Kevin Bross: TIME Innovative Teachers 2022

It’s the start of the school day at Champlin Park High School in Minnesota, and Jalen Giles has a full roster of classes ahead of her. She’s a social studies teacher, but today she’s in orchestra class, observing another educator. Giles never expected to be inspired by a subject that’s so different from the one she teaches—but she was immediately impressed that students began the day with yoga before picking up their instruments.

“During a year that was so technology heavy, with barriers to connection,” Giles says, “it almost felt like permission to try something that people just needed as humans.” Back in her own classroom, she tried new things like encouraging students to dance and using Kahoot, a popular, game-based learning platform, to get to know each other.

Kevin Bross was an achievement coach who helped to create a new teaching method during the pandemic.

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Giles was on “instructional rounds,” which teachers have adapted from a model long used by doctors to learn and develop skills. While continuing learning can prove to be essential for teachers and be particularly effective when there is collaboration among them, it can also be challenging in practice. One reason is that teachers are usually short of time. Professional development sessions often interrupt school hours or take place outside the classroom, leaving teachers free to find solutions to their problems on their own.

Instructional rounds, by contrast, are cost-effective and time efficient, incorporating teachers’ education into the school day as they observe colleagues actively teaching, explains Kevin Bross, an achievement coach who helped devise the program at Blaine High School in 2019 before it expanded to other schools in the district.

Bross was a teacher for 14 years before moving to education consulting. He then took on the role of a school district educator. He says he and his colleagues had invited teachers to observe each others’ classes before, but looked for a new strategy after they realized that it was hard for them to fit the program into their schedules. That’s when they discovered the concept of instructional rounds—and decided to modify it to fit their school.

Bross says that unlike similar programs in other schools which ask teachers to observe classes to evaluate and assess teachers, this program is designed to allow the teachers to learn from the observers. The introductory session allows teachers to visit the classroom of another educator and then watch them teach for around 30-40 minutes. The spectators then come together to discuss what they’ve learned, take notes about key takeaways, and reflect on how it all fits in with a set of goals provided by the school.

“It’s hard sometimes to take theory and turn it into practice,” says Bross. “Instructional rounds has that built in: We’re going to take the theory and we’re going to watch somebody put it into practice.”

During most of 2020 and part of 2021, while Blaine classes were held partially and fully remotely to curb the spread of COVID-19 one of instructional rounds facilitators’ goals was to encourage teachers to look for ways to connect with students virtually. They suggested ideas about how to build relationships with students—discussion prompts, for instance, to encourage a “growth mindset” that embraces challenge as part of the learning process. They sent the teachers to observe how others educators implemented these ideas in their classrooms.

The district’s annual surveys suggest it’s paying off. Blaine High School students were much more likely than before the instructional rounds started to have good relationships with teachers. They also reported that their educators taught in an engaging way, which made them want to learn. In two years of surveys, 100% of participating teachers said they’d incorporated something new or innovative into their classes, says Bross.

Research on instructional rounds has been limited and models can vary between schools. However, an Australian randomized controlled study was published. Teacher and teacher education in 2021 found the program improved students’ mathematics performance and showed promise for boosting student achievement.

Since its inception, Bross and his colleagues have continued to streamline their initiative: They created a “sub center,” a designated space with a permanent substitute teacher to guide students through virtual lessons while their teachers are on rounds. This year they launched a podcast to reinforce lessons from teachers’ class visits and enabled educators to request individualized rounds on topics they’d like to improve.

Bross said Anoka Hennepin Schools has increased the number of schools that have this program. “Needs in education change quickly, but schools aren’t set up in a way to be agile,” he says. “I think instructional rounds has that missing piece. It’s allowed us to do a lot in a short amount of time.”

Giles claims that she gained new insights and confidence from the experience, which gave her renewed energy for her own teaching. “It felt like productive collaboration without the pressure to be inauthentic or totally shift your teaching practices,” she says. “It felt safe, comfortable, and just super fun and energizing. I think a lot of us were pretty devoid of those feelings while teaching during the pandemic.”

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