It has always seemed to me that the days between “back to school” in January and Spring Break provide the “thickest” learning time of the school year. I have often heard teachers say that they “push through a lot of the curriculum” in these three months. It is no different for educators. While we are celebrating the “100th day” or beginning the new semester or writing another set of report cards or administering the provincial examinations, we are also attending several teacher conferences, workshops, conventions, or exploring many other professional learning opportunities.
Since the beginning of 2014, I have been in over a dozen classrooms doing demonstration lessons in BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Hawai’i. They have included lessons in grade 11 algebra, grade 6 social responsibility, grade 10 social studies, grade 11 Canadian history, grade 3/4 science, and grade 7 mathematics. Though I have worked in education for over twenty years, I still find it difficult to make my teaching public in front of students and teachers whom I have only just met. It takes time to both prepare the lesson and harness the emotion in order to step out in front of adult and student learners with whom I am beginning to build rapport…a far cry from the trust that is built in schools with each passing day.
However, once the instruction begins and the learning becomes visible, I often find myself in that place that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow - a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. Additionally, the teachers who are observing are not in the role of evaluator. Rather, they are tasked to collect evidence in areas that I have identified in our pre-observation conversation. That is, as the person being observed, I provided specific direction in regard to what the observers are asked to gather. There are no expectations for analysis, judgment, or the assignment of value to my words and actions.
In the past several months, I have asked the observers (usually between twelve and twenty in number) to pay attention to these three areas:
Instructional cycle – What stages of an instructional sequence can you document?
Teacher engagement – What do you notice that provides evidence of teacher engagement with the students and with the instruction?
Student engagement – What do you notice about the students and what they are doing and saying?
Please note that this stance is critical as we welcome one another into our classrooms to watch us at work with our learners. This stance also sends an incredibly strong message - this process of observation is about the teacher, for the teacher, and directed by the teacher.
As we leave the classroom, I let the students know what we, as adults, are now going to do. I tell them that the teachers are not going to tell me that the lesson was “good” or that it was “OK” or that it could have been better. At best, I might feel great because of the first response, neutral because of the second, or a bit upset by the third. Once the moment of emotion passes, I will be left with only questions. Why did they think it was “good?” What could I have done differently to make it better? Often the students nod, seemingly in solidarity with the idea that I deserve more.
We retreat in order to engage with the evidence that has been collected. Teacher observers talk about what they noticed; in essence, they lay the data in front of me and I interpret that information through the lens of the decisions that I made during the instruction. I make my thinking visible based on the evidence that they collected. So, for example, if someone indicates that he noticed that I did not share an entire sample with students, but rather “chunked” the sample into smaller parts, I might talk about why I did that and what I expected the students to do after each chunk. Or another teacher might talk about the sentence stem (I noticed that the work…) that I had the students use in order to offer feedback against the criteria that we had just constructed. In that instance, I might talk about the stem as a way to build the vocabulary of assessment, rather than the language of evaluation. Below, is a picture of what I wrote down on a whiteboard during a recent debriefing in order to more clearly explain what I was thinking about during the instruction. This becomes an artifact of not only the debriefing phase, but of my learning, as well.
During the debriefing, I am again “in the driver’s seat.” The role of the observer is not to offer a hypothesis, nor to put forward an opinion; this is a learning opportunity for me to look into my teaching through the evidence that is being presented.
As I talk with many, many teachers, the pervading sentiment is that it can be extremely uncomfortable for others, or even a single other, to come into their classrooms and observe the instruction and the learning. This feeling is prevalent even in schools where high levels of trust are reported. Individual teachers have spoken of the fear of being evaluated and judged.
Though I am not suggesting that it is simple to shift that mindset, what this account reminds me of is that too often we observe with our own agenda at the forefront. The observation serves as a vehicle to respond to our own questions. Rather, the invitation to come into classrooms, when coupled with the stance that we are there to serve the one who is being observed, might begin to allow colleagues to view this process differently. As the observer, I am here to attend to your needs and to help you to respond to the things that you are wondering about. This can shift our perspective on what it means to have others observe our teaching and can provide a framework so that we can learn and reflect more.