Open Your Classroom Door to ‘Be Better’

It’s May. It’s spring in Colorado. My 6th graders are starting to sound, smell, and act like … 7th graders. Sunshine and storms trade places depending on the day, so outdoor recess is not a given. Energy is high and motivation is a struggle. Summer is just around the corner and weeks, days, and hours away. Many instructional hours away.

And yet, it’s been a great week in room 214. A rich week of learning. Why?

I wasn’t flying solo—I had backup. Every day, but especially in May, students need their teachers’ A-game. I’ve noticed that I’m more willing to take risks, try new things, and reflect “in the moment” with a colleague in the room alongside me.

On Tuesday, Joe Dillon, the instructional coordinator for educational technology in Aurora Public Schools, supported me in my classroom. We talked through the lesson, he observed my class, and he interacted and conferred with kids. Following the lesson, he provided me with meaningful feedback around leveraging digital tools to increase student ownership.

On Thursday, Lori Nazareno, teacher-in-residence with the Center for Teaching Quality, visited my classroom. She helped me monitor the “double bubble” Socratic circle as kids engaged in text-based discourse—face-to-face in the inner circle and on Edmodo in the outer circle. This was the first time I’d tried this twist on the Socratic circle with this group of students. Having two adults monitor the live discussion and push the online discourse to deeper levels was invaluable.

Neither visitor is my evaluator. But I respect them both highly as accomplished educators who know their stuff and “get” adolescents. Their mere presence in my classroom makes me a better teacher.

The great poet Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, be better.” I’ve adopted this as my new teaching mantra.

Seeing Things Anew

Becoming better teachers is easier than we sometimes think. At the beginning of the school year, I wrote about doing the work alongside students as a way to vet the quality of our tasks, prompts, and assignments. Letting others into our classrooms is another way to get better. Just opening our doors, wide and often, can help us see our students and practices with new eyes.

How can we do this?

• Start small. Invite a colleague in during their planning period and reciprocate by visiting their classroom during yours. Bonus points if you share students and can see them in action in another content area.

• Get bigger. Host a “Bring the Community to School Day” as a way to “flip” the “Bring Your Child to Work Day” annual event. Create several “visit” days throughout the school year as a way to showcase student work and strengthen community partnerships. Invite parents, school board members, and other district and community leaders. Great teaching and learning deserve an audience.

• Leverage tools. Be your own coach by videotaping frequently and sharing clips with colleagues you trust, your evaluator(s), your students, and others. Watch the footage yourself to see your classroom from an outsider’s perspective. Follow teacherpreneur Ryan Kinser’s approach to “blowing the doors off your classroom” by starting your own VLC (video learning community).

Opening our doors, videotaping instruction, and sharing our practice can be scary. Classrooms are unpredictable places and interruptions are inevitable. Even the most well-planned lesson rarely goes exactly as planned. I was reminded of this when I had to reschedule my colleague’s visit multiple times due to testing windows that invaded our protected learning space. Be persistent and take the plunge. It’s worth it.

If you haven’t done so already, consider going through the National Board-certification submission process, which includes videotaping and reflecting on your practice. Engaging in the certification process has helped me identify the professional-learning experiences that have made me a better teacher. (Hint: Transformative experiences rarely happen in “traditional” professional-learning structures like staff meetings, conferences, or workshops.)

Videotaping instruction and hosting visitors motivates me to reflect on why I do what I do, and how I can do it better. What would happen if we taught as if every lesson was being videotaped for an external audience or being observed by someone whose opinion we valued? Collective improvement.

If you want to get even better—starting today—open your classroom door and let the camera roll.

Note: This article originally appeared in Education Week Teacher as part of a publishing partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality.

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  • DaveOrphal


    Jessica, you hit the nail right on the head.  Teachers need to get past the idea that “academic freedom” means that no one can tell me what to teach or how to teach it.  I know that many teachers, like me, find ourselves decrying the loss of academic freedom when an administrator, politician, or educational-reform pundit starts telling me how to do my job.

