Friday / October 30

7 Ways to Build Trust and Buy-In for Observation-Based Professional Learning

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“There is no more powerful way of improving on the job than by observing others and having others observe us.” —Roland Barth (2006)

Any form of professional learning that engages teachers in observing a live lesson together calls for a high level of trust and participant buy-in to be effective. In last week’s blog, I made a case for why observing together is important. Now let’s delve into how to overcome one of the most significant challenges for getting started: opening doors.

How do we shift from a culture of privacy to a culture in which all teachers feel comfortable having peers in the room as they teach? How do we open doors to observation-based professional learning?

There are many different designs for observation-based professional learning, including lesson study, teacher rounds, and observation inquiry (Singer, 2015). These approaches share an important first step: building trust and buy-in for opening classroom doors to peer collaboration.

The following are seven tried-and-true strategies for leading a culture shift to get started, and fueling the trust and risk-taking essential for deep collaborative work:

1. Choose a focus that matters. People need a compelling reason to risk taking a new approach to professional collaboration (Kotter, 2012). Don’t do professional learning just to do professional learning, or even to have teachers learn a strategy. Launch deep collaborative work to realize a shared vision for elevating student achievement. Identify a problem of practice that is so relevant and real to teachers they are compelled to step beyond their comfort zone to solve it.

2. Be sincere about fear. Observing colleagues is great, but being observed is the last thing most of us want. We all fear judgment. Honor fear by sharing your own and brainstorming fears as a team. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to move through it. Be vulnerable as you guide others through this process.

3. Share ownership. Collaborate in planning the lesson(s) you observe together so that all share ownership in the instruction. Collaborate to plan, teach, observe multiple lessons in a year, and share roles as teacher and as observer. When discussing how to build from what we observe in a lesson, use shared pronouns such as “we” and “our classrooms” rather than personalized “you” feedback to just one teacher. Discuss next steps as actions for everyone to take to improve instruction.

4. Model risk-taking. Be the first to teach in front of colleagues, and dare to stretch out of your own comfort zone in the approach you choose. Do not do a demonstration lesson or the dog and pony show typical for evaluations. Ensure the lesson pushes the edge of possibility for students—that edge where things may or may not work as planned. Share your questions and uncertainties with the observers before the lesson—so even if the lesson appears seamless in the end, they understand the seams.

5. Honor imperfections. Much of my expertise about teaching comes from what I learned when my lessons didn’t work as planned. When students struggle, or respond in unexpected ways, we gain rich insights into how they think and what they need to move forward. Hope for such moments when teaching and observing with colleagues, as they lead to the deepest discussions.

6. Use a non-evaluative protocol. Use a protocol for discussing lessons to dig deep within a trusting environment. Avoid evaluative feedback and instead get specific together about the shared data you observed. Non-evaluation isn’t just a feel-good strategy for teams. It’s how we listen beyond our own assumptions to deeply understand where students are in this moment and the nuanced impact of our instruction. Use non-evaluation to build a solid foundation in the shared understandings of what you observed, before inferring together and planning next steps.

7. Build from talk to shared action. Nothing is more satisfying than a professional learning experience that leads to “ah-ha” moments for teachers and, in turn, more “ah-ha” moments for students. The point isn’t just to open doors to deeper collaboration, but to transform how we teach in our own classrooms so our students more deeply learn. After observing and discussing instruction together, take time for reflection and personal goal setting to help all participants move from talk to action in relevant, personalized ways. When professional learning has a tangible impact for teachers, buy-in takes care of itself.

Which strategies would you use to open doors to deep collaboration around live lessons?
Which would you add to this list?


Barth, R. S. (2006). Improving relationships within the schoolhouse. Educational Leadership, 63(6), 8. Retrieved from

Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Singer, T. W. (2015). Opening doors to equity: a practical guide to observation-based professional learning. Thousand Oaks: CA. Corwin Press.

Written by

Tonya Ward Singer is an author, keynote speaker and consultant with a deep commitment to ensuring all students in culturally, racially and linguistically diverse schools access high-quality education. She specializes in high-impact literacy, ELL achievement, 21st century learning, and leading effective job-embedded professional learning at scale.

Tonya’s bestselling book Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning helps educators lead observation inquiry, a professional learning design inspired by Japanese lesson study and tailored to the unique context of teaching for equity and innovation in U.S. schools.

Tonya has taught at multiple levels as a classroom teacher, reading specialist and ELL specialist in the U.S. and abroad. She designs curricula and leads professional learning to help educators elevate student literacy, language and life-long learning for 21st century success.

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