“Instead of brushfires for excellence, we need infernos of excellence. Our project will do this.” In a packed hotel conference room in Albuquerque, New Mexico, teacher leader Maureen Torrez, NBCT, describes the observation inquiry pilot project she and her team of National Board Certified Teachers are leading to deepen how teachers and students learn in Albuquerque public schools.
Out of 180 applicants, Maureen’s team is one of only three selected nationally by the U.S. Department of Education to host a Teach to Lead Leadership Lab. This prestigious event brings key stakeholders together to learn from teacher leaders and help them advance their ideas to improve education.
Effective Professional Learning
Maureen and her colleagues began with a challenge they wanted to solve: traditional professional development rarely improved teaching. Their solution is to engage National Board Certified Teachers in leading their colleagues in observation inquiry, a professional learning design inspired by Japanese lesson study and adapted to the unique context of teaching for equity and innovation in U.S. schools.
Observation inquiry (OI) is the focus of my book Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning, a Corwin bestseller jointly published with Learning Forward. In OI, teacher teams collaborate to address an ambitious, data-driven problem of practice that aligns with local initiatives. They collaborate to test and refine solutions to the problem by planning, observing lessons in one another’s classrooms, and reflecting to improve teaching in continuous cycles of inquiry.
Aligned to research-based criteria for effective professional learning, OI is “intensive, ongoing, connected to practice…, connected to other school initiatives, and builds strong working relationships among teachers” (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009).
In their OI pilot project, Maureen Torrez and Albuquerque teacher leaders are leading an important shift towards what the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) calls for professional learning to be: “sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day or short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven and classroom focused.” (ESSA S. 1177-295 42 )
Leading for Impact
“I’ve never done anything where I’ve seen student impact so quickly,” teacher leader Kristi Raven, NBCT, reflects.
As Albuquerque teacher leaders take turns describing the site-specific challenges they are collaborating to solve, and the initial impact of their OI pilot, the audience of high-profile stakeholders—representing the U.S. Department of Education, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Bureau of Indian Education, universities, state governments, district school boards, district office leadership, ASCD, Corwin, and community partners–is rapt with attention.
Andrea Quintana, NBCT, describes how, in the first months of collaborating with OI protocols, she and her kindergarten team have realized a dramatic increase (from 2 minutes to 30 minutes) in the time on task their Title 1 kindergarteners actively engage in high-tech learning activities.
Maureen Torrez describes how OI is helping teachers in her Title 1 school elevate student literacy, academic language and problem-solving. She describes both initial gains in student learning and a powerful shift in the learning culture of the school. Teachers collaborate with higher levels of trust and risk-taking, and their level of academic discussion and reflection has been “the deepest I have seen since being an instructional coach at the school.”
High school social studies teacher Robanne Harrison, NBCT, explains how she and her team of world history teachers are using observation inquiry to make their teaching more relevant so that all students actively engage in academic learning. Alicia Ruch-Flynn, NBCT, articulates how she and her cross-disciplinary team are helping students in their alternative high school improve academic language use and problem-solving to excel with abstract, high-level tasks.
Across the seven schools involved in the pilot, each team’s story of collaborating for impact is as specific and personalized as the diverse grade levels, curriculum areas, and school communities they represent. All teams are unified in alignment with the district’s initiatives for data-driven, differentiated instruction. Shared themes in their stories of leading observation inquiry include:
- ambitious goal-setting
- use of data to continuously refine teaching
- shared ownership to ensure EVERY student thrives
- courageous reflective practice
- deep teacher collaboration for impact
I am moved to hear the teachers speak with such conviction, insight, and expertise. At my table, a district administrator tells us she has goose bumps, and a community leader asks how her organization can get involved. Inspiration catches fire in lively stakeholder questions, conversations and commitments.
Teachers Drive the Change
As a consultant hired by district leaders to launch and sustain observation inquiry, I’m humbled by what I see. Teachers driven by a passion to solve a problem have, in five months, launched OI and built the foundation for systemic shifts in professional learning across the district. They have created partnerships with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the U.S. Department of Education to support their vision, and are presenting to local, state, and national stakeholders to help them scale and sustain their work.
Let this be an example of what is possible when we value teacher leaders and create opportunities for them to collaborate to solve the challenges that matter most to the success of our students and our schools.
Maddie Fennell, NBCT, Teacher Leader in Residence at the U.S. Department of Education, shared, “We know that when teachers lead, kids succeed. We are honored to be working with this amazing group of educators who are accepting their role as quality control guardians of our profession by leading their colleagues. We look forward to supporting many more educators through Teach to Lead.”
Courageous, Reflective Learning
“I’m the most experienced in our group of teachers,” teacher leader Andrea Quintana notes, reflecting on the impact of facilitating OI, “and I’ve probably learned more in the past five months of working with these younger teachers than in the past five or ten years.”
The best learning leaders are learners themselves, and the teacher leaders in Albuquerque exemplify this mindset. Even as expert National Board Certified Teachers, they lead OI as learners, humbly reflecting on student data to continuously grow.
Secondary music teacher Kristi Raven describes the ambitious lesson she attempted, and struggled with, while her colleagues observed. Unlike in a formal observation, in OI she really pushed her teaching to try to move student learning in new ways. Reflecting on OI, Kristi says that it “has made me more willing to take risks. Especially in the culture of the state right now, I’ve seen teachers pull back from taking risks, and this is encouraging us to take risks.”
“I definitely feel vulnerable,” teacher leader Jaime Montoya, NBCT, adds, “but I’m willing to put myself out there and take risks, too. The reflection aspect of this whole process is key in changing my teaching and making myself better for my students.”
Inquiry for Equity and Innovation
Teacher risk-taking, reflection, and iteration based on data are all essential for realizing new possibilities in education. With many goals schools have for students, such as elevating academic language learning among ELLs, educational research has yet to prove the most effective pedagogy (Goldenberg & Coleman, 2010). To realize educational equity and the innovation essential for students to thrive in our economy, we need teachers who dare to teach beyond baseline strategies and rigorously test the impact of their actions in collaborative teams.
In Albuquerque Public Schools, such a movement is beginning. Thanks to the powerful leadership of teachers and the multiple local, state, and national partners now committing to support their work, these early brushfires will ignite to an inferno of excellence that moves our profession forward.
What role do teacher leaders have in your community? What actions will you take to amplify the positive impact of their leadership?
Every Student Succeeds Act, Public Law 114-95, December 10, 2015; 129 Stat. 1802 (2015).
Goldenberg, C., and Coleman, R. (2010). Promoting academic achievement among English learners: A guide to the research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Singer, T. (2015). Opening doors to equity: A practical guide to observation-based professional learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Darling-Hammond, L., Wei, R. C., Andree, A., Richardson, N., and Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad. Dallas, TX., National Staff Development Council.