May 21

There’s a First Time for Everything

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.

Apr 16

Learning to Lead with Empathy


John Kernan

Over the last three years, I have continued my learning through professional level classes based on educational leadership.  As I have worked and become closer and closer to my dissertation and my doctorate, I felt like I knew everything I could about what it meant to be a leader.  In September, I stepped out of my classroom teacher role and into a position that doesn’t have a set description and relies on the ability to nurture relationships, pinpoint areas of weakness or stress and create avenues for both students and staff to grow.

I felt like this would be a breeze!  I knew all the terms, the research and the leaders in the field.  I read Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, memorized the Six Secrets to Change and spent numerous hours studying Mindfullness.   I was set, nothing was going to stop me, I was going to take this place like a storm, it was going to be a breeze!

I remember my first day getting to meet the staff, their eyes looking at me, trying to find out who I was, what I was doing and how I was going to fit into the moving pieces that were the school.  You see, my job lies on a thin line.  On one side, I am a teacher, part of the union, the same union that supports classroom teachers, that deals with observations, pay cuts and the tension that can arise when between teaching staff and administration.  On the other, I have many administrative responsibilities.  I regularly meet with building and district administration about new initiatives, progress on curriculum development and planning for professional development.  Add this to a myriad of other administrative tasks and you find some resemblance of my job, not quite an administrator, but not really a teacher.  I live in that demilitarized zone between the two boarders.  When there are diplomatic relations between the two groups all is fine, when trouble arises, it puts me right in the middle.

Needless to say, things didn’t get off to the best start.  I fell off the tightrope from time to time, moving too far to the administrative perspective and then to far back to the teacher perspective.  I found myself getting pulled all over not knowing where to go or what to do. I enjoyed my car rides home much more than the day at the school, not because I was going to my family, but because I could think for a bit, not having a teacher wanting something here or an administrator needing something there.  It was my time, a time for reflection, a time to wrap my head around the day’s craziness.  As one day piled on the next, my mind was full of thoughts most of which had me leaning on asking to get back in the classroom.

It wasn’t until I realized what was missing from the situation.  All my training and book smarts didn’t prepare me for what was really necessary for leadership.  I thought I wanted to be a situational leader, one who was able to seamlessly move in and out of issues, supporting staff when needed and also pushing them to achieve more.  What this missed is the one piece that has to be there for any leadership model to work in the real world. Empathy.

Webster’s’ says empathy is the ability to share ones emotions.  It goes beyond that.  The ability to assess a situation, understand where a staff member is coming from, to know what they are bringing to the table is not just school related things, is what is needed as a leader.  I needed to be able to look at my colleagues, for them to know that all of my actions were with students best interest at heart.  But I also needed to be able to balance those needs with the needs of the teacher.  It wasn’t fair for me to always push. I needed to ask questions, to see what they needed and help them align their needs with the needs of the students.  Only then would I be a leader that could make change happen.

Of course there have been mistakes made in this journey.  I talk when should listen and listen when I need to talk.  The learning process expects people to make them and we need to be accountable for them, but we also need to learn from them.  As a new leader, I look to others to help me better understand where I need to push and where I need to listen.  I still enjoy my rides home, the quiet time is great for reflection.  But instead of reflecting on what I don’t like, I review each situation as if I was the other person.  What would my needs be? What misconceptions am I coming to this with?  What do I really need to become better? Finding empathy has helped me grow as a learner and a leader.  I am sure my perspective will change as I move forward, but that piece has helped me find my niche.

“When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you” 

-Susan Sarandon


Jan 28

Ninety Days to Make It or…..?

Ninety Days to Make It or…..?


Kaity O’Riordan and Shari Pawlus

3rd Grade Teaching and Learning Leaders

Troy School District

September started off like any other “new year.” The sharpening of pencils, the cleaning out of desk drawers, the creation of new bulletin boards, and the intense anticipation for what the year would bring. As usual, we planned meticulously the evening before school started for fear that we would be late on our first day. The coffee was ready to brew, the outfit picked out, the lunch was packed- we were prepared. We barely slept that night, and bolted out of bed before the alarm went off the next morning.

