Field Trip: Collaboration Walks
Gresham-Barlow School District in Oregon has a fresh perspective on learning walks. Looking for a way to offer professional learning opportunities that promote teacher voice and teacher agency and that lead to growth in instructional practice, they began something they call “Collaboration Walks,” where teachers collectively decide on focus areas before observing a lesson.
In this interview, we speak with instructional coach Sarah Hayden, about:
- How collaboration walks differ from traditional learning walks
- The “real work” that happens during the conversation after the observation
- How they fit in with Gresham-Barlow’s evaluation process
- What makes them effective, how they’ve been received by teachers and the results they’ve seen across the district
What if you could hear from leaders in school systems all over the U.S.?
SARAH HAYDEN: We’re not evaluators, we’re educators. We’re teachers. And so we want to take what we saw to inform our practice, so we create a really safe environment for the teacher who was being observed and all of the other teachers in the room to share freely and openly about what makes really quality, best-practice teaching.
People who are creatively solving problems, and making strategic decisions as they work to hire, retain, support and grow teachers and staff.
SARAH HAYDEN: They feel more confident in letting people in, in talking about teaching in rich and meaningful ways.
From superintendents to principals, from Human Resources to Instruction to Special Education, we’re talking with people who have stories to tell in K-12. And we’re sharing those conversations here.
SARAH HAYDEN: Every teacher, from the pre-service teacher to the 20-year veteran teacher says, “I have room to grow, too.”
From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.
My guest today is Sarah Hayden – welcome, Sarah! – an instructional coach at Gresham-Barlow School District in Oregon.
SARAH HAYDEN: So basically, we lie about 20 minutes east of Portland proper, and we have 18 schools within our district.
Like I often say, we are too small to be big, and too big to be small.
It’s a mix of rural, suburban and even urban communities. Sarah is one of four instructional coaches at the district, and she serves elementary level K-5. She and her colleagues serve at the site level, working one on one with teachers, but they also work at the district level in curriculum adoption, support, district-wide systems and things like that.
SARAH HAYDEN: So we wear many hats as coaches in our district, because again, we’re too small to be big, and we’re too big to be small. So just like of those districts, our resources are stretched pretty thin.
They may be stretched thin, but Sarah and the team she’s a part of have come up with some pretty interesting ways of providing job-embedded, collaborative, classroom-focused professional learning.
Well Sarah, we are here today to talk about something you’re doing at Gresham-Barlow called ‘collaboration Walks’. Tell me about that, what are they?
SARAH HAYDEN: Yeah. Collaboration walks are something that we started in our district about three years ago to really promote teacher voice, teacher agency, and teacher professional growth. So what we do, is on a given day, we get about ten teachers together, and we explore different classrooms around all of the 11 elementary schools in our district. Then teachers sit together and talk and collaborate with each other about what they’ve seen in the classrooms, and how they can take what they’ve learned and really internalize it to promote them and their professional growth.
What led you to starting these?
SARAH HAYDEN: We originally had a support person from the Chalkboard project that came out and did learning walks in our district. What happened was, the State of Oregon, we were all charged with revamping our evaluation system. So one of the ways to calibrate the evaluation system in our new rubric across the spectrum, the educational system that we serve in Gresham-Barlow, was to get teachers familiar with the new rubric.
She took teachers around to look at other classrooms and view instruction and then talk about it with that lens of the rubric. What we decided to do, as coaches, when we were charged with continuing this work is, we really wanted to revamp it. We wanted to have the rubric, our rubric, to be a model for professional growth and not just evaluation.
So we took all the numbers away from the rubric, and we used the rubric as a common vernacular to talk about instruction in a way that was meaningful, in a way that was safe, in a way that promoted growth for teachers. So we even rebranded it. Instead of ‘Learning Walks,’ we called them ‘Collaboration Walks,’ and really talked about how the collective voice of the teacher in the room is the knowledge that needs to be shared for everyone to grow, not just something that’s top-down or something that we as coaches teach them. It’s really like a collaborative way to talk about teaching.
It sounds like these are different from a typical classroom observation or walkthrough, right?
