Currently, in my graduate course work, we are looking more closely at ISTE Standards for Educators. Standard 1 is: Educators continually improve their practice by learning from and with others and exploring proven and promising practices that leverage technology to improve student learning. Under this standard there are three indicators, the first being: Set professional learning goals to explore and apply pedagogical approaches made possible by technology and reflect on their effectiveness. (ISTE, 2017) Having spent over a decade teaching and participating in many different styles, formats, and areas of professional development there are a few professional learning experiences that really stand out for me as far as the immediate and long-term value they bring to my classroom. One of these learning experiences has been observing other teachers. Not teachers in a different state or a different school. Not teachers who taught different ages or subjects. And not teachers on a video with a class of 8 students whose focus never veered from the teachers words. For me meaningful, inspirational, and applicable professional learning has come from watching my colleagues down the hall teaching math using our district curriculum on an average Tuesday. Or a fellow teacher upstairs struggling to maintain student engagement during independent reading after last recess on a Friday. Teaching is messy and unpolished and often unpredictable. It is real life and the work we put into teaching our students is the real deal. The “real-ness” of my profession is one of the things I love best and watching other teachers work their magic, succeed, struggle, and sometimes fail in their classrooms has helped my teaching practice. I have rarely visited another classroom and not left with something I saw or heard that I wanted to implement in my own classroom. When teachers are trained on new technology equipment or programs without any “real life” component, it can sometimes feel very tedious and fabricated. Trying to get equipment to work properly when you have 30 kids staring at you and/or not anticipating the right student questions/issues when using a new program is not a fun situation to be in. But if teachers have opportunities to observe fellow teachers using equipment and programs in their classrooms as part of their technology training the learning experience feels more authentic and the teacher leaves feeling better prepared and more willing to try new things out.
On the Cult of Pedagogy website, Jennifer Gonzales writes about “Why We Need to See Each Other Teach”. She discusses 3 benefits of teachers observing colleagues and one “bonus”.
- Seeing Each Other Succeed– There is a satisfaction and sense of pride that comes with having another teacher see you in those moments when you are in your teaching zone. Here is how Gonzales sums up this benefit, “You are experts. You are experts because you have been there, tried that, had the same struggles. So many people don’t understand what it’s really like to be a teacher. But you do. That’s your expertise. Put a state senator in my class, have him compliment me on incorporating the Common Core in my lesson. Nice, but doesn’t mean a whole lot. Now, a compliment from you? You know. You tell me you liked the gesture I used to illustrate a difficult concept? That’s gold to me. Your feedback means more.” (Gonzales, 2013)
- Seeing Each Other Fail– Letting others see you at your imperfect moments builds your relationship and relationships are required for successful teacher collaboration. Here is what Gonzales has to say on this benefit, “letting people see some of your flaws creates greater intimacy. It makes them realize that their own flaws are not so weird. When I go over to someone’s house and it’s spotlessly clean, I feel kind of jealous and insecure. But crumbs on the counter and shoes in the hallway? On a gut level, I’m more comfortable. In this place, my psyche tells me, I won’t be judged. The same goes for your teaching: If you let someone else see you screw up, they will probably be more comfortable having you observe them. What happens next is you both start to take more risks, try new things. You cultivate a spirit of experimentation and learning together, rather than struggling to out-perfect each other.” (Gonzales, 2013)
- The Intangibles– This benefit is my personal favorite. It’s the benefit that you often don’t recognize as a benefit. This is about the