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Milton superintendent, administrators to focus on visits to classes

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Neil Johnson
October 22, 2012

— Superintendent Mike Garrow started his morning with a group meeting on a multicolored carpet.

It wasn't some new-age method in school administration; it was a good, old-fashioned classroom game of "brain exercises."

Under the direction of Milton West Elementary School kindergarten teacher Alison Brown, 21 students puffed out their cheeks like frogs. The purpose: to get the blood pumping and the brainwaves crackling.

Next, they pursed their lips like fish, arched their eyebrows and wiggled their arms. Garrow followed along—although he seemed hesitant as he ran through the gyrations. He wiped sweat from his forehead and smiled reluctantly.

Garrow was making the rounds to a handful of classrooms at the elementary school to observe how teachers are handling "organizational management"—public school jargon for the ground rules and plans each teacher lays as a foundation for learning during a school year.

The school year's still young, but Garrow, a former high school principal, has set a goal to visit every classroom in the district at least once before next summer break.

"Really, my goal and my intent is to be able to see everyone, both from the standpoint of knowing who my staff is—and to learn what's working well or what could work better in the classrooms," Garrow said.

It's part of a plan by district and school-level administrators to rely more heavily on regular classroom observations to improve teaching and learning, to give feedback to staff, and to aid in teacher performance evaluations.

Who's this guy?

Garrow has carved out five hours each week to run the gauntlet at the high school, middle school and elementary schools. That's eight schools. At the K-3 grade levels alone, Garrow has 41 class sections to visit.

Sometimes during visits, Garrow gets involved in classroom discussions or activities. Other times, he observes silently, using an iPad tablet with an app designed by the district to aid in observations and to help analyze each teacher's instructional methods.

The program can be used to compile data and give feedback to teachers, and it's used as part of the district's performance evaluation for staff.

There's nothing new under the sun, and administrative classroom walkthroughs are no exception.

But as administrative roles become more specialized—particularly in a district the size of Milton—it's becoming less common for school superintendents to step out of the office and pop into classrooms.

Garrow's visits are still catching some students off guard.

"It's pretty typical for students to do the double- and triple-take when I walk in," Garrow said.

One wide-eyed student at West Elementary School summed up his confusion over Garrow's classroom visit.

"What are you?" the student asked Garrow.

Not a 'gotcha' situation

In the past year, the district has been shifting to a more performance-based evaluation system for teachers.

The system was supposed to be in place last year, but it was not implemented because the union and administrators still were discussing how to fairly apply evaluation criteria at each school, school officials said.

Milton High School Principal Jeremy Bilhorn said staff might have some jitters over the walkthroughs, too. He said teachers are aware that the administrative visits are now being used to collect data for staff evaluations.

Bilhorn said the challenge now is to ensure teachers aren't nervous or uncomfortable during class visits.

"This isn't a gotcha situation," he said. "It's important to keep in mind you're looking at a snapshot. Maybe you don't get to see any one golden moment in a seven- to 10-minute classroom visit, but if you collect a lot of snapshots, you can start to see trends," Bilhorn said.

On a recent Thursday, Bilhorn took a snapshot of Jeff Churchwell, a veteran English teacher at the high school.

Churchwell takes an old-school approach to instruction. In an era of the digital SMART Board, he still uses chalk on chalkboard. His voice is bullhorn loud, and he marches around the room like a drill sergeant.

During a lecture to a sophomore English class on essay conclusions, Churchwell gave one student a high-five. He singled out other students by name make sure they heard (and understood) his talking points. He did not pander, and to punctuate the idea of essay conclusions, he gave the class a parting shot.

"Brains are overrated." Churchwell said. "If you come in prepared on Monday, you're going to be just fine."

In a civics class that Bilhorn visited the same day, teacher Renee Stieve-Busch used an electronic voting program to give each student a voice on hot-button political issues.

Each student had a voting remote control, and the results of the class poll popped up instantly in a pie graph on the classroom SMART Board. The students then discussed the results.

Bilhorn said he could use data he gathered from Churchwell's class visit to show younger teachers strategies to captivate students' attention. On the other hand, he might show an instructor such as Churchwell how teachers such as Stieve-Busch use SMART Boards and other new technologies to deliver lessons.

The more time, the better

Michael Dorn, President of the Milton Education Association, the district's teachers union, said he believes the more time administrators spend in classrooms, the better.

"With evaluations taking on much more weight, it is more important than ever that administrators are fully aware of what and how teachers are teaching," Dorn said. "Getting administrators out of the office and back into the classrooms is a vital part of that process."

Garrow said the challenge for him and administrators will be to continue to build momentum with classroom visits even as the district moves into budget planning mode.

"It would be very, very easy for me to be in my office all day, every day. I'd never get bored," Garrow said. "I'd always have something to do."

Garrow said the classroom visits motivate him. He enjoys the energy of students, and the face time he gets at school makes him feel more in tune with staff.

"It's being able to connect with kids and staff. To me there are so many positives that come from having that," he said.

"I don't see a downside."



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