A Guest Post by Tony Cattani
What is your greatest superpower?
Superman has many amazing attributes: superhuman strength, x-ray and heat vision, freezing breath, super speed, and enhanced hearing. While all of these are really cool, flying is his greatest superpower.
All teachers are superheroes, as they do things daily that other humans cannot do in a lifetime. Some teachers check for understanding by reading an entire class’s body language in a single glance, can have students accomplish something that they never thought they could do with just the right words of encouragement, design daily lessons that truly captivate 30 17-year old students by having them apply their newly learned knowledge, or create a classroom environment that makes all students feel safe and comfortable to share their thoughts. Like superheroes, all teachers have at least one great super power. However, while these superpowers are used for good, more often than not they are only shared with their students behind closed doors. Not anymore.
Our high school decided to utilize this concept to personalize our professional development through peer observations. At our October faculty meeting, we asked every staff member to personally rank the following instructional strategies (superpowers) on an index card:
Checking for Understanding
Lesson Design and Implementation
Ranking items is great way to have people truly reflect on their thoughts. We asked them to really think about why they ranked their strategies as they did. You could see the 159 teachers struggling with their decisions. Looking back on this now, one of the unintended consequences of this approach was that when our staff attached their name to a greatest strength, it created a motivation to live up to this expectation, as they were now considered an expert in this instructional strategy. We now had 159 staff members believing in their educational superpower that they identified.
We shared with the staff that we need to “get better” and that the plan was to utilize our greatest resource- each other. We wanted our teachers to share their self-identified greatest strength with their peers while seeking assistance in an instructional area in which they don’t feel as confident. We have 159 teachers that teach on average five classes a day, which equals 795 opportunities a day for professional growth and learning! The teachers were to select the teachers they observe by the instructional area they wanted to get better, not what I wanted them to do but what they felt they needed to do to get better.
When would they find the time in a high school schedule? We have the staff utilize their prep period to conduct 25 minute observations and reflect for the remaining 32 minutes of the period. They appreciated the built-in time to reflect on what they observed and how and what they would incorporate it into their instructional repertoire.
While we didn’t restrict teachers observing teachers in the same content area, we encouraged them to go outside of their departments to focus on pedagogy and to also interact with teachers that they normally would not. Not only would these teachers be observing each other and improving their personal craft, but they would be helping to enhance the culture of collegiality and cooperative growth that we have worked so hard to foster.
The quantitative data associated with this program has been very heartening to me. Within one day of the faculty meeting at which we introduced the program, we had over 90% of our staff share their greatest strength in the designated area of our peer observation website. It was amazing to see our staff personally invest in their professional growth. That was only the start. Within our first week, 24 staff participated in peer observations. To date 135 staff have conducted minimally one peer observation for a total of 350 peer observations. (All in less than four months!) This has now expanded into 15 teacher-led collegial cafes that have staff sharing best practices over lunch, 48 teachers leading our in-service sessions on these instructional strategies, and teachers implementing new approaches into their classes to improve the overall quality of instruction for our students.
One of the most significant impacts is that our teachers are talking about teaching with one another more than ever before and our students are noticing that our teachers are doing what we ask them to do every day – get better!
How do you celebrate and encourage your staff to share their greatest instructional superpower with their peers?
Tony Cattani (@CattaniTony)
Tony is the Principal of Lenape High School in New Jersey.