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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Professional Partnerships

Teachers are isolated from their peers not only by classroom walls but also by invisible barriers created by schools. In addition, most teachers and many principals are dissatisfied with current evaluation systems, which do not reflect recent knowledge about the complex nature of teaching and the processes of growth and change. Further, few opportunities exist for teachers and principals to extend their professional experiences beyond their current roles.
Professional Partnerships, an alternative evaluation process, addresses these common concerns. The project grew out of a structured collaboration conducted during 1991–92 at Alianza School, Watsonville, California. The experience was so enlightening that the principal suggested making the process part of the district's existing evaluation system.

How the Partnership Works

Teachers and principals from the two prospective pilot schools, district administrators, the union president, and a board member helped develop Professional Partnerships. All aspects of the project conform with the district's contract requirements regarding evaluation. At a time when it is a challenge to find any areas of agreement among these groups, remarkably they come together on this issue.
In August 1992, the participants received training in how to build trust and develop their skills in communication, conferencing, and observation. The following month, two schools in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Watsonville, California, piloted the project.
In each school, six teacher partners observe each other's classrooms either monthly or bimonthly for 30 minutes. Specifically, two teachers establish a voluntary partnership in which each member acts as a researcher for the other. They gather data on goals mutually defined at a meeting with the principal and the facilitator at the beginning of the year. The partners meet before each observation to define the focus of the lesson and then afterward to discuss the results. Classroom coverage for the visiting partners is provided by a released time curriculum specialist, the principal, or a half-day substitute.
Quarterly, the partners meet with the principal and two additional teachers in the school, who serve as facilitators. The purpose of these meetings is to monitor progress and chart future directions. The minutes of the meetings are distributed to the assistant superintendent in charge of elementary instruction, the union president, and a school board member.
A significant difference between the new observations and the principal's formal observations is that the teacher is directing the peer observer to gather specific information to better understand the dynamics of a particular learning event over time. During the year, the principal's formal and informal observations complete the overall evaluation picture. At the end of the evaluation period, the two partners and the principal write a combined final evaluation summary.
Here are how two of the teacher partners described the project: My partner is coming to visit so I don't let things slide. My area of interest is improving the quality of student interactions. But I've also improved management, groupings, and materials because everything surrounding the lesson affected what I wanted to have happen.The postconferences give me a chance to talk about the details of the lesson that I couldn't pay attention to while I was teaching. My partner always gives me new ideas. I feel very supported, and I'm making changes.

How Roles Are Changing

For teachers, being Professional Partners leads to enhanced skills in observation and communication. They also learn how to conduct their own research and how to participate in safe, structured conversations about the outcomes of their daily teaching. Over time, trusting relationships lead to authentic conversations about teaching, which in turn lead to professional empowerment.
During the quarterly meetings, the facilitators try to maintain an environment of trust while listening, clarifying, and probing to discover results. In addition, facilitators support the partners in making their observations in whatever way is needed. Here's how one facilitator described how her role had expanded: Professional Partnerships has given me an inside view of the teaching and learning process and the potential for true restructuring. I've enjoyed the collegiality of our meetings and the chance to spend time focusing on specific pedagogical issues and concerns.
The principals in the pilot schools appreciated the opportunity to listen to teachers discuss their observations during the quarterly meetings. Because these meetings are facilitated by another teacher, the principal is free to participate in the discussion without having to lead it, gaining a more extensive view of what actually occurs in classrooms. With the collective knowledge gathered from each partnership meeting, the principal can expand his or her responsiveness as an instructional leader.
Here's how the two principals described their experiences: Professional Partnerships gives the administrator the opportunity to be a team member in a process that has a much greater impact on teaching than the half-hour observation/15-minute conference that is the norm. The process takes more time, but it generates much more gratifying results.I've never been involved in such a powerful evaluation process. Observations followed by shared conferencing are critiqued and analyzed in a highly focused and in-depth manner. Time and setting allow for true collaboration to take place. The project is an ideal opportunity for principals to share leadership. The trust that is built ... encourages staff to take creative risks in bringing about an enriched and challenging curriculum for students.
Professional Partnerships may not be for every teacher or principal. Opening classroom doors and breaking down the walls of isolation are not easy tasks. But for many teachers and administrators, this project offers a window on learning. While it's too early to talk about long-term results, clearly the project has the potential to support dynamic professional growth while also expanding the roles of educators.

Colleen Stobbe has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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