The Purpose in Perspective: Instructional Rounds are an all-around enriching experience for teachers at Cross County

The Purpose in Perspective: Instructional Rounds are an all-around enriching experience for teachers at Cross County

By Tyler Dahlgren

The bright flame from Jessica Jackman’s chemistry experiment always draws excited gasps and wide eyes, but perhaps the loudest Oohs and Aahs on this Monday morning in February came from the back of the room, where a pack of fellow Cross County teachers stood and observed.

It’s a mini-culture shock for a kindergarten teacher to find themselves in a high school science lab, but don’t for a second think that the experience isn’t valuable. Since implementing their “Instructional Rounds” six years ago, Cross County Public Schools has discovered the purpose, and power, in perspective.

“It’s so motivating to see what other teachers are doing in their classrooms, no matter what grade or subject they teach,” said Macy Jones, an elementary resource teacher in the district. “I’m always so excited to see all the cool things happening in our building.”

Cross County has long followed the Marzano Teaching Model, and the Instructional Rounds are an innovative byproduct of that framework. They’re held three Mondays each year, in September, November and February, and, by design, allow educators to spend time learning from peers across the district. The rounds aren’t mandated, but the district has more than 75-percent of its staff participating.

As word of the practice’s effectiveness spreads, that number continues to rise.

“Our philosophy is that everybody’s doing something great, and it doesn’t matter what you teach or who you teach, you can gather strategies and learn something from anywhere at any given time,” said speech pathologist Hyde Patience, who’s been with Cross County for 17 years. “When I go on rounds, I love to see what classroom teachers are doing in their rooms, because if I know how my students are being instructed I can use that knowledge when I’m helping them with whatever goals they’re working on.”

Patience is on the Instructional Rounds committee, which is constantly evaluating feedback from participants and molding the model so that it’s as beneficial as possible. ESU 7 Professional Development Coordinator Brooke Kavan has played a huge role in the program’s success from the start. After using the 2016-17 year for development, Cross County rolled out the pilot program in 2017-18.

“The philosophy, which is a run-off from Marzano’s high reliability schools model, is you might be doing really well most days, but what systems do you have in place that can ensure there’s great teaching going on here every day?” said superintendent Brent Hollinger. “Brooke (Kavan) was very savvy with Marzano and this idea for instructional rounds. We were basically the guinea pig.”

So far, the program has been a resounding success, to the point where other districts are visiting Stromsburg to see it first-hand. The rounds are always held on Mondays to avoid overlaps with study halls. During NPSA’s visit, 18 observers, eight host teachers and four facilitators took part.

At the end of each round of observations, the group meets for a short debriefing session. It’s comparable to an interactive book club, and the discussions are always spirited.

“The debriefing sessions are extremely important,” said 4th-grade teacher Kelsey Phillips. “It allows us to talk about things that we maybe didn’t notice while we were in the classroom together. There’s so many things classroom management ideas we gain that we can then apply in our own classrooms.”

Instructional Rounds are a worthwhile endeavor for all involved.

“I like to come back and debrief because everybody takes such different things away from the experience,” said high school resource teacher Amy Rotter, who facilitated the first round. “It’s refreshing to have time to collaborate with other staff members. We are all in one building, but sometimes we get busy with our routines. It’s nice to be able to visit learn together.”

The more you can entice teachers to lead, the better, said Hollinger. Putting peers in front of peers tends to produce positive results, and the Instructional Rounds are nothing but empowering for the Cross County staff.

“We kind of gave them the carrot and then we backed off and they had that ownership piece,” Hollinger continued. “It’s innovative, but it still falls under some of the basic stuff that’s worked for a hundred years. When somebody feels ownership, and somebody feels that a program is theirs instead of being told to do it, then they’re going to be bought in completely. Our staff has taken this and made it their own.”

The culture at Cross County has been strong for a long time, but incorporating Instructional Rounds has only boosted cohesion. It’s a platform that allows educators an opportunity to grow professionally together. Collaboration in the district is at an all-time high, and students are the ones reaping the rewards.

“This has helped branch our elementary to our middle school to the high school, too,” said 6-12 principal Justin DeWitt. “If you have a senior English teacher down in the kindergarten room, or vice versa, it offers a variety of perspectives and opens conversations that need to happen across those buildings.”

It’s invigorating, too, especially in the middle of a long and cold February. This time of year, everybody could use a shot of rejuvenation. Chase Kuhnel, who teaches 9th and 10th-grade Language Arts, sees the excitement in an elementary class and can’t wait to try and replicate it in her high school room. She views it as a fun challenge.

“As much as I love my students more than anything, they don’t exactly always have a passion for learning English,” Kuhnel laughed. “So getting to go to an elementary classroom and seeing how excited those kids still are about learning, that makes me excited to go back to class and make it more engaging for my students.”

Because she holds a specialized position, Patience can feel isolated at times. She’s the district’s only speech pathologist, but Instructional Rounds have essentially busted down any silos at Cross County.

“This has strengthened that family-like environment here that we’ve always had,” said Patience. “We help each other. I don’t think we have one teacher out there that wouldn’t step in and help someone when needed. We’re just a family.”

It’s helped having the undivided support from the school’s administration, Patience added. When the committee felt the need to incentivize participation with a free pass to leave school at 3:30, the administration gave swift approval. It’s worth the dividends, which Hollinger and DeWitt see every day.

“We’ve got a strong staff, and we do push them to excel,” said Hollinger. “I’m not just talking about Instructional Rounds, but other things we do with them, too. There’s a level of expected, high-performing, bang-out-of-their-buck type culture that we’ve had.”

Young teachers like Jones appreciate that level of accountability. It puts them in position to grow.

“They’re always looking for the opportunity to push us,” Jones said. “Sometimes it can be a little uncomfortable to step into a classroom or intimidating being observed, but it’s great that we’re being pushed out of our comfort zones to become better teachers.”

What was once uncomfortable has become, over the course of five years, straightforward and downright pleasant. It’s to the point where students don’t turn their heads or even bat an eye when a pack of teachers slip in the door mid-lesson.

“This process has helped us work together, learn from one another, and, most importantly, trust each other,” said Patience.

Instructional Rounds are smooth and easy.

Easy like a Monday morning.

They Said It!

Q: What are you looking for when observing a classroom?

“When I go into a classroom, I’m looking for something that stands out that I don’t do. I’m there to learn new strategies. When I see something that’s different from my classroom, that’s what I’m writing down.”-Macy Stewart (6th and 7th-grade English and Reading)

“I always intentionally look for better ways of routine and engagement. Working with high schoolers, that can sometimes be an issue. They can sometimes lack buy-in or motivation. Routine and fresh engagement ideas always helps me.”-Chase Kuhnel

“I’m always looking for different teaching strategies and engagement opportunities that I can use to make class a little bit more fun for my students.”-Macy Jones

“I’m looking to see if any of my students are in the classroom, and I tend to zoom in on them. I look for strategies that are being used to connect with them, things I can modify and use with my own students, so that they’re hearing the same language and doing the same kinds of activities when I have them and we’re working on skills individually or in a small group.”-Hyde Patience

“Being a teacher, you steal ideas from each other. That’s just how it goes. We are all taught differently and we all learned in college differently, so when you combine ideas together, it’s the best of both worlds.”-Macy Stewart