Building a Collaborative Teaching Environment

Sage Hill’s new Dean of Faculty Matt Balossi is implementing what he calls Instructional Moments and Sage Bytes to build a collaborative environment where great teachers come to thrive. President Gordon McNeill explains in his latest blog post.

When Matt Balossi joined Sage Hill as Dean of Faculty, he made it a top priority to observe every single classroom at least once by the end of September. Accompanied by a department chair, Head of School Patricia Merz, or Dean of School Life Jon Poffenberger, Matt visited as many as nine classes a day. The visits were not evaluative; rather, Matt’s mission was to capture the best of what goes on in Sage Hill classrooms. Part of our strategic plan is to ensure that Sage Hill is a place where great teachers come to thrive. We also have a community that values collaboration, between and amongst faculty, staff and students. That’s why I’m so pleased that Matt took the time to orient himself to our school, but even more thrilled about what he did afterwards.

For starters, after each class visit Matt would go back to his office and write notes on a white board. At a glance, the board looks pretty random, basically some snippets from his observations. But on that board, Matt amassed a veritable treasure trove of great ideas and tools he witnessed first-hand in our classrooms. He noted the various approaches teachers use to engage students—including quieter ones—in class discussion. He listened to the kinds of questions teachers ask to promote and reinforce learning. He saw creative examples of tactile learning, games, and humor in the classroom. He witnessed innovative uses of technology.

I think it’s important to note that Matt has a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University and is co-author of the first-ever study of teacher quality in independent schools. It’s fair to say he knows as much about great teaching as just about anyone in his field, yet he realizes there’s always more to learn. Part of what makes good teachers great is an eagerness to keep learning and growing. That’s why we’ve always been committed to professional development at Sage Hill.

Matt’s observations tie into that commitment. He started what he calls Instructional Moments, where he shares the good stuff from the white board at our faculty/staff meetings, so other teachers can integrate some of that into their own classrooms. As an example, math teacher Joe DiOrio uses a flipped classroom with online lectures and classroom time dedicated to working on problems. Students ask questions about anything in the lecture they didn’t understand. But what about more introverted learners, who might not feel comfortable speaking up? Matt, Joe and Chris Irwin—who is both Dean of Academic Technology and a teacher—came up with a great solution: A “back channel” where students can ask questions in the potentially less intimidating online environment. Irwin was already using a back channel for his AP Environmental Science students, and now DiOrio uses one as well.

That brings me to another of Matt’s great ideas: what he calls Sage Bytes. These are technology enhancements or ways of re-envisioning the use of technology to benefit our students. A simple example is using Google Docs for class notes: an online document, accessible to all students in the course, is used for collaborative note-taking. Through this method, classroom content is easily accessed by all students, even those who may not be as adept at note-taking.

Between Instructional Moments and Sage Bytes, Matt has added another collaborative aspect to our community, growing good practices in our teaching by naming and sharing the good things that are happening. It’s a process that’s never complete. Our faculty, by nature, will continue to seek creative new strategies and tools to implement in their classrooms. And Matt will continue his walk-throughs, sharing his observations with the rest of us. Together, that’s how we build and sustain a collaborative community where great teachers come to thrive.

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Sage Hill School admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the School. The School does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship programs, and athletic and other School administered programs.