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Volume III Issue XII

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Conferences That Make a Difference

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


Over the past few months, the focus of Just for the ASKing! has been creating a culture for learning. To create such cultures, leaders must have vision, energy, determination, knowledge, and skills. Some knowledge is acquired through courses in educational leadership and some skills are acquired through on-the-job experience. One important responsibility of school administrators, for which almost no preparation is provided, is conferencing. On my first day as an administrator, the principal handed me a list of teachers I was to evaluate. I was literally a teacher on Friday and an administrator on Monday. With no training and minimal guidance, I had to trust my instincts; I did some things right by accident and made some mistakes. How we gather data and provide feedback on teaching and learning is simply too important to be left to such serendipity. 

To build expertise at conferencing, consider the following suggestions. 

  • Build relationships: Conferences can only be successful when both parties approach the conference setting with open minds. Strong leaders work tirelessly to create an environment in which there is trust between administrators and teachers. When we get to know teachers as people first and then as teachers, it is much more likely that both individuals will approach the conference with less anxiety and with the potential that each will grow as a result of the experience. 
  • Make planning conferences professional development opportunities: Often teachers need help in planning lessons which have clear, measurable learning outcomes. Allowing teachers to carry out lessons that are incomplete or flawed is not beneficial to either teachers or students. These conferences are the perfect opportunity for one-on-one professional development on the standards-based planning process, data analysis and use, and repertoire building. 
  • Provide timely appropriate feedback: Just as we want our teachers to provide feedback to students in a timely manner, leaders should do the same with teachers. Conscientious administrators meet with teachers as soon as possible after observations in order for the feedback to be of greatest value. We grow when we receive feedback on our performance regardless of whether we are struggling or are superstars. It is just as important for leaders to give attention to conferencing with outstanding teachers as it is to meeting with teachers whose performance is not as strong.
  • Avoid shortcuts and procrastination: In some school districts, conferencing with teachers on an ongoing basis may not be a normal practice. In some districts, administrators may visit classes, complete checklists, and place copies of the checklists in teachers’ mailboxes for signature. In other scenarios, administrators may meet with teachers and dominate the conferences with their own voices and provide little opportunity for teachers to offer their own analyses and reflections. A third, and the optimal approach, is for conferences to be balanced conversations where both individuals equally participate after having had the opportunity to analyze the data that has been gathered. Some of my favorite conference memories are ones where I completed a conference having learned from the teacher. 
  • Focus on the teacher performance evaluation criteria: Conferences, whether in formal settings or informal conversations, should always focus on the district’s teacher performance criteria and how teacher decision-making impacts student learning. As feedback is provided to teachers, administrators should rely on observed data as opposed to what they liked or disliked. All criteria cited should be supported by data or the lack thereof, and for strongest impact, should include inferences and information about the effect of teacher actions on student learning. 
  • Plan the conference proactively: Just as the “one size fits all” approach is not the one we want to see in instruction, it should not be our approach to conferencing. Conferences can appear to be robotic or mechanical when we treat all teachers in the same manner. When we begin planning with conference outcomes in mind, we can choose to use one or more of three approaches. We can coach by being active listeners and encouraging teacher self-awareness, self-assessment, and self-adjustment. This approach is most often used when teachers are insightful and have demonstrated skillfulness at making good decisions. We can collaborate by engaging teachers in reflection, problem identification and problem solving. Our primary role in this approach is guiding the problem solving process and exploring the pros and cons of possible options. In the third approach we can consult by being more much more directive, giving advice, and making suggestions for improvement. Here we serve as expert consultants and make sure that a plan for change in practice is clearly articulated with follow-up assistance and strong supervision of implementation noted. All three approaches may be used in any one conference. Decisions about which approach(es) to use are based on what we know about teachers attitudes, skills, and knowledge. We sometimes conclude that a teacher’s lack of effectiveness is due to negative attitudes when, in fact, the teacher may be lacking prerequisite skills and knowledge. A thorough and careful analysis of the cause of teacher behavior and its effect on student learning must be combined with deliberate conference planning if we want to productively support teacher growth. See Leading the Learning: A Field Guide for Supervision and Evaluation by Paula Rutherford for more information on the ASK Construct (attitudes, skills, and knowledge). 
  • Create a great opening to reflective conferences: Past practice has often been for administrators to begin conferences by asking teachers, “How did you think the lesson went?” If a teacher feels that the lesson went well when, in fact, we have data to the contrary, the conference has the potential for being stressful and ineffective. A better opening focus question is, “How did your lesson help students learn and what data do you have to show that learning occurred?” 
  • Plant seeds: The goal of conferences is to increase a teacher’s repertoire of practices so that he or she can match a teaching practice to the needs of learners. As a principal, I routinely asked teachers to bring resource materials to conferences including copies of books such as Instruction for All Students or Why Didn’t I Learn This in College? We used data gathered to select specific chapters that would increase their knowledge of, and skillfulness with, instructional options. As a follow-up I visited teachers’ classes to see if and how the new practices were being implemented. 
  • Motivate, don’t alienate: It is important to remember that less than 10% of what we communicate is done through words while almost 40% of communication is through our rate of speaking and the tone of our words. At the completion of conferences, teachers should feel heard, validated, and empowered and expected to make a difference as they work with students. They should likewise see future interactions with the administrator as potentially positive, growth-producing experiences.
  • During reflective conferences, make it clear that the observation report is a draft: When teachers understand that conferences held as follow-ups to classroom observations are true professional dialogues where both parties have input, they approach the conference with a more open mind and less of a sense of dread. When administrators present a copy of the observation report to teachers, much like students who look at a grade on a paper and ignore the comments, they often turn to the final page of the report to read the suggestions. When teachers disagree with or do not understand the rationale for the suggestions, the conferences are essentially over before they start. To avoid the suggestion trap, wait to give the written suggestions to teachers until meaningful dialogue about the lesson has been held. When possible, engage teachers in collaborative planning of next steps in professional growth.
  • Elaborate on teaching practices: Productive conferences are not simply summaries of lessons observed. A teacher recently told me, “My conferences usually consist of the administrator retelling me the sequence of events that occurred in my class. I know what happened; I was there.” In order for conferences to be meaningful, we should develop “conference lesson plans.” These conference plans should include appropriate suggestions for professional growth that are well matched to the data gathered in the observation and conferencing process. A good source of possible suggestions is Paula Rutherford’s Leading the Learning in the chapter entitled “Areas of Professional Practice.” In this extensively researched chapter, there is a compendium of best practices and ideas to try under numerous headings including planning, assessment, instruction (with particular emphasis on literacy, inclusion, differentiation, and rigor), productive and positive learning environments, and professionalism. 

May you continue to build even stronger cultures for learning through your supervision and evaluation conferences. 

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Conferences That Make a Difference.” Just for the ASKing! December 2006. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2006 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.