What Do You Notice? Three Steps for Grounding Professional Learning in Teachers’ Reality


By Sharon Roth

NCTE Roth 300x300If you want to move learners forward, they’ve got to know where they’re starting. It’s a simple truth but not one we tend to follow when it comes to professional learning for teachers. The ways in which we assess these learning experiences for educators often fall short of the realities of their contexts. Take, for example, the common practice of ending a session with evaluation forms largely devoted to measuring teachers’ level of  happiness with a token question intended to gauge the likelihood of someone taking an idea from the workshop and using it next week. These vanity metrics for the professional learning providers give little indication of the impact of their work and at best communicate a very surface set of goals we’re striving to achieve as a group learning together.  Why are we even attempting to measure impact before we give educators an opportunity to implement what they’ve learned?

Here are three steps in an overall strategy that flips that dynamic, offering both me as a professional learning provider and the educators I work with far more useful information.

Step 1. Begin where you are, not where you want to go.

When working with schools, I like to start our time together with a collaborative ghost walk either before or after school hours. I convene a leadership team that includes both administrators and teachers to participate in this activity. I begin by asking, “What would you be looking for in the environment as evidence of <insert topic>?”

Let’s take differentiation, for example.  By asking the group to brainstorm what evidence of differentiation would look like, I am automatically assessing their background knowledge on the topic and looking for any misperceptions we will need to address. Our group will then walk through the school noting patterns of factual evidence across classrooms. This is often a very hard thing for people to do. I ask them to notice things without judgement or interpretation—just the facts. But the desire to justify or explain what is or isn’t there is hard to overcome, which is why we need step 2.

Click here for more on how to conduct ghost walks.

Step 2. A picture is worth a thousand words.

I use pictures to mitigate the murkiness that comes from written observations. Conversations around “how do we know?” can go much deeper faster when your group is huddled over a collection of images. Photographs force us to stick to the factual level and make the distinction between what is present versus wonderings about that artifact. I use Evernote to create a collective album from the team’s ghost walk. Using cell phones and the school’s Wi-Fi network, it’s easy to create a collection of photographs that give us lasting data to measure our impact. The photographs serve as a benchmark of where we are at the beginning of our work and give us a comparison down the road. Here’s an example of an album of images collected from an elementary school focused on differentiation.

Step 3. Listening is the first step in the journey forward.

Debriefing around a ghost walk is critical to the learning of the group. Asking the individuals to come back together to share just one or two images or notes they selected gets the group closer to shared agreements about what we are even looking for in our classrooms. Sometimes it results in wonderings and idea sharing. Other times it means coming to terms with some uncomfortable truths. When a school is devoid of its lifeblood—the students—differences between classrooms can become quite stark. Inconsistencies become evident. Places for improvement emerge in ways that would be hard to see otherwise. So the discussion that follows a ghost walk is as much about assessing where we are and where we need to go as it is about building the trust to embark on this journey together. Using a discussion protocol such as What, So What, Now What helps to make that conversation safe and open.

Putting teachers and administrators at the core of their professional learning experience ensures that the learning will be authentic and meaningful in their context. It’s a lot of work to facilitate well, but when you immerse yourself in their reality, you’re much more likely to foster a long term impact.

In the words of Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”


Sharon Roth is the senior developer for learning opportunities with the National Council of Teachers of English. In this position, she develops online and on-site professional development experiences for preK–college educators from across the country. She began her career as an elementary teacher in a preK–12 district and has taught language arts, social studies, science, and mathematics. In addition to her classroom teaching experience, she has served as a curriculum coach for K–6 teachers, assisting them in aligning classroom practices with state and national standards and designing appropriate assessment tools. Contact Sharon at sroth@ncte.org.