Saturday, November 8, 2008

Being a Fly on the Wall

In the past month, I've found myself doing a lot of teacher observations, at a variety of schools. It seems that's one of the things I do best!

In most cases, I'm met with some degree of hesitation, if not outright defensiveness. Part of my job -- as I see it, then -- becomes the challenge of getting past the hesitation/defensiveness before I leave the classroom. It's not always easy.

I walked into one classroom recently, where the teacher met me with a certain amount of resistance. She said, "I'm not even sure why you’re here." I THOUGHT "Oh boy!" but I SAID, "To help you become a better teacher." "Well, if that were true," she retorted, "you would come back after school one day during the week. That's when I really have problems!" Before I left the building that day, I did two things:
  1. I spoke to her supervisor and we rescheduled another time -- of the teacher's choice -- for me to return.
  2. I mentioned what a great activity she had planned and that I was looking forward to hearing how it played out.

That second visit went much better – the teacher greeted me with a big smile; when asked by a student about my presence in the room, she explained, “She’s a teacher of teachers and she’s helping me.”

The lesson moved logically from one activity to another; she used her madrikh in a substantive way, as a co-teacher working with a small group (after ensuring he knew what she was looking for); for the most part, the majority of students stayed on task most of the class period. The “problem?” One table of students who were loud, impulsive, and whose noise made it difficult for other students to make progress.

She had a couple of minutes between sessions, so I spent the majority of that time articulating examples of good teaching. We ended with – “There’s really only one problem I see.” She knew immediately what I was talking about and said she’s often told them she’s going to separate them. I suggested she stop threatening and just do it. The need for students to have friends to be with in religious school had been the value she was holding dear. But she realized that it was having a negative effect on the rest of the class, so we talked about other values and I made some suggestions of how to proceed with these changes.

I then went home, wrote everything up (setting, observations of class dynamics, evaluation, suggestions for improvement, and an end note), sent it to her supervisor and asked her to send it directly on to the teacher involved.

So what’s the learning in this experience for me?
  • It really helps if the teacher knows that an observation is planned.
  • It also helps if the teacher knows that my job is to help them become more effective.
  • It is just as important for positive interactions/dynamics to be noted as the negative ones.
  • Sometimes, the observer notices things (behavior triggers) that the teacher doesn’t. Those observations can be helpful to the teacher.
  • Sometimes, the observer may pick up on student behavior that merits a closer look.
  • The sandwich approach still works: good news – bad news – good news (or strengths—weaknesses-strengths).
  • When giving suggestions to modify a teacher’s classroom behavior, it helps to explain “why” the change should improve the situation.
  • When giving more than two suggestions, I’ll often make a list of five or six. Sometimes I’ll pick one from the list, if I think it’s really crucial, and I’ll ask the teacher to pick another suggestion from the list. I’ll ask the teacher to work on those two until they become more comfortable ways to operate. Then I’ll ask them to go back to the list and pick two more! This provides them with the opportunity to structure their own learning – and acknowledges that we all have different priorities. It can also help them set goals for themselves.

I left the room, feeling as if we (the teacher and I) had begun to establish a positive working relationship. We'll see how it plays out!

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