    However, the reality of my feelings don’t really lie in the lack of “academic freedom.”  the reality is that I think the administrator, politician, or pundit are offering ideas that are wrong for my students.

    Instead, teachers need to invite our colleagues into or rooms for informal and low-stakes peer observation and evaluation.

    My team is doing this at Skyline High in Oakland.  This year, I’ve had four colleagues observe my classroom for a total of nearly 15 hours.  The feedback I’ve gotten has been great!  It’s been the best PD ever!

    Teachers, together, can for teams like mine and work collaboratively to perfect our craft. 

    Together, we can take back the reigns of our profession.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      So glad to hear your team is

      So glad to hear your team is doing this, Dave!  Anything you’d share about the proces and culture built prior to launching this work so that you and your colleagues felt set up for success?  Any lessons learned that other should know about?

  • LoriNazareno

    Let’s all get better together!


    It was truly an honor and a privilege to be able to watch a master at work! I learned so much simply by being able to observe and participate with your class.

    The truth is, that I have learned more from having the chance to observe and be observed by my colleagues than any sit-and-get session that I have ever attended. And, even more remarkable, is that it wasn’t all that difficult to incorporate peer observation and feedback into part of our regular practice at my last school (MSLA). For those interested in our lessons learned here is what we did:

    • Teacher teams meet during a staff meeting prior to observations to identify areas that they want feedback and/or areas of focus from our teacher evaluation rubric
    • Hired 2 subs for 2 days (cost: about $500 – a LOT less than any other packaged PD)
    • Teachers were in teams of 3 – 1 member was chosen by the teacher, 1 by the school leader
    • The 2 subs covered 2 teachers on a team as they observe the third member of their team
    • Drung the next staff meeting the teams debrief and provide feedback to each other.

    This is definitely something others could incorporate into their school. And the opportunity to learn and grow with each other is tremendous.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Thanks, Lori for sharing the

      Thanks, Lori for sharing the details around what this looked like for teachers at MSLA.  I love this as a cost-effective approach to meaningful, authentic, job-embedded professional learning.  I also love the collaborative culture that could evolve and develop from this work. Any pitfalls to watch out for?  Did all teachers feel this was supportive of their practice and if so, how was that measured and monitored? 

  • allysonbreyfogle

    Healthy Reminders


    Thans for your post.  I agree with you–not only is it important to open our classroom doors, but part of our learning depends on finding new ways of interacting with colleagues to get feedback.  We forget sometimes how creative we can be or what opportunities there are that help us overcome those very barriers that keep us isolated.  Thanks for the reminders.

    I am equally curious about your socratic seminars–should there be another occasion next year I would love to join your class and learn how you conduct them.   I would come as a learner, an observer, even as an informal coach if you wished…always with genuine interest and curiosity.

    Best wishes and happy summer, Allyson



    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Come Visit!


      I’m planning on looping to 7th grade with some of my students next year and definitely think discourse in the form Socratic circles will be part of the structures we use to dig into texts.  You’re welcome to come visit anytime! 🙂  I love fellow learners, observers and coaches in the classroom – the kids benefit and I benefit! 

  • SandyMerz

    Veteran’s need mentors, too

    My district has an excellent new teacher mentor program.  Every time I hear about I say I want an old teacher mentor program.  I can’t say my game this semester has been better than a B, maybe B-, and I could use someone coming in and going over things with.  My students, who might be enjoying a lesson might not recogize that their not getting the best of me.  But working with a partner, and trying to get better together could be a great way to raise my practice.

    • JessicaCuthbertson


      I couldn’t agree more that veterans need mentors, too!  I think often veterans are utilized as mentors and new teachers spend time learning from veterans, but veteran teachers rarely get these mentorship opportunities themselves.  I wonder if you could start small with a colleague as part of PLC agreement, and then grow the partnership and expand with other teachers in your department and school? 

