Professional Learning: The Power of School Visits

By Emily Liebtag and Tom Vander Ark

“Visiting these schools has shown me that what I thought was impossible for students I teach is possible.”

~  Attendee during a Kansas City Great Schools Project school visit to Thrive Public Schools in San Diego.

Aaron North, Vice President of Education at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, recently wrote in the Kansas City Star about the initiative they are leading and supporting in the hopes of enhancing the educational ecosystem in Kansas City: the Kansas City Great Schools Project (see the KCGreatSchools blog and #KCGreatSchools on Twitter to learn more about these trips).

In his article, North stated, “The national interests may want to take a look at the collaborative efforts emerging in Kansas City…In the last eighteen months, more than 300 people from a broad cross-section of the community have been part of visits to cities with concentrations of high-performing public schools.”

Participants, ranging from classroom teachers to architects from Kansas City, travel together to a region and learn about the local schools. Schools they visit typically are innovative in design instructional practices or are stellar examples of how to create equitable learning environments for each student in attendance.

The schools are often a mix of traditional or charter schools, middle, high or elementary, but the goal is the same: empower trip attendees to continue the great work they are already doing to support Kansas City Public School students and to inspire them to take on a new idea, help solve a common challenge or rethink what is possible.

We are fortunate to be a part of this project and have witnessed incredible change, empowerment and spark amongst trip participants as a result of these school visits. We are confident that school visits are one of the best forms of professional learning. Time after time when we talk to inspiring leaders and educators, they tell us that they visited many different schools to better understand what goal, vision and next steps made sense for their school community.

Aside from the obvious fact that you’ll learn a lot from visiting a new place, here are a couple of reasons we feel school visits are a must-have item on any community or school member’s professional learning plan:

1. Hearing it from the source. We often hear educators express that they don’t want to hear advice from a facilitator or PD leader that has not actually lead the type of change they are attempting or want to try. They want to hear lessons learned directly from an in-service practitioner who personally navigated the challenges and witnessed the successes of change. Visiting schools provides participants with that opportunity.

2. Seeing the great, “getting there” and “back to the drawing-board” ideas. Idealism and dreaming are important, but so is reality. Educators need to see and hear about a school’s struggles just as much as they need to see the celebrations and successes. This is particularly true when implementing a new or innovative idea. Taking risks often comes easier when we understand the potential pitfalls and rewards. Dream big, but also take time to learn from others doing similar work (if possible). Seeing is believing!

Seeing schools that are in a transition period is also helpful for educators seeking to implement a new idea. Always seeing a finished product or end result without seeing the path to get there can be deceiving. Every great school we visit will always say they are a work in progress. Seeing that progress in person is grounding for educators embarking on implementation of an idea.

3. Stepping outside your own comfort zone. We often replicate what we know, what we see peers or colleagues doing or what feels comfortable. Visiting schools in different cities (or within your own city) that do not look or feel anything like where you went to school or where you teach can help you step outside of your comfort zone. This creates a possibility to envision something different for students, or even see oneself in a teacher or a leader you meet.

4. Connecting and collaborating. When we travel to new places together, be it with other educators or with community members in a different profession, we inevitably make connections. Kansas City trip participants will attest to the fact they didn’t see at first how they could work with someone outside of the school. But joining in conversations on a school visit highlighted for them just how many ways their work overlapped. Furthermore, going on school visits allows for organic connections with teachers or leaders at other schools that might be great to collaborate with or share ideas.

5. Celebrating progress. An easy one to neglect, celebrating progress is an important reason for going on school visits. It is tempting to only aspire for something different or not acknowledge existing successes. Visiting other schools can be a great way to see similarities with practices you are already using or innovative ideas that your school is already implementing well.

A non-exhaustive list of schools and districts we have visited and been fortunate enough to learn from:

School visits can be a powerful part of a professional learning plan and a critical part of a school transformation effort. It expands your sense of what’s possible and informs the path forward. We’re planning fall school visits—contact [email protected] if you’re interested.

Many of these visits were in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation. Almost 300 community members from Kansas City have visited schools around the country thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation as part of the Kansas City Great Schools initiative (check out #KCGreatSchools and also see their blog), which was designed to expose “community members to cities with concentrations of high-performing public schools serving a similar population of students as those in Kansas City’s public schools.” Participants get a chance to see design-built schools and those still on a journey–each with their own unique structure, culture and curriculum.

For more, see:

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Emily Liebtag

Emily Liebtag, Ed.D., is Education Reimagined's Senior Partner for Systems Transformation. Formerly, Emily served as the Vice President of Advocacy at Getting Smart.

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