As we walked down the hallway to our office, something was noticeably off— where was the crowd of parents waiting to meet the teacher? The staff members rushing around putting the finishing touches on their welcome-back-gifts? The frazzled secretary answering phone call after phone call? And- most importantly- where was the line of students with their faces pressed up against the window, waiting to start their first day?

Now, don’t get us wrong. We knew by this time that we were great partners in this new venture. But our excitement to see each other that morning couldn’t match the enthusiasm of twenty-seven students on their first day of fifth grade. We began to feel a sense of loss.  Surely once the day got started, the feeling would begin to fade. We quickly sat down, opened our shiny new laptops, and got busy. Emailing each other. From our desks. Which are five feet apart. That’s when it hit us.

There was no blueprint for this job.

This was a brand new pilot position in our district. We had no footprints to follow; there were no lesson plans for us to use and tweak to fit our style as we went forward. Not even the “Emergency Sub Plans: Watch This Movie” kind of guidance. We were on our own. Give us twenty-seven students in the same situation- we were calm, cool, and collected. Thirty-six third grade teachers? No clue.

Here’s what we did know:  in May, an email came through with the posting for two third grade teaching and learning leaders. Things we saw in the posting like “adult staff learning is just as important as student learning” as well as “work to build capacity for teacher leadership” made us confident that this was the position for us. We believe in the idea that the teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s learning. An opportunity to help teachers be the best educators they can be? We couldn’t it let pass us by.

Our excitement for the possibilities of this position drove us through the first few weeks. We recognized that pushing into classrooms while teachers are establishing routines and relationships wasn’t going to make us any friends, so we took all of our energy and started brainstorming. Our office walls were filled with our stream of consciousness—how to get into teachers classrooms, how to share ideas across the district, goals for each year of our pilot, our philosophy and vision. This brainstorming period started as a way to get to know each other’s ideas and try to carve out a path for what our work would be. Looking back, we now realize that it was also a way for us to develop our relationship as well as a shared vision for our work. We also quickly recognized that this vision was fluid; it was impossible for us to set anything in stone while in such unchartered territory and without the input of our teachers.

We liken this to trying to plan out a school year of lesson plans before ever meeting the students. We couldn’t truly plan our work until we knew our teachers. So we set aside those grandiose plans and made lunch dates. 12 of them. At each building. On our own budget. (As a side note- Kaity quickly learned about the gem that is Costco!) J

Our goal for these lunches was two-fold: start to build relationships with the teachers at each building as well as learn more about them as teachers.  We brought them lunch and talked a bit about our backgrounds, as well as theirs. We also took them through a protocol where we began to uncover their motivations as professionals.  What was an idea they wanted to learn about? What was something they felt comfortable teaching? What did they want to try in the classroom? What subject did they want to see someone else teach?

We left each lunch armed with new information about our “class,” including a sense of the school culture, team collaboration, and individual teacher personalities. Cognizant of the fact that a teacher’s lunchtime is extremely valuable, we built a bridge and offered to stay after lunch to help teachers with anything they might have been doing during lunch time. We were so proud of ourselves for thinking of this because we thought it would serve another purpose- a chance to be in classrooms with teachers to get a sense of their style. And, of course, have some kid time, which at this point we were sorely missing.

Throughout the 12 lunches with teachers, we continued to reflect and adjust. Not only what we were having for lunch, but more important things like what questions we asked to ensure we understood teacher needs. We also adjusted the types of things we were willing to help with after lunch, which afforded us the opportunity to be in classrooms and see teachers in action.

As we pondered and looked at trends from building to building, what we heard our teachers saying was that they really needed support with our new math curriculum. We brought one teacher per building together for a day of professional learning, and have made inroads with those teachers to work more closely. As a result of the learning and questioning done at the session, the teachers began to invite us into their classrooms during math instruction.

