Saturday, November 23, 2013

How Do I Give Them All What They Need?-Part 1

By Michele Corbat

This post is the first in a series about my journey with Teacher Labs.  

Last school year, my school district went through a revision process to create new vision, mission and belief statements.  It had been many years since these statements were created and we seemed to lack direction.  Our GPS was not set.  We did not have a common destination.
"If a man knows not what harbor he seeks, any wind is the right wind."  Roman philosopher Seneca
After 10 months of research, discussions, reviewing our data, staff/parent/student/community surveys, and school board presentations, we developed powerful new mission, vision and belief statements.

MISSION: Swartz Creek Community Schools inspires our learners to embrace challenges, set goals, grow their talents, and realize their dreams for success in a global society.

VISION: Swartz Creek Community Schools provides a world class education through innovative experiences while developing the unique talents of our learners.
- We believe in a culture of learning.
- We believe that student learning should be the primary goal for all decisions made affecting the school district.
- We believe the climate and culture of the school is engaging, nurturing, challenging, and inspires students to express their personal ideas.
- We believe curriculum is integrated, differentiated, meaningful, and pertinent to life.
- We believe in culturally relevant education that provides the knowledge and skills to meet the global challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century.
- We believe in continuous improvement informed by critical evaluation and reflection.
- We believe expanding technologies enrich how teachers teach and students learn.
- We believe in building relationships and sharing resources with our community, parents, and staff members.

Why Teacher Labs?

However, merely drafting these statements and putting them in writing was not enough.  To realize our district's mission, we are putting these words into action. One way we are doing this is by implementing job-embedded professional development that we refer to as Teacher Labs.  Teacher Labs connect directly to our mission statement and many of our belief statements. 

Effective professional development and Teacher Labs are:
  • Intensive
  • sustained over time 
  • embedded
  • directly related to work with students
  • structured to regularly engage teachers in local PLCs where problems of practice are solved through collaboration
  • follow-up, reinforcement, apply in new contexts
The bottom line is that professional development is about raising the level of learning for students and must include collaboration and feedback.  Teacher Labs include these key pieces.

How are Teacher Labs organized?

We are fortunate to have support in implementing Teacher Labs.  Lisa Madden was instrumental in getting Teacher Labs going in her previous position and has brought her expertise to us as our County Coordinator for Curriculum and Special Projects.  Not only is she helping us learn about the structure of Teacher Labs, she is also teaching Sandy Cook and me how to be facilitators.  We are using the gradual release of responsibility model to learn how to facilitate labs. 

A lab classroom includes a host teacher, a facilitator and observers.  The host is not an expert and is willing to share his/her practice publicly.  The facilitator organizes and communicates the schedule, prepares paperwork and materials, and leads collaborative discussions before and after observations.  Initially, we are meeting in half day increments.  Our focus is tier 1 reading instruction.  We have a pretty solid MTSS system, however we believe that tier 1 is the foundation. This foundation must be solid for our students and all of our elementary teachers are participating in the lab classroom experience this year.

 The components of the half day include:
  • Pre-Observation Meeting
    • Establish Norms
    • Establish focus for inquiry
    • Observers share successes, challenges and goals
  • Observation
    • Observers visit host's classroom as a 'fly on the wall'
    • Take notes for feedback and reflection
  • Debriefing
    • Observers name and notice
    • Host reflects on noticings and verbalizes intentions
    • Observers ask questions
    • Host answers
    • All reflect-making intentional plans for our practice

What have I learned so far?

The lab experience has been one of the most beneficial experiences for me.  I have been out of the classroom for 8 years working in an instructional coach type role.  Since I work in more than one school, I collaborate with and support nearly 70 teachers.  I want to do my very best to meet their needs.  When I was participating in my first Teacher Lab experience this past week, my colleagues seemed to have one common goal.  That is, they want to be able to give ALL of their students what they need.  This is my goal as well.  I want to be able to give ALL of my colleagues what they need.

Students in our classrooms come from middle- and upper-class income levels, from low-income households, from families living in poverty, or from families who are English language learners.  They come from two-parent households, single parent homes and homes where they are being raised by grandparents.  Some have parents or other family members who have read to them since infancy or who have used the television or video games as 'babysitters'.  Their needs are diverse and the task of giving every single one of them what they need can be daunting. 

Because of these diverse needs of our students, I have learned that a Culture of Learning is more critical than ever.  Teacher Labs are a Culture of Learning.  One of my colleagues said it best in the answer to this question s/he provided on a survey about the lab classroom experience. 

Survey Question:  What was the most beneficial part of the professional learning experience?
Getting the chance to reflect on my practice, both by examining a colleague's practice and by being observed and hearing feedback from colleagues.  This is a profession where it is easy to fall into survival mode, and the opportunity to step back and think with people I respect and admire is really invaluable.
I believe that the lab classroom structure can help me to give ALL my colleagues what they need.  Teaching Labs could be set up for other content areas such as math or science.  They could be organized so teachers observe how their colleagues are providing students the knowledge and skills to meet the global challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century.  The lab classroom experience can occur at any level, elementary, middle or high school.  Through this differentiation, I can help all of my colleagues grow as professionals.

After Thanksgiving, I will begin facilitating Teaching Labs while Lisa observes me.  I look forward to the feedback she will provide me to become more skilled in working with adult learners.  I will continue to reflect in order to create professional learning communities for my colleagues where inquiry and collaboration result in a commitment to continuous improvement.

How about you?  How do you give them all what they need? 

A community of readers.  A culture of learning.
Deb Roda's 3rd grade class


  1. This is a great post, Michele. After hearing you explain it the other night, you've really done it justice here. The system itself really seems to support teachers in a concrete and reflective way. How lucky your district is to have you! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for the feedback, Starr. Teacher Labs are a wonderful structure for reflection about why we do what we do. I can't wait to share this journey with you.