While likely not a hundred percent of administrators, I am sure that most Principals and Vice-Principals have had this phrase pass through their lips at one point or another during the course of their career. With the demands of student dealings, teacher questions, parent conferences, meetings with district personnel, break and lunch supervision, and the seemingly endless avalanche of paperwork that falls on to their desks, administrators can easily be crushed under the weight of day-to-day operations in their schools. I am not complaining--it's just a reality sometimes. Like many teachers and administrators in education, I often find myself creating a 'to-do list' before the day starts, and by the time the day ends, I not only have accomplished exactly none of my must-do tasks for the day, I actually have a few new ones tacked on. And suddenly getting into classrooms, one of my favourite and most important pieces of my job as an administrator, falls off of the side of my desk.
But there are some different ways that I try to 'get into the classroom' that don't involve my physically being there. I can do some things later in the evening, once my kids have gone to bed. One of these ways I try to create a 'window' into the classrooms of our 80 teachers is through reading and providing feedback on the syllabus for their courses, or course outlines. "Course outlines?", you say, "Aren't they those boring one sheeters that tend to be the first thing to rip out of a student's binder? No one pays attention to those.". I grant you that in the past, I might have agreed with that. However, that was my fault. I rarely looked at them unless there was some sort of issue in the classroom, and I certainly never discussed them with the teacher. But four years ago, I decided that if I was going to request them, and teachers were going to go through the effort of doing them, they deserved my feedback.
I believe that course outlines need to serve a number of purposes for students and parents:
- They need to inform the student and the parent, in student-friendly language
- the specific skills and outcomes that they will have learned by the end of the course
- the methods by which the outcomes will be evaluated
- the supports and interventions that will be in place should they struggle with learning those outcomes
- the means by which students can accelerate should they master the outcomes
- They need to detail a communication protocol with the student and the parent that demonstrates frequent, two-way dialogue
- with the teacher's email provided, and the parent's email sought so that asynchronous communication can take place, rather than the dreaded 'telephone tag'
- with an indication of regular progress updates to regularly inform students and parents about how a student is meeting the learning outcomes of the course
- with suggestions about how parents can be positively involved in supporting their student.
- They need to get the student and the parent excited about the course! I like to think that we never see our courses as 'mandatory'. We should approach our courses as electives, where we are 'marketing' our course to students in a way that gets them pumped up and engaged before they even start the class!
- Learning Outcomes: By looking at the outline and outlines of other members of a department, I can start the conversation with the teacher about whether they have used collaboratively agreed upon outcomes for their course that will prepare students for success at subsequent levels of that subject area. We can talk about designing down and scaffolding. We can discuss the concept of assignments versus outcomes. We can look at how the outcomes that they have listed match up with not only the department, but with the curriculum guidelines laid out by the provincial government. We can look at the number of outcomes that the teacher is trying to cover. We can discuss resources that will help them engage their students. We can dialogue about 'struggle points'--those outcomes that students tend to struggle with and ways to ameliorate those problem areas to ensure student success.
- Assessment Practices: The course outline indicates how students will be assessed. When reading the outline, I can start a conversation about assessing by outcome/skill rather than assessment tool. It is always a lively discussion when we chat about 'tests worth 60%' rather than 'oral expression skills worth 40%, written language expression worth 40%, etc' in a language course. Or to talk about the '40% Term 1, 40% for Term 2, 20% Final Exam' model versus a model that recognizes that students learn at different rates. Or about toxic grading practices such as late marks. We can also talk about how the staff member uses the assessments that they give to students to inform their practice. These are just a few of the endless rich conversations that can take place around assessment.
- Interventions and Accommodations: By looking at the course outlines, I can get a sense of how our teachers ensure student success. Whether it is through methods that they have created to give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate outcomes, or if it is utilizing one the many mechanisms in our timetable, I can work with the teacher to help them support the students who learn at different rates in their classrooms.
Much like our staff does with our students, I like to give guidelines for our teachers to work with each June when they are preparing their course outlines for the following year. I use this Course Outline Checklist as a set of statements for teachers to reflect upon their outlines and modify them for the next school year. At the beginning of our semesters in September and February, I collect the outlines, and try to give feedback on them in the first few weeks of the year. I use the same form to give feedback (here is a sample), as well as making comments and using colors to indicate strengths and areas for improvement.
With 80 teachers, many of whom teach different courses in multiple departments, this process can take a long time. Furthermore, many of our staff members have created their own blogs, which takes the course outline to another level, and I love giving feedback on those as well, but not all of our teachers are there yet. But the conversations that I can have with our staff as a result of their course outlines can be incredibly rich and worthwhile. Not a visit to the classroom, I grant you, but certainly meaningful nonetheless.
In the final analysis, if you (like me) feel like you are not in classrooms as much as you like, take the opportunity to create your own 'windows' into classrooms. You will be pleasantly surprised at what you see!