Watching Teachers Teach

There is one aspect of my current position which I value greatly, not least since many of my colleagues do not have the same opportunity: as an academic dean, I get to observe many teachers teach class.

Some of the classes I observe are demonstration lessons by candidates for positions at my school, and other classes are taught by faculty members and colleagues. Some of the teachers are straight out of college, and others a close to retirement. I observe classes containing students of all age ranges, from excited and enthusiastic kindergartners, to world-weary seen-it-all-before seniors. Sometimes I am in a science class, sometimes a ceramics class, and at other times a calculus lesson (I don't always follow all of the content of the class!) Some of the classes are breathtakingly awesome, and a few are absolutely cringe-worthy.

The one constant though, is the learning opportunity for me as a teacher when watching a class. On each occasion, I have the opportunity not only to observe what is happening through the students' eyes, but also to attempt to see the class from the perspective of the teacher. I am able to follow the content and activities that make up the class, but also to reflect upon the choices the teacher has made: how the is class organized, how s/he manages the engagement of the students, the activities, the pacing, the assessments.

And in reflecting upon these various choices, I have the opportunity to consider what I would have done, what I will do, and what I can learn from this class.

I would argue that there is no better framework for growing as a teacher than this: observing a class, and reflecting upon each and every aspect of the class from both the students' and the teacher's perspective. This growth opportunity is heightened greatly if there is the chance after the class to discuss the lesson with the teacher, for each of you to describe what you saw from the two perspectives, and to discuss the choices made and reflect upon successes and opportunities for tweaks.

I am saddened then, by the fact that this kind of observation and reflection happens much too infrequently in schools. I have taught for 20+ years in six schools, and I could count the number of times other teachers have observed my class on one hand. Too often, we as teachers work in isolation from each other. We may be teaching the same course or the same students as the teacher next door, but we almost never get the opportunity to see each other teach or talk substantively about the actual craft of our teaching. While we may have one or two planning periods a day when we could visit another teacher's class, we tell ourselves that there are so many other things we could be doing. In reality, the reason why class observations are so rare is that they are not part of the culture of the school: it just doesn't happen. While there might be lip-service paid to this best practice by administrators, it simply is awkward to go to another teacher's class.

If we are serious about growing as teachers, about really developing as professionals, about maximizing the learning opportunities for our students, we need to watch each other teach. Some schools are beginning to develop observation groups where teachers observe each other, and discuss their observations. In providing a framework/ process for observing classes, the awkwardness is removed, and teachers can tap into the most relevant professional learning network available, the one that surrounds them every day.