SARAH HAYDEN: Absolutely. Absolutely. We often start the collaboration walks with a quote by John Muir, and the quote says, “I only went out for a walk. Decided to stay out until sundown, for going out, I was really going in.” So we talk about how this is a space to be revitalized, to be inspired, and to really internalize what you’re doing after you see somebody else’s practice.
So it’s in not in any way to say what the teacher that you saw did well, or what they didn’t do well, but how you could incorporate what they did, or how you can change your own practice, based on what you saw. It’s really an internal process to learn.
Sarah, can you describe the process for me a little bit in a little bit more detail? If I’m a teacher, and we’re about to go on a collaboration walk, who’s there? Where are we going? What are we going to do?
SARAH HAYDEN: So, like I said, there are usually about ten teachers that sign up. The sign-ups are pretty exciting. We put out a collaboration walk and usually, teachers sign up within a day, a day and a half. We all of our slots full. What we do is, we meet at one of the schools in the morning, and we talk about our goals for the day, like what do we want to get out of today? How are we going to be reflective? How are we going to move forward collectively?
We introduce everyone, because usually we have teachers from every different grade level representing a smattering of schools from across our district. So we introduce everybody there, and then what we do is, we focus in on two or three of the different standards within our rubric and we talk about, “What does best practice with student engagement look like and sound like in the classroom? What is best practice surrounding discussion and question techniques look like and sound like in the classroom? What does setting purposeful intentions for students look like and sound like in the classroom?” And in a collaborative way, we really come out with, “What does best practice with these indicators, these standards, really mean?”
We investigate that together, then we go into the classrooms, kind of with this lens in mind, to look for these specific items in the classroom and how they play out with students. Teachers go in, they bring their cameras, they talk with students, they work alongside teachers, and we’re in a classroom for anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes, and we observe. Then what we do, and the most exciting part of what we do, is after we’re in that classroom, we come back to our room, and we sit and we talk, and we talk, and we talk about teaching. We talk about what I do in my classroom, what you do in your classroom, what we observed in the teacher’s classroom that we saw.
We keep it really safe and non-evaluative. We use sentence stems that just say, “This is what I observed, this is what I saw. This is what I wonder.” Through this process of collaborative discussion, really come out some amazing points about how teachers are going to move their practice forward.
Sarah said that these conversations that take place after the collaboration walk are where much of the real work and real learning happens.
SARAH HAYDEN: Again, it’s all about teacher voice, and it’s all about that teacher reflection. How do we stimulate teacher reflection about what they’re doing in their own classroom? How do we move their professional growth forward after having this collaborative experience with their peers and in this teacher’s classroom? So yes, that’s where the magic happens, if you will.
I asked Sarah what it was like the first time they took teachers on a collaboration walk.
SARAH HAYDEN: Right. That very first time, we set it up very, very purposefully to be about them, and we say it to them multiple times, “This is about you and your professional growth.” And at first, it was kind of difficult for teachers not to say, “I liked this, they did a great job with this. If it was my classroom, I would do this.” To purely talking about teaching, and to see how in the first five or ten minutes, teachers were really able to engage in really rich discussion about practice and what it meant to them, and what these indicators meant to them. And our goal was to change the vernacular from the rubric being something that the teachers brought out when during their evaluations, when they wrote up their goals, to actually having it be a tool to talk about best practice.
The good news is this continued. Even after the collaboration walks, teachers were talking in their classrooms about best practice. Teachers were collaborating, teachers were using the rubric as a tool for instruction and we kind of de-mystified the whole idea of evaluation and made it more meaningful. So it has been an evolution, like you said, from the genesis, that first time we started to where we are now, but it’s really been a fun journey that we’ve been able to collaboratively walk alongside our teachers.
It sounds like it. I’m curious, as you talk about the rubric — and you said you focused on three areas of the rubric. Talk to me a little bit about that. What rubric do you use? Does that matter? And how do these all fit in with your evaluation process?
SARAH HAYDEN: Great question. We use the Charlotte Danielson Rubric. She’s been a bit of our inspiration, right? There’s a story about Charlotte Danielson where she’s in a classroom, and she’s teaching and she’s doing a lesson on buoyancy, and the kids are making boats and floating boats, and the administrator comes in and she sees all the students working, and turns to Charlotte and says, “Charlotte, I was going to do an observation, but I’ll come back when you’re teaching.” And Charlotte was aghast by this comment. “What do you mean, when I’m teaching? What do you think I’m doing in this moment?”