Being in rooms more frequently made us realize something about ourselves in this new position- we were very uncomfortable giving constructive feedback. Although we were effusive with our encouraging feedback, we were seeing some things that we wanted to ask them about in a constructive way-  we wanted to help them be more reflective. As luck would have it, the leadership conference we are attending in Lansing had “offering effective feedback” on its next agenda in early December. We learned a protocol that will help us deliver both encouraging and constructive feedback that we are looking forward to trying in the new year. (For more information about the protocol, please click the link:

By working intensely with a small focused group of teachers, we are committed to helping them develop more effective instructional strategies that promote critical thinking. We are also committed to building their capacity to be more reflective in their decision making, through the use of classroom data. By building their confidence in both of these areas, we are hoping to see them emerge as teacher leaders within their grade level. As such, they would form our first 3rd grade math lab, with a focus on instructional strategies that promote critical thinking as well as data driven decision making. Looking forward to next school year, these teachers would splinter off and become the facilitators of district wide teacher labs.

Although we are missing the noise of an active classroom and the face of a student who “gets it” for the first time, we are convinced now, more than before, of our jobs’ importance and understand that even though we are not with kids every day we still impact learning in the classroom-  for both student and teacher. We look forward to the joys and challenges that the rest of this year will bring as we continue to build capacity amongst our third grade teachers as effective instructors and teacher leaders. We also look forward to looking back in June to see how effectively we’ve built our own capacity as coaches.

Happy New Year!







Jan 28

Principals Matter

Principals Matter

By Dirk F. Zuschlag

A few months into the second year of our district’s commitment to teacher learning labs, it’s clear that a key first year investment lay in intentionally initiating communications and building relationships with administrators in the district’s twenty educational facilities.


By the time the holiday break began with an ice day two weeks ago (seems like yesterday), we—six half-time “learning coaches” in our second year—had conducted two more teacher learning labs in three months than in all of last school year, the first for labs in our district.  In thinking over the break about our second-generation labs so far, I wonder (among many other things) how our initial efforts and experiences (and luck) laid a strong foundation for expanding and improving our labs.  Particularly in light of the practical limitations on district-wide labs, one key component of that foundation has to be the understanding and co-operation, the in-put and support, of our district’s building administrators.  Principals matter.

Principals are of course essential to any successful and effective professional learning.  Job-embedded professional learning (J-EPL) like teacher learning labs especially depends on principals, since it happens in their space with their people during their time.  Further, labs by definition directly impact principals’ work across a variety of their roles—everything from building manager to instructional leader. Principals, in turn, necessarily impact the labs and their participants, as well as the resulting professional learning and future instruction.  The lab model of J-EPL in fact may be—and really should be—extended and applied to the professional learning of principals themselves.  But first the principals must be included in the roll-out and initiation of the lab model and process, which in the case of our district was new to all.

Although we aren’t administrators but teachers who were starting almost from scratch, we tried from the start of our planning to take account of the principal’s perspective.  We explicitly considered how the lab model we were developing and would be implementing might affect the interests, goals and concerns of principals.  How would we inform them of and gain their support for the process in general?  How would we keep them apprised and supportive of particular labs?  How could we show the utility and effectiveness of the lab model, while still gathering honest feedback to improve our work?

Here are some are some of the more formal actions we tried to engage with building administrators about our first year teacher learning labs:

  • We were introduced as new learning coaches, and we gave a PowerPoint presentation of our plans at a regular meeting of all building administrators with central administrators.
  • With our central administration director, we hosted and conducted three teacher learning labs in which district administrators (instead of teachers) acted as participants.
  • In pairs we visited each school in the district, where we were introduced and presented to staff; we met with each principal before the staff meeting and typically after it as well.
  • During the school year, as we prepared for our eight pilot teacher learning labs, we notified principals who from their respective staffs wanted to participate; we also kept such principals informed regarding the participants, agenda, content and materials for each lab.
  • For the lab hosts’ buildings—that is, where labs would be conducted—we met with the principal before the lab, on the day of the lab, and after the lab.
  • After each lab, we surveyed participants and made the resulting data available to all.  Similarly, we also asked participants to discuss their lab experiences with colleagues, both formally (for example a staff or PLC meeting) and informally (for example, over lunch), and to include building administration..  We also kept principals aware of when we later met to interview (and videotape) hosts, as well as a selection of participants, for a presentation to the Board of Education.
  • With our central administration director, we planned and conducted three principal labs based on the teacher learning lab structure and process, but with principals hosting and with virtually all building administrators in the district participating in one.
  • In pairs, we conducted a second round of building visits, both to meet in small groups with staff members and to meet individually with building administrators.  We not only reviewed the year’s professional learning opportunities, asking for feedback especially regarding the labs, but also we wanted to discern the needs and desires for professional learning, including more, better labs, in the succeeding school year.
  • We began to plan for potential modifications in our lab model, including efforts to integrate lab professional learning with other forms of professional learning our department would offer teachers and administrators; our work was included in the District Improvement Plan, to which principals also contributed.

