Instructional Leadership; Learning what to watch


I had a very instructive conversation with my superintendent yesterday, his first visit to my school and first chance to see me in my role as administrator. As I often do, I had a list of questions for my guest, topics I’m working on that I know they can help me with. Each interaction with a colleague is a learning experience, and I want to make the most of them, so preparation is important. I keep lists all over; in my daybook, on my phone, on my iPad, my desktop computer, even post-it notes strategically placed on my desktop or monitor.

The question I had for him had to do with his area of focus and interest, the Instructional Core as described by Richard Elmore. I won’t go into the concept in too much detail here, but suffice it to say the essence of what we do comes down to the interaction of teacher and student in the presence of content, often engaged in a learning task of some kind. This “core” is the central focal piece of all that happens in our buildings, and gaining a better understanding of teaching and learning through a systematic study of the core is an approach we’re after in our district.

As a new administrator, I’ve been making an effort every day to drop into classrooms to simply be present, connect with everyone, let them know I’m more than just a body in the office. But as I do this, and engage with my staff in an instructional leadership role, I am struck with a question; where do I start? I understand the concept of the “core”, and as a career teacher (20+ years in the classroom) I know what good teaching and learning looks like, but in my new role, what do I watch.

The answer I was given surprised me a bit, but resonated strongly because of a connection to another important activity in my life; officiating basketball. The answer was; watch the children, not the teacher.

This is a first lesson when learning to referee. We spend our whole lives watching the sport as a spectator; offense has the ball, pass it around, shoot, rebound, transition up the floor. As a spectator, we watch the ball, what the offense is doing, but as a referee the first lesson is to watch the defense, and in most cases don’t watch the ball or what the offense is doing. Your instincts as a player tell you when something is wrong, like an offensive foul, balls out of bounds, or a violation. You can pick those up in your peripheral, but it’s the defense you need to focus on. Body position, contact with their check, use of hands, setting and executing traps, working through screens. The vast majority of fouls will happen when a team is on defense, so that’s what you watch.

This was a powerful connection for me. When I walk into classrooms I tend to watch what the teacher’s doing, as I’m sure many people do. But it makes great sense, with my referee background, to learn a new way of watching. How are the children understanding the task? What sense are they making of the learning experience? I can watch the teaching from the periphery, I can get the gist of what s/he is doing without too much effort. But it’s the children who I need to spend the most time and focus my attention on.

So that’s where I’ll begin this part of my journey, watching the children in the presence of a task, interacting with their teacher to navigate the activity that’s been set for them. Through a better understanding of their behavior, we can begin to move our instructional practices forward. It begins from learning what to watch.

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About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
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5 Responses to Instructional Leadership; Learning what to watch

  1. Laura Kroll says:

    I can’t agree with you more. I have a walk-through document that I just created using google forms. All aspects of this walk-through “checklist” pertains to the student…performance, engagement, actions. I turned the document into an app on my iPad, which I love using during classroom visits. If I choose to use something more authentic during my walk throughs, I love using Evernote on my iPad.

  2. Karen Szymusiak says:

    Ron,
    I love this idea and it makes so much sense. I have always believed that the school (and learning) belongs to the kids. Your insights are great for walkthroughs. Thanks so much.

    Laura Kroll,
    Are you willing to share your app? I think it would influence the administrator colleagues I work with. I would love to give it a try.

  3. Dean Eichorn says:

    Great post, Ron. Good advice from your superintendant: Easy to overlook what the students are doing when you’re trying to obsever/evaluate the teacher–even if it’s an informal drop-in. I think that the engagement level and attentiveness of the students is a barometer of the effectiveness of the instruction.

  4. Rob says:

    Good insight….great example is when teachers think calling one kid to the board is engaging all students

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