by Carol Machak and Lauryn Eve
The first experience of a teacher lab has the potential to be both exhilarating and terrifying for the role of the facilitator. As the day draws nearer, one may feel that the planning and structure should be so impeccable that no stone is left unturned. The riveting articles that are meant to spark thoughtful conversation are fresh off the press. The clipboards full of guidance and ample space to jot down any and all realizations pertaining to the classroom observation are aligned and waiting for their participants. The timed agenda is calculated down to the very last second of education-rich conversation and exposure. The host teacher is prepped and ready for his or her moment in the spotlight as curious observers await their instructions of what it means to actually conduct a “teacher lab.” All of the mystery is soon revealed and the facilitator soon discovers that the teacher lab can have a mind of its own, and all of the preparation and build up is nothing more than a faint memory.
In the Troy School District, two Teaching & Learning Leaders simultaneously embarked upon the journey of facilitating a teacher lab, but the dynamics of each group were strikingly different. The first group was established through a voluntary basis. Middle school math teachers were asked to participate in a professional learning opportunity that allowed them to observe another teacher in action and have meaningful conversations about what they noticed. The facilitator prepared several activities that would aid in discussions and focus the learning themes of the day. Most importantly, this newly developed group of teachers were hopefully going to build enough trust with each other that making mistakes and receiving constructive feedback was welcomed and appreciated. The pre-observation time focused on the teachers’ assessment of themselves in regards to their mathematical practice as well as best practices in any content area classroom. This allowed for the teacher lab participants to peel back their protective layers and start their reflection during this process. The classroom observation went off without a hitch—the teachers were observant, respectful, and diligent during this significant part of the process. Thankfully, the post-observation discussion was also productive and moved toward the root of job-embedded professional learning—teachers learning from other teachers. The facilitator’s hope was to have a deep and thorough conversation about classroom instruction, yet this hope was a bit grandiose for the initial meeting of this newly developed group. On the other hand, this first teacher lab was an opportunity for the participating teachers, including the host teacher and facilitator, to get the superficial observations and minute critiques out of the way. As the trust continues to build, there will surely be a growth to the discussion as well as the participants as educators.
If the first teacher lab group was considered fresh and timid, the second group could be called seasoned and vocal. This group has been working together for over a year as a district department of middle school reading support. Therefore, the trust had been established long ago, and there have been several opportunities for these teachers to share successes, admit defeat, and question each other’s instructional choices. One significant component to job-embedded professional learning did set this group up for growth—they have never seen each other teach. The facilitator of this group offered this powerful opportunity in replacement of monthly department business meetings. It was much less voluntary than the first group, but definitely embraced with the same enthusiasm and interest. Fortunately, the last business meeting was dedicated to the purpose, format, and expectations of a teacher lab experience. Also, multiple meetings with the host teacher were set up before the teacher lab took place, and in the end, the facilitator knew what transpired before the observed lesson and what was planned to build upon it, as well. The participating teachers appreciated understanding the scope and sequence of the instruction they observed as well as knowing what to expect when walking into this “teacher lab.” The classroom observation was focused on the cultural forces that define our classrooms, and the teachers noticed and questioned the thinking that was taking place in the classroom. This allowed for a dynamic post-observation discussion that demonstrated self-reflection, growth, and feedback all centered on instruction and best practices. Because the trust within this group had been nurtured over time, the participants were able to speak freely and get to the heart of their reasons for teaching.