At each step, as after each lab of any kind, we sought feedback.  In ongoing formal and informal communications (in person when the opportunity arose, by e-mail as well), we endeavored to emphasize our openness to and to solicit actively any questions, suggestions or concerns.

Although not everything we tried worked (not as planned anyway), last year’s demonstration of thoughtful, good faith efforts seems to be paying significant dividends.  Principals have supported the expansion in number and variety in nature of the teacher learning labs.  For example, principals have been instrumental in recruiting lab participants and in helping with practical lab logistics.  They have similarly contributed to the identification of lab foci and to follow up with lab-related professional learning.  Several building administrators have in addition taken advantage of the teacher learning lab-on-lab opportunity we are piloting this year.  And a number of principals have asked to pursue their own professional learning through a second year round of principal labs.

Getting and keeping principals on board and in the loop (to mix some metaphors) is essential—no, indispensable—to developing and sustaining highly effective teacher learning labs, which, like all J-EPL, benefits all, not the least, ultimately, our students.

Dec 17

Instructional Rounds as a Professional Learning Experience


by Denise Kott, Instructional Coach and Title I Coordinator, Clawson Public Schools


After reviewing the Instructional Coaching Information Forms, I had four outstanding candidates for Instructional Rounds. The teachers are at varying stages in their careers, and teach different subjects. These are “good teachers” who want to improve their instruction.   Perfect!

Instructional Rounds is a professional learning experience similar to medical rounds.  The Instructional Rounds process includes small teams of teachers observing in each other’s classrooms, discussing, and then analyzing teaching and learning.  Teams work toward creating a shared understanding of what high-quality instruction looks like.  Teachers focus on areas to improve in their own instruction and evaluate their own success. A trained coach or teacher leader facilitates Instructional Rounds.  The facilitator helps teachers focus their initial observations around a “problem of practice,” or something that teachers see as an area to improve.  After observations, the coach works with teachers on individual goals.  In the end, teachers do another round of observations.  This is a powerful experience.  Especially, for teachers who have only been to “mandated professional development days.”


I meet with my Instructional Rounds cohort a few times to help everyone feel more comfortable with one another.  We spent time discussing how to take observation notes that are objective.  I explained the protocol that is used for Instructional Rounds and we discussed the process. During the third meeting, the group determined the question they would like to explore, or the problem of practice:  “How do teachers encourage and support students to be academic risk-takers?”  I thought this was a great focus for our observations.  After all, these were already accomplished teachers.  Following several scheduling issues, we were finally able to set a date for observations and debriefing.


We spent the morning traveling from one room to another.  It was truly enjoyable, filled with observing some really great teaching.  I watched, listened and took notes.  However, I didn’t see much evidence to answer the question we set out to answer, “How do teachers encourage and support students to be academic risk-takers?” 


The five of us had a social lunchtime.  We talked about exercise, restaurants and family.  I was excited about the friendships building in this group of teachers I had put together.  Through knowing each other more personally, they will share more openly, I found myself thinking.  Teachers are not used to a real “lunch hour.”  I really wanted to let their conversations continue.  But, it was time for the tough stuff- the debrief.


