewer must be aware of the teacher’s inspiration(s).  To view the teaching of another should not be thought of as an effort to trace the observed teacher’s promising practices but rather to achieve a clearer view of one’s own authentic inspiration.  To watch an effective teacher in practice should not be thought of as merely an opportunity to mimic the use of certain tools and devices in instruction.  It should be thought of as an opportunity to reflect on how similar (or dis-similar) tools and devices can be used to support the creative acts of teaching on the viewer’s own teaching canvas.

Tracing the actions of others doesn’t nurture the necessary dispositions that give rise to the thoughtful creativity seen in effective teaching.  Tracing is essentially the attempt to quantify inspiration. Though often well-intentioned, the attempt to quantify inspiration is insufficient on one level; but it is dangerously dishonest on another.  It undermines the capacity for creation by negating the influence of inspiration.  It doesn’t encourage authenticity.

What is sacred?

Every opportunity to engage students in a meaningful learning experience is sacred.  It is sacred because it is an invitation for students to be changed with the introduction of newly emerging understandings.  We are all defined by our ideas and anytime one’s ideas are changed in any way, we become in essence a different person.  Our identities are shifted in ways that change our understandings of who we are and what the world around us means.  As teachers, we must observe these moments with reverence because in them we can learn much about both our craft and our own capacity for creation.

I think of engagement as the essential output of the artistry of teaching.  Engagement alone does not meet all the goals of instruction, but it facilitates pathways for powerful learning.  Engagement is the empowerment of learners to grow into increasingly more thoughtful and capable versions of themselves. Students are empowered to be fully present in the process of learning, growing, expanding their perceptions of the world, and enlarging their own frames of reference for who (and what) they are.

Reverence for this essential task of teaching is only enough to allow us to value (and hopefully) recognize the sacred. One must be able to identify the opportunities to facilitate engagement in order to begin to consider which tools and devices may be most appropriate for use in that moment.  We must then become skilled enough to maximize the engagement of these sacred moments (both for ourselves and our students) through the implementation of those tools.  If, in our own teaching, we seek to maximize the engagement (output) without sufficient reverence for the sacredness of the opportunities to engage, we attempt to create the Portrait of Gertrude Stein without an authentic inspiration that is all our own.

Without reverence for engagement, teaching becomes a lifeless and uninspired task which we seek to understand not through its capacity for magnificent creation but rather as some sort of trace-over-the-letters logic.

Without reverence for engagement, teaching becomes a misunderstood and under-appreciated endeavor that can be outsourced or callously marketed without consideration of the consequences for the most vulnerable learners who are so profoundly reliant on effective teaching as an instrument of equity.

An attitude of reverence is essential in order to understand authentic engagement.  Without it, our perception of teaching is muted by the flawed sense of teaching and learning as a purely mechanical and random exercise in the indelicate control of students.  An attitude of reverence is essential to enlarge our frame of reference for the possibilities of our work.

What is pedagogical ethos?

I define pedagogical ethos as the beliefs and values that inform how a teaching and learning community imagines and assigns meaning to “good teaching.”  Pedagogical ethos gives direction for the members of teaching communities by providing the space and boundaries within which good practice is understood.  The pedagogical ethos of a particular school does more than tell us what good practice should accomplish, it tells us why it is members of that community think of good teaching in that way.

Professional development (PD) should be an exercise in the clarifying of pedagogical ethos, and a refinement of the understanding of how tools work toward the sacred goals of instruction.  As such, PD should be an honored space which assists in the enlightenment of its congregants.

The paradigm for data use in the instructional rounds model....

Instructional rounds are a disciplined, professional-development exercise in the reverence of engagement. The practice of instructional rounds looks for insights and not errors.  As such, we prioritize our own engagement in an intensely deliberate process for designing effective learning experiences; and further, we look for evidence of student engagement in the instructional rounds so that we can learn from even the slightest indicators of their investment in the learning process. Our goal is to share moments of awe and inspiration... so that we can draw from them the inspiration for both creation and deeper understanding of effective design.

Teachers assume researcher identities in the instructional rounds.  Researchers in any field always ask two critical questions in any "study."  The first is, What constitutes data? Or, what is it that I should be efforting to see?  The second question is, What should we do with the data? Or, How should the data be interpreted?

In the instructional rounds, data is the evidence of students’ engagement.  After being pre-briefed on the design of the lesson and the expectations for rigor and  students’ engagement, the observers enter the classroom space to record any and all indicators of what students are doing and saying that may be considered as evidence of their investment in the learning experience.