  • bethperce

    Open door – step in and step out

    Jessica, You have brought up a very good topic. This year I have mentored new teachers, and they observe me and I observe them. We discuss our lessons openly after each observations. I feel I like I learned so much from my mentees by just going to another school and classroom. In fact, when I observed one of my mentees, I loved her lesson so much that she sent me the smartboard activity for me to use in my classroom.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Awesome, Beth!

      Awesome, Beth!

      I’m so glad to hear that the mentor relationship was reciprocal, as well as being a positive and beneficial experience for both you and the mentees.  What norming or processes did you use to launch that partnership that made it a success? What could other teachers learn from your experience as they think about mentoring and sharing their practice? 

  • marsharatzel

    Be realistic about what you’ll get

    I think, for me, this is a very sticky wicket.  I think when it works well, it’s great.  When peer observations are structured properly or a positive, trusted culture isn’t in place, it is terrible.  Jessica, I dare say the reason why it worked so well for you is that both people you mentioned came with good intentions and were trusted colleagues.  They were people who you respected and who respected you.  They came with the best of intentions….to watch, to observe and to help.  But what if you’re in a disfunctional school where those qualities are spotty if not completely missing?

    So I’m all for doing this….if there are standards.

    I should probably clarify why I feel this way.  I teach in a different way than lots of people…so when I’ve had these class visits, I have reaped lots of comments like “Well, you can do this kind of teaching, but I could never do it that way.” or “I couldn’t bear to have students all working on different projects at the same time.  It looked like chaos but I know it wasn’t…it just looked that way to me.”  “How you can use Twitter in your classroom is beyond me.  Students can’t be trusted and I think you’re taking a big risk to let them Tweet for your class.”

    Normally I’d take these as great opportunity to engage in professional conversation.  But honestly….they weren’t meant to be positives.  They were meant to be mean critcisms.  And I’m totally fine with that too….because no one is going to like all styles of teaching.  What I do with differentiateion, technology and PBL isn’t going to be embraced by all….I get that.

    I just don’t think every building is ready to jump into these observations.  I think you have to build trust and respect for your colleagues BEFORE you let them whale away at your teaching.

    To me this is easiest by using some of the Critical Friends protocols.  Bringing lesson plans and student work….and having highly structured protocols in place help people learn how to be a colleague and how to ask questions in a way that isn’t hurtful or mean-spirited.  I think focusing on student work not the teacher is a powerful way to build trust and appreciation for a multitude of teaching styles.

    Once you have that trust as a foundation, you can let people into your room and to watch you.  In the meantime you can, even in a disfunctional building, establish a small set of trusted colleagues with whom you can work.  And you can use the video-taping idea that you suggested which you can share with your small circle until the building climate improves.  

    I’m just saying that this works IF you have a faculty that functions well and wants to help each other….and that TRUSTS each other.

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Relationships & Culture Matter


    Thank you for your thoughful comment and for reminding us that trust, norms and a culture of professionalism are critical for peer observations to feel supportive and to impact practice.  You are absolutely right about the visitors I’ve hosted — I do purposefully invite or work with colleagues who I highly respect and trust and who I know are coming to support me and push me in positive ways. I also like working with coaches who know and undestand my underlying beliefs about teaching and learning. 

    I also love your idea that we ground all observations in student work and student learning first (what are the kids vs. what is the teacher doing) as a lens for observations.  As I think about opening my classroom doors wider I’m interested in using the PLC process and the Critical Friends protocols you mention to set up structures for the work. 

    Thanks for the reminder and the great ideas! 

  • Adam Worth

    Personally I’ve had the

    Personally I’ve had the opportunity to work with a great mentor. He is one of the few people I’ve met that can give solid advice, put it into practice and then understand the way the exceptions work. All my respect for Mr. Alfred Smith.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      On mentoring

      Mentors are so important.  How does Mr. Smith go about mentoring you and others? What tips and straegies might other mentors borrow to support their mentees?