The debrief in Instructional Rounds consists of three parts: Description, Analysis and Prediction.  The Description is where you share some of your observations relevant to the focus or problem of practice.  This is usually a sharing of objective observation notes that goes pretty quickly.  Then we put some of our “evidence” into groups on chart paper. Today, my cohort grouped the evidence into the three categories of observation: what is the teacher doing and saying, what are the students doing and saying, and what is the task.  This follows the form of the notes we take, again pretty quick and easy. The next step is to label the groups and look for patterns and contradictions.  I reminded the cohort of the problem they wanted to focus on, “How do teachers encourage and support students to be academic risk-takers?”  This prompted them to regroup their evidence.  Like an emotionally draining lightning bolt, the Analysis phase began!


After regrouping the evidence, the cohort had created three new categories.  The new categories were “encouraging,” “accountability,” and “classroom culture.”  There were some observations that didn’t fit any of these categories; I let those hang off to the side.  The next step is to label the groups.  The cohort tried to name the groups they had created. I asked probing questions.  The questions I asked purposefully made them wrestle with what was “encouraging students to participate” and what was “encouraging academic risk-taking.”  After an hour of discussion, we hit the “ah-ha” that all teachers wait for.  I had been able to help these accomplished educators realize, they had an area of instruction to improve.


In the next few weeks, I will meet with each of the teachers individually.  We will determine a professional learning target influenced by the Instructional Rounds process.  My goal as their Instructional Coach is to help each of these teachers answer the question, “How do teachers encourage and support students to be academic risk-takers?” 


May 30

What Can a Fourth Grade Math Teacher Possibly Learn from A First Grade Reading Workshop? Turns out, Via a Teacher Lab, Quite a Lot


By Dirk F. Zuschlag

When a diverse band of teachers plunges into a teacher lab, even the more skeptical emerge with an insightful, inspirational, and empowering professional learning experience, its positive impact transcending any specific grade level, content area, or instructional strategy.

“You don’t understand.  I teach fourth grade.  I need to know how to teach these new math units we just got handed.  I don’t see how I’ll get anything out of watching and talking about some first grade teacher’s reading workshop.  Besides, I’ve already got too much to do, too much that’s new, this year.  I’ll think about it for next time.”  My learning coach colleagues and I encountered many variations of this sentiment as we traveled throughout our district last fall, visiting every school (19), meeting every staff (totaling about 600).  Enthusiastically, we rolled-out our plans for a first-ever series of teacher labs in our district.  We ended each presentation with an appeal for a broad range of voluntary participants.  Still we heard skepticism from teachers in every building.  We heard it from the newest and most veteran teachers, as well as everyone in between.  We heard it from teachers at all grade levels and in all content areas.  We even heard it, wondered about it, among ourselves.  It was a fair, wholly understandable point.

We had developed a stock of rejoinders, of course.  We would explain that this year’s labs were pilots, trial runs of the learning processes which would (eventually) benefit the whole district; that given our present resources and capacities, we were attempting to offer an inclusive, authentic, and useful professional learning experience for as many teachers as possible; that we wanted feedback on the lab model itself from many points of view; that, we hoped the initial labs would whet teachers’ appetites and create a favorable “buzz” around our lab model; that we were aiming to grow a diverse base to sustain, improve and even extend this highly effective mode of professional learning.  Finally, we would always conclude, “Anyway, you know, good instruction is good instruction.”  These explanations had the virtue of being true.  Also, they were almost convincing.  Yet we knew that only the actual experience of a lab itself would change minds—and practices.  Our Sam-I-Am conviction was that, if our colleagues would only try it, they’d like our green eggs and ham.  That’s what we thought; what we needed were a few small successes.

Our first chance came with our first teacher lab toward the end of January.  Our host, a first grade teacher, wanted to focus on her use of “stickiness principles.”  Near the beginning of the school year, a colleague teaching at another school recommended that our host read Shanna Schwartz’s A Quick Guide to Making Your Teaching Stick K-5 [Workshop Help Desk Series, Lucy Calkins, ed. (Heinemann, 2008)].   After reading this very short book, our host decided to adapt and incorporate several of its strategies—those concerning repetition, gestures, and physical representations—into her daily reading workshop lessons.  Now, several months later, she was willing to open her classroom door to twelve other elementary teachers using the lab model to explore her instructional innovation.