After the observation, the group enters into a debrief where the initial focus of reflection is on the display of evidence, followed by a thoughtful extrapolation of themes and insights.  The group considers what the data means, but these assumptions are framed against corroborative criteria.  As corroboration, the observers are challenged to uncover any biases or assumptions that may contribute to misleading or flawed insights.  It is through this iterative process that meaning is clarified and the tenets of pedagogical ethos are unpacked.

Four guidelines to avoid missing the point of an instructional rounds experience….

Growth that results from professional development in any form (and instructional rounds in particular) isn’t a process with which any teacher can be forced to comply.  Only the willing are productive learners in this model – and even they must follow certain guidelines in order to maximize the potential professional growth opportunities for themselves.  Here, I present four guidelines which must be personal and ongoing for participants in an instructional rounds experience in order for it to have the desired impact for all:

1. Be fully present. 

To be in the presence of effective teaching is a magnificent opportunity to learn from and appreciate the experience of engagement… but it also comes with some personal costs.  To effectively engage ourselves in the ways that will advance our professional growth, we must make the conscious effort to suspend our own self-doubts and insecurities.  In the observation of another’s practice, painful realizations about our own teaching may surface.  As such, it takes a tremendous sense of personal courage and calm to be able to discover and sustain the necessary reverence; but the insights that matter most for teaching are available exclusively through this lens. 

We must make every effort to avoid anything that diverts our full presence in the process. Without it, one may still be able to notice the brilliance of great teaching (just as one may notice the genius of great artists through distracted observations at the Met...), but unless fully present, it is much less likely to be able to marshal that inspiration in service of one's own genius.  The muses will escape one's perception, and the learning opportunity will be compromised.

2. Beware of judgmentalism. 

To judge is a sharp departure from reverence.  It is harmful in the sense that it tends to cultivate feelings of mistrust that can defeat the professional comradery necessary in support of a strong and positive pedagogical ethos. 

Reverence should not be conflated with respect.  Respect is neither integral to nor a pre-requisite for reverence.  Respect is itself a judgmental and cultural construct.  (We are more likely to respect that for which we have the cultural context which gives us guidelines for assigning value.)  Judgment includes equally the disempowering energy of self-doubt AND also the inclination to assess in ways one may perceive as positive.   Respect assigns value based on personal preferences, and these can be confounding in myriad ways.  Respect is a response to the perception of qualities and outcomes that we ourselves admire, or have been taught to admire.  Reverence, in contrast, is a perception and an appreciation of process in pursuit of the highest goals for practice.

3. Attempt to see the familiar in unfamiliar ways.  

This is really the genius of the artist.  Seeing the familiar in unfamiliar ways is mostly about creating the head and heart space for inspiration because the artist knows that inspiration is always available to us. Though it isn't necessary for the individual observer to be able to explain in full detail the specifics of an experience in order to feel moved emotionally, the discussion of what is seen facilitates the shared understanding of the values and beliefs that inhere in great teaching.  In order to clarify the aspirations of any given teaching and learning community’s pedagogical ethos, the discussants must agree to attempt to see common practices and occurrences as spectacularly uncommon.  They must agree to (re)discover what is essential and impactful to make further growth possible.

This means observers must bring to bear their experience without becoming beholden to it.  The most powerful learning for any given participant in instructional rounds is often the insight derived from watching a practice they themselves have employed countless times and the recognition that follows for precisely how it does (or has the potential to) engage students in significant ways.

4. Decide to grow in your practice. 

Ultimately, the growth that matters most in our professional development is grounded in insights and new understandings that we create for ourselves.  Often, these can happen in powerful ways in spaces designed for reflection (like instructional rounds); but no professional development is so powerful that it can move the person who has decided (consciously or nonconsciously) to be unmoved.  Those who decide to be unmoved will be unavailable to inspiration until they choose otherwise.  This is a decision that every participant must make on an individual basis.

Teaching is a profoundly humbling profession in that our students don’t tend to care much about our preceding kudos.  We must be willing to put in the effort to make connections with learners of all sorts, and this requires that we bring a beginner’s mind to our work every single day.


Great teachers, much like great artists, create engaging experiences for students. These creations are a function of inspiration.  For every great work of art, there is a muse, an inspiration which is often the artist's sense for what the audience is intended to experience.  The same is true for teachers. Great teaching employs feelings and emotions that engage and affect both the head and heart of students. Art moves us because it stirs an emotional response, and in the context of those stirrings, deep understandings are available to us.

Reverence is an elemental component of instructional rounds.  The practice of instructional rounds without reverence is not only likely to be unproductive in terms of insights that can yield further clarity of a school’s pedagogical ethos, but it can also corrupt the learning experience in such a way as to create distrust and disconnectedness amongst the school staff.  How we position ourselves in the learning and discuss the nature and purpose of practice reflects directly our intentions for growth both as individuals and as part of a collective unit.