Friday, November 28, 2014

New Teacher Seminar:The Best Classroom Observations --Third in a series on developing new teachers

A great deal of my week is spent in teachers' classrooms observing them teach. I do this work at their invitation, as a part of our school's evaluation process, or at the request of a divisional principal or department chair. This past week I watched an experienced teacher guide his sixth grade instrumentalists through their rehearsal, an intern lead a discussion on Antigone,  a first year teacher review three verbs in a high school Spanish class, a veteran choral teacher work with 7th and 8th grade boys, a second year teacher introduce the Buddha to a high school religion class, and an intern teach math to primary circle students.  In each case, I was struck by the passion and care each brought to his or her work.
DKNG Studios

As teachers in our classrooms we assume that our students are always watching us, they have to be in order for the classroom to work.  Having an adult observer in our classroom while we are teaching is something else entirely. It changes the dynamic, students behave differently, we are more self-conscious. When the observer is an invited peer or a young teacher wanting to observe a more experienced teacher, the experience is more low key. When the observer is a supervisor the stakes feel higher, even when the administrator is there by invitation. Though the act of observation changes what is being observed, observation and constructive growth oriented feedback are essential for every teacher, especially for a new teacher.
Photo by @Doug8888

  • The best observations begin with my asking the teacher what they want me to watch for. Young teachers in particular need to develop the habit of self-evaluation: what went well in the lesson, where did I lose the kids, did they learn what I hoped or something else entirely, how did this lesson fit into my plan for this unit, am I reaching every student, what am I not seeing or doing? These are only some of the questions we need to consider. Given our overfull days, creating space for asking and answering these questions is challenging. Observations by others and the conversations they foster create the time and space for this reflection.
  • While not always possible, I like to arrive before the students. I want to see how they transition from the minute they cross the threshold. I often keep a running record of what I see within a time frame. I have found this helps me stay focused on the observation. I like to record the time in three to five minute intervals. Time is the commodity of schools. We never have enough and we have to use what we have effectively. Young teachers should be asking questions about their management of time as well as of students
  • I also like to look at the physical classroom and how well teachers are utilizing their spaces. While Lower School teachers understand the importance of well-designed spaces, most Upper School teachers think little of their spaces except as containers for teenage bodies. Often, a small tweak in classroom set up can solve a much larger classroom management challenge.  In comparison to his other classes, the religion teacher found this group of students' energy to be flat and and that individuals were easily distracted. After observing his class I asked him to think about how he moved around the classroom and how he wanted students to interact. After listening to him, I asked what would happen if he abandoned his current set-up and experimented with something that made it easier for him to move and that placed his students in closer proximity to each other. Later in the week, he told me that he had moved two tables. Rather than sitting in a large u around the room's perimeter, now the students sat across from each other at the tables. The tables were in two rows running the length of the room. He had easy access to the boards on every wall and he could move easily down the middle of the room. As they were sitting closer to each other, the majority of his students who were engaged and focused, helped the few who faded in and out stay in the learning. 
  • During any observation I focus on the teachers' questions about their practice. If I have learned what the students have learned, then I have failed as an observer. I need to watch the teacher and see what she is doing and saying. At the same time I need to watch her students and see how they are reacting and acting. Do they understand what they are supposed to be doing? Do they know the class routine such that the learning is the focus of what happens not the mechanics to make it happen (what should have been prepared for class, what happens as students walk into the room, how quickly is the sheet music passed out, how quickly does the lesson begin, how are class discussions constructed, etc) 
  • Most importantly I want to gauge student engagement. I take as a given that engagement goes up the safer the classroom is for students. In a school like Westtown, I take physical safety as the norm, I am looking for something more subtle, what Claude Steele would call the absence of stereotype threat. Often student intellectual and spiritual safety isn't the thing a young teacher is asking about directly. Focusing on this yields greater returns than almost any other tool a teacher might develop.
After the class if I am not meeting with the teacher within an hour or so, I send an email with quick questions and concrete "this is what I saw." Nothing replaces a good follow up discussion. With young teachers, I provide both directive feedback-- "You need to tighten up how class begins", "you tend to call on girls more frequently than boys", "your questions were too basic to encourage thoughtful discussion"-- and ask questions. The questions always take into account what they have wanted me to think about. But the questions also come out of my own wondering about what I have seen. With the intern leading a discussion on Antigone, I wanted to understand how she had planned her questions. I wanted her to think about other ways the discussion might have progressed. I asked "I wonder what would have happened if you had asked a few of the students to tell you more about their answers?" After a few moments of reflection she began to think of how this might have stretched her students' thinking. I asked about specific students. She was worried she might not have gotten them to the conclusion she wanted them to reach, that they would have gone off on a tangent. We discussed the trade offs of moving through her prepared series of questions versus asking follow-up questions and following her students's leadings. There were no right answers, only learning possibilities for my intern.
"I wonder. . ." may well be my favorite question!