The observer-participants, who all varied in teaching experience, came from their own classrooms at nine of the district’s thirteen elementary buildings.  Together they taught every elementary grade (only one was a first grade teacher), and several had split or multi-grade assignments.  Some were acquaintances, but most had not seriously collaborated with one another.  Here were thirteen very different people with very different experiences and points of view.  This was clearly going to be a new experience for everyone involved.  This was certainly going to be as good a test as any of our lab model.

The lab day flew by, and … it worked!  (Whew!)  Despite our missteps and shortcomings, all the planning and preparation, the host’s courage and skill, the group’s open-minded trust and active participation in the entire learning process, all paid off in obvious, invigorating, collaborative professional learning.  The group members’ range and diversity seemed to stimulate imaginations and to promote connections as it expanded the nature and bounds of each individual’s reflection and the entire group’s discourse.  Nor were the energy and synergy limited to the specific strategies the host’s focus involved; rather they encompassed affective components about kids and teaching in general.  (I teach high school social studies, and the lab prompted me to get the book and modify some of my own practices to increase their “stickiness.”)

In addition to our personal impressions of the lab day, we sought feedback in several forms.  Group members wrote a final individual reflection on the day, as well as a personal thank you note to the host.  Participants used sticky notes to indicate “Gots and Wants” from the lab experience.  This on-the-spot feedback included a number of good suggestions and requests—a few for, yes, grade level specific labs in the future.  Regarding this first in our series of ground-breaking labs, however, reactions were overwhelmingly positive.  We later sent out an on-line survey, to which all the participants responded.  Here, too, the feedback was up-beat and encouraging across the board.  All participants agreed (2-3) or strongly agreed (10-11) with such statements as, “My participation in the learning lab …” “… was worth my time out of the classroom,” “… should have a positive impact on the achievement of students in my classroom,” and “… has motivated me to reflect on my own practice.”  All would “recommend the learning lab experience to [their] professional colleagues.”  When it came to describing their experience in their own words, all participants were still more effusive.  We could legitimately celebrate an initial success.

Over the remaining seven teacher labs this year, our hosts taught at four different elementary schools, both middle schools, and one of the two comprehensive high schools, as well as the alternative high school.  Their classes and lessons ranged across grades and content areas at all school levels—in the elementary schools, from second grade writing workshop to fifth grade math to three/four multi-age science; in the middle schools, from to eighth grade algebra to seventh grade general science; in the high schools, from tenth  grade biology to eleventh grade ELA.  These labs included special and general education teachers, who collectively taught all K-12 grade levels, at virtually all the district’s schools, across all core and the principle special classes (art, music, physical education).

These labs, moreover, were not only as diverse as the first, but were equally well-received and appreciated as truly useful, professional and effective job-embedded professional learning.  The feedback received, in all its forms, was comparable in all facets to that following the first lab.  For example, 85% of the teachers in all the labs strongly agreed that they were worthwhile, positive and impactful professional learning opportunities.  (The other 15% agreed as well.)  One colleague’s daughter created the following word cloud from the three words lab participants themselves offered to describe his/her lab experience:

In short, thanks to our openly curious, engaged, and brave hosts and participants, each and every lab vindicated the lab model and its processes as awesome job-embedded professional learning.  Further, while differing in so many respects, our pilots uniformly confirmed the beneficial educational effects of widely diverse lab participation.

K-12 education has no dearth of conventional wisdom we teachers say we believe guides our profession.  But it takes participation in job-embedded professional learning like teacher labs to demonstrate, actively and concretely, the underlying reality of a more than few accepted truisms about professional learning:  Good instruction really is good instruction; all teachers really can learn with and from each and every other; high quality professional learning really will impact teachers’ day-to-day practices, thus enhancing student achievement.  We coaches, facilitators, and staff developers all face the same task as any effective educator:   To provide the best professional learning opportunities, to motivate our colleagues to seize upon them as means to professional growth, and then to broaden, deepen, and sharpen them in an ongoing cycle of improvement.


May 22

Come, Sit Here…There’s a Spot Next to Me

Welcoming the Next Generation of Professionals to the Table,

by Marcia Hudson

After school one day, I was sitting alone at my desk, reflecting upon the day’s events.  I looked up to see Amanda, a university student that was working in our building as a student teacher.   I had met her briefly at a staff meeting, had smiled and said “Hello” as we passed each other in the hallway; but had yet to have any opportunity to talk with her at length.

“I was wondering if I might ask you a question?” she said, a bit hesitantly.  Her expression reflected a mixture of excitement, fear, and anxiety.  Smiling, I welcomed her to sit down.  Inhaling deeply, she rushed to speak.  “Caroline just shared with me that she will be hosting a teacher lab.  I was wondering if it would be appropriate for me to participate?”  She relaxed in her chair, pleased that she had not lost her nerve, her eyes intent on me, waiting for a reply.

I couldn’t help but smile.  I welcomed her to attend the lab, gave her a copy of the invitation, and shared a few details about the structure of the day.  I noticed that as she left, she had a notable spring to her step.

The next day, we met again in our conference room, excited to begin the day’s learning together at Teacher Lab.  The group was using the book Making Thinking Visible, (Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison) as the anchor to their professional learning and focus for their Teacher Lab work.   Each of us were excited to observe thinking routines in action, as we were in different places of understanding this powerful work.  As the school bell rang, participants came in to the room, greeting each other, notebooks and favorite pens in hand.  Amanda walked in hesitantly…searching the room for an empty chair…uncertain.  You could read the worry on her face- “Am I supposed to sit in the chair in the corner?”   I met her gaze, and motioned for her to come and sit at the table with the group.

Amanda settled in to the chair next to me, and as the facilitator welcomed us to the Lab, we each introduced ourselves to Amanda and welcomed her into the circle.  The facilitator opened the pre-observation discussion, helped us establish norms for the day.  As we continued, and began framing the focus of our study, I looked over at Amanda.  I noted that she seemed to still be a bit uncomfortable…sitting very straight in her seat, eyes intent on the speaker, quiet, listening…never speaking.  I noted that she had her i-Pad opened, and her fingers flew across her wireless keyboard.  During the forty-five minutes before the observation, she never spoke.  As we readied ourselves for the observation, Amanda sat back, still hesitant…and followed us down the hallway and into the host teacher’s classroom.

The Teacher Lab observation for the day was memorable for each of us.  Using a Connect-Extend-Challenge Thinking Routine, the host teacher facilitated a fascinating lesson about economics with her first graders.  As we left her classroom, and settled in to our post-observation conversation, the room was filled with tangible energy.  We each had questions, connections, and thoughts we each were anxious to share about the observation.

As the facilitator skillfully orchestrated this conversation, I suddenly became aware again of Amanda…this time for a different reason.  Amanda was sharing her questions, thoughts, and wonderings with the same level of engagement and excitement as the other participants.  What was incredibly noteworthy to me was her demeanor- her body language- her engagement.  She was “one of us” – a professional at the table, displaying the same level of confidence, sitting with the same level of professional carriage.

Again, I found myself smiling….and wondering:

How might our professional opportunities change if each pre-service or new teacher had the same experience as Amanda?  How might our schools, districts, systems, teacher education programming change if each teacher had the same opportunity to take part in this same kind of job-embedded professional learning?  What if Teacher Lab learning (or a similar job-embedded professional learning model) became the norm- Amanda’s expectation of her profession- rather than a pleasant opportunity?

The longer I am involved in this amazing profession, the more I realize that regardless of where we stand- or the depth/breadth of experiences we carry in our pockets– there is so much more to be learned and shared, and we each have meaningful contributions to offer.

I remain hopeful that “Amanda” comes knocking at your door …as well as the door next door!

May 07

Confusion to Confidence: using the focused coaching conversation to frame reflection and results

By Kathy Jennens

     When real teachers in real classrooms sit side-by-side coaches, carefully designed goals can not only be reached, but teachers grow and administrators can witness the results.

     It is week six of coaching Sophia, kindergarten teacher, at Belleview School, in southeast Michigan.  I walk into her colorful classroom, children zipping up jackets or pulling on a boot, while classmates make a puffy line of snowsuits.