So, when she created her rubric, she never intended there to be any numbers associated with it. Her book is actually entitled, Talk About Teaching, which has been our inspiration. How do we use the rubric as a common vernacular to speak about teaching in a collaborative way? So, like I said, she’s been a bit of our inspiration for this entire process.
I think it doesn’t matter if you’re using Charlotte Danielson, if you’re using Legends, if you’re using a different kind of rubric, even an internally-made one within your own district. But using it not just as an evaluative tool, but as a tool to talk about teaching, I think, could benefit everyone within the school system.
How many years have you been doing these collaboration walks?
SARAH HAYDEN: This is the third year that we’ve been doing collaboration walks, and I honestly think they get better and better every year.
One of the things that we do at the end of the collaboration walks is, we have our teachers create a commitment letter. In Gresham-Barlow, we really feel that professional development should never end with a one-and-done session. So we follow up with teachers, and they follow up with themselves. They write themselves a commitment letter about what inspired them today, what they want to change about their practice. What do they want to take back into the classroom tomorrow or next week or next month?
As coaches, what we do is, in a couple of weeks, maybe even a month, we send them their commitment letter that they wrote to themselves, just to kind of reignite and re inspire their work, and to continue what they learned to hopefully put it into practice.
Why do you think, as you’ve been doing these for three years now; what is it about the structure of what you’re doing that makes it effective? Why do these work?
SARAH HAYDEN: It is 100% teacher-driven, teacher-centered, and the whole entire goal is to elevate teacher voice across our system. So we want to put the power in the hands of the teachers, and we have amazing teachers in Gresham-Barlow. The caliber of the teachers in our district is amazing, and if you get some like-minded individuals in a room, we can solve the problems of the world. So I really think that by allowing teachers the time and the space to do this, it elevates everybody in a way that’s really, really meaningful. That’s why I think it’s been so successful, because it really has been about meeting the teachers where they’re at, and helping them continue on their personal journey.
Whether they’re a first year teacher, whether they’re a veteran of 20+ years in our district, every single person in that room has an entry point and has a way that they can support their colleagues through collaborative conversations.
Do you lead these walks personally?
SARAH HAYDEN: Yes. Myself, and then there are three other colleagues that support them as well. We have two at the secondary level, and then myself and my partner Samantha, lead it for the elementary teachers. So there are two coaches and ten teachers in every walk.
When you’re about to lead a collaboration walk, what are the things that you do to promote them, to bring teachers in? And then, what are the steps that you follow as you walk teachers through it?
SARAH HAYDEN: We have great support from our district. Our district allows for the ten subs to release the teachers from the classroom, so that’s that first step. So teachers sign up, we use the coaching relationships that we have established in our district to ask teachers to open up their classroom for us to come and observe.
Our walks are themed, so we have a little hiker mascot, we provide trail mix and protein snacks, and again that John Muir quote frames our day. Going out for a walk is really about going in. Intrinsically motivating teachers, going in and being reflective about their practice.
So once we all meet together at the school, we usually visit two to three schools in a day, and see between four to eight teachers in a day. We usually do a pre-survey of the teachers to see, “Hey, what do you want to learn about today? Which of the standards from the rubric are interesting to you? Which subject, specifically, would you like to see on that day?” So then we can again, use what our teachers are wanting and asking for to support their practice, and try to find teachers and standards that meet their needs.
Then we sit down and we do that whole morning where we talk and frame the day about professional learning. We collaboratively discuss and dissect each of those professionals’ growth standards that we’re focusing on for the day, and then we go out and we walk, and we see, and we observe. After that observation time, we come back, and again, that’s where the magic happens. That’s where we collaboratively discuss what we saw, what we observed, what we wonder, what we notice, in a really safe, non-threatening way.
We’re not evaluators, we’re educators, we’re teachers. So we want to take what we saw to inform our practice so we create a really safe environment for the teacher that was being observed and all of the other teachers in the room to share freely and openly about what makes really quality best practice teaching.
Do teachers like these collaboration walks?
