Aside from student teaching, how often have you, as a teacher, been able to observe and learn from other teachers in a classroom environment?
In her doctoral thesis, Linda J. Hirsch, Ed.D., assistant superintendent for Chelmsford Public Schools in Massachusetts, asserts that schools struggle to create contextualized, collaborative learning environments for teachers. This limits the ability of teachers to learn from each other and develop professionally.
Christie McMullen at the AVID Center, an organization that works with schools to help them adopt a student-centered approach to learning, explains that teachers learn best by watching their colleagues in a live classroom setting. This, McMullen says, energizes and empowers teachers.
School systems that have recognized the importance of peer reviews are using them to create a more collaborative environment for educators. Peer-to-peer reviews are a powerful way for teachers to improve their skills, explains Jason Flom, director at Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, Florida. These reviews can often be more productive than professional evaluations because they remove the pressure of performance and, instead, encourage learning and collaboration.
Creating a culture of sharing among teachers, however, can be difficult because it opens teachers up to peer judgment. That’s why peer reviews need to be carefully woven into a school’s culture.
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Sharing online lesson plans
Digital lesson plans are easy to share and allow teachers to bounce ideas off each other. This collaboration, notes the team at educational software developer Planbook, gives teachers an ongoing opportunity to test ideas, seek feedback, and improve their teaching methods.
This is especially useful at the departmental level. For example, teachers in the math department can review each other’s lesson plans not only to check for adherence to curriculum requirements, but also to get ideas about how to teach a lesson. One teacher may approach an educational objective in a unique way that other teachers can adopt for their teaching strategies.
That level of collaboration can directly impact students’ education. Teacher collaboration helps get high-quality education content to more students, says the staff at TeachThought, an organization that focuses on the professional development of teachers.
Creating digital forms for peer reviews
The most effective peer reviews are done while observing teachers in their classrooms. This lets observers see firsthand how other teachers approach lessons and instruction, notes educational consultant Michele Israel.
In-classroom observations also create a dialogue between teachers. The observer can offer feedback in the moment, and the teacher being observed can demonstrate pedagogical tactics that might be novel for the viewer.
These observations do carry an inherent risk, however. Educators Susan Moore Johnson and Sarah E. Fiarman warn that peer evaluations run the risk of setting teachers against each other if they are perceived as evaluations of performance rather than tools for professional development.
To establish a baseline level of trust, educators and administrators should work together to create an online observation form that provides structure to all peer reviews. Doing so will ensure the reviews remain objective and based on data that is relevant to improvement, not based on performance.
When creating digital peer review forms, keep these suggestions in mind:
- Let teachers draft the questions. Flom argues that teachers will be more likely to embrace peer reviews when they play a role in creating the questions for observation.
- Make the reviews anonymous. Obviously, the observations themselves wouldn’t be anonymous. But observers should be able to submit their feedback anonymously through the form. This will help eliminate any hard feelings that may arise if teachers get defensive at being judged. Anonymity can also promote a more honest review if the observer isn’t concerned about stepping on the toes of the teacher they are observing.
- Make the forms consistent for all reviews. The forms may differ by department depending on priorities, but make sure everyone within the department, or school, is subject to the same set of questions and standards in the review. Again, this helps build trust in the peer review process.
Standardized review forms keep the process objective. At the same time, digital forms help schools collect and store the data so teachers can access it anytime. Evaluating that data is the key to improving performance.
Allowing for easy access to review data
In a report on the effectiveness of teacher observations, University of Virginia researchers Megan Stuhlman, Bridget Hamre, Jason Downer, and Robert Pianta note that “observational data contributes to professional development efforts only if it is shared effectively with teachers.” Storing this information in an accessible database facilitates that kind of sharing.
A digital database gives educators and administrators instant access to the information provided on the review. Without access to that data, teachers don’t know the results of their reviews and have no opportunity to learn.
Collecting the data is important, but actually acting on that data is the primary reason for doing peer reviews. Teachers can work together to review the data in the context of the classroom observed as well as departmental goals and improvements.
Peer reviews are a great tool for professional development, especially for teachers who seldom have the opportunity to observe other teachers in a classroom setting. These reviews provide insight that teacher evaluations by administrators may miss because the focus is on learning, not performance.
Teachers can flourish given the opportunity to learn from each other.