     I sit at one of the rectangular student tables, which sidles up close to the teacher’s desk and holds a stack of fat yellow and green student writing folders.  I unwrap my laptop from its well-used black shoulder case and bring up my debriefing document.  Students have magically filed out.  Sophia has taken her place in an opposing little blue chair and smiles, as my boss, the director of equity in instruction, walks into the room and joins us, to observe.

     We begin our coaching conversation with the usual questions and thoughtful answers about what has been observed and the teacher’s responses to the student work and class data sheet that lie before us.  I wonder at the bright eyed, calm and relaxed teacher I see sitting across the table, ably showing student pieces of writing and describing the strategies they demonstrate.  As we wrap up our conversation, I hear her inferring what influenced this progress in her little writers.  She skillfully verbalizes her decisions about her next steps in her continuing goal to implement a daily writers’ workshop.

     Before we part, I ask her how this coaching process has been working for her.  She has stood up and facing both of us says, “It is working very well for me.  It has made me a better teacher.  I even think I could host a lab classroom, like I went to the other day.  I am so much more confident.”  I feel a big smile spread across my face as my heart warms with joy, looking at this professional, who one and one-half months ago expressed confusion and   being overwhelmed.  Today, she certainly exudes confidence.

     The power of coaching never ceases to amaze me. One helpful tool is the O.R.I.D. focused conversation protocol (Observations and data, Reflections on those noticings, Implications for instruction, and Decisions for next steps). Using this format to guide debriefing and planning sessions, provides an opportunity for thoughtful open-ended questioning by the coach and supported responding by the teacher, as well as an organized way to record.  Teachers are empowered to make critical professional decisions and to carry out research-based instructional strategies.

Coaching Format     Focused Conversation

Coach______________________  Teacher___________ ____Date__________



The objective level – questions about facts and external reality


Other data:

The reflective level –  questions to call forth immediate personal reaction to the data, an internal response, feelings, associations   How did you feel?

The interpretative level – questions to draw out meaning, values, significance, and implications  What does that mean?  What are the implications for instruction?

The decisional level – questions to elicit resolution, bring the conversation to a close, and enable the group to make a resolve about the future   What are the next steps?


Apr 23

Opening Classroom Doors Can Be Unsettling for Hosts

by Sheila Scovic.

Agreeing to be a teacher lab host for a group of colleagues might cause some trepidation, especially for a first-timer.  It’s important for facilitators to keep this in mind as they provide support for these brave colleagues.

One lab I facilitated was composed of teachers who all taught the same grade level.  After spending a few hours visiting Pam’s classroom, the two of us had a private moment to chat before joining the rest of the group.  I told her what an enjoyable and informative morning it had been for her teacher guests.  “Thank you,” she said.  “I’m happy that part is over because I get so nervous when other teachers are watching me.”  “Really?  You seem so calm and relaxed.  I would never have known that you were feeling at all stressed,” I related.  “Oh, that’s good to hear.  I stayed at school until 7:00 last night to get ready, and then I hardly slept at all,” Pam responded.  “Was it any easier for you since this was our second visit?”  I asked.  “A little, but you know when it got easier today?  About ten minutes after you came in.  I’m not sure why, but I just forgot about being nervous and knew that everything was going to be fine.”  She said that she knew this was a good thing for her to do and that it was making her more reflective of her practice, but it was still a little scary.  She did appreciate the positive feedback she received from the group.  She stated that the lab experience not only affirmed what she was doing but also motivated her to set goals for herself and be accountable for meeting them from session to session.  She also expressed her appreciation for the chance to get to know the other teachers and share ideas and strategies with them.

Teacher lab hosts place themselves in a vulnerable position.  They may be reluctant to be viewed as an authority or as one possessing more knowledge than their guests.  Facilitators should be sensitive to any possible nervousness as they interact with hosts during preplanning and classroom visits.  Making encouraging comments, showing appreciation, and reminding teacher guests that they are visiting to observe rather than evaluate can be helpful in alleviating these concerns.