SARAH HAYDEN: I would say so. I remember this last year, we opened up a sign up for a collaboration walk on a Friday afternoon, probably around 3:30, right when teachers are getting done with the day. My colleague Samantha and I said, “Wow. Hopefully we get some participants even though we opened up on a Friday afternoon.” My colleague checked on Sunday, and we had already almost doubled our participants that we could hold in one walk between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning.
And we have wait lists of teachers that want to come on the walks, so it is something that is pretty exciting. Again, from what I’ve heard from teachers, we collect feedback at the end of every session. “How can we meet your needs better? How can we make collaboration walks better?” We hear time and time again how they left inspired, how it was something that they can’t wait to do again, and definitely, they said that it meets their needs 100% of the time. So it’s really exciting to hear that this particular practice is making an impact for our teachers.
That’s great. So what have you seen across your district as a result? Have there been really noticeable effects that have come out of this?
SARAH HAYDEN: One of the things that I’ve noticed in our district, that it’s created a shift in our district’s culture, which is really, really positive to see. Going in and observing another teacher, having somebody come into your classroom, can at times be very nerve-wracking and stressful for a teacher. But knowing that it all comes from a common place of professional growth, teachers are now … You know, they feel more confident in letting people in and talking about teaching in rich and meaningful ways. And every teacher, from the pre-service teacher to the 20 year veteran teacher says, “I have room to grow too.” So it’s this continuous learning that is kind of infiltrating our district.
It’s again, building this culture of trust, and I think again, one of the major things that we’ve seen is it’s really de-mystified that evaluation system and that rubric, and again, shifted the vernacular to, “This is about evaluation”, to, “This is about teacher growth.” Does that make sense?
It does. It does. Looking back over the past three years, how have you refined these over that period of time? Is there anything that you do differently now from what you did at the beginning?
SARAH HAYDEN: Yeah. Well again, at the beginning, it was a learning walk. There were numbers associated and teachers were evaluating other teachers, and it kind of felt a little unsafe and a little messy at times. We learned a lot from our Chalkboard facilitator, it was brilliant. What we decided to do, when it came into our coaches’ lap, we did a complete rebrand, and that’s where the collaboration walk name came in, that’s where our little collaboration mascot came in, and that’s where we really started centering in on, it’s about the teachers and their needs, and it’s about how we can support teacher voice in a collaborative way to talk about teaching.
Talk a little bit more about the things that you’ve done to make these safe for teachers.
SARAH HAYDEN: Yeah. One of the big things that we did to make it safe for teachers is really at the beginning, taking some time to set it up. “This is about your professional growth. This is about you being reflective practitioners.” And then, another thing that really helps is those sentence stems. When you come outside of a classroom, you are … Some teachers are super excited, “I loved this! And this was amazing, and this was so great!” Or you come out of the classroom thinking, “I wonder why they… or how they… or what they….” So you as a human being, as you’re viewing whatever you’re seeing in the classroom, you’re making judgements, right?
So how do we create a space where teachers can talk about it in a non-judgmental way? The sentence stems really promote that, because when we deconstruct the standards, we say, “What will you hear? What will you see in the classroom as evidence of this standard?” So then, we’re coming up with what we will see here, et cetera. Then we come out of the classroom, those are the exact same stems that we use to discuss it. “I noticed, I observed, I saw.” Even that “I wonder”: “I wonder what this teacher did prior to this lesson to set their students up for success?” Things along those lines.
Now that we’ve been doing it for three years, we also leave a little gift for all of the teachers who open up their classroom, and a ‘Thank You’ note and some feedback about what teachers are taking away as a result of them opening up their room. So the teachers that have opened their rooms get a little bit of feedback and know how appreciated they are, and specifically what the teachers took away from them that they’re going to put into their own practice.
Sarah Hayden is an instructional coach at Gresham-Barlow school district in Oregon. Sarah, thank you again for talking with us today.
SARAH HAYDEN: Thank you so much, Ryan. I appreciate the time.
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Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education. Frontline’s industry-leading software is designed exclusively for the K-12 market. That includes Frontline Professional Growth, a holistic solution to help educators manage the entire educator growth cycle in one system, including employee evaluations and professional learning, and provide tools for educators to collaborate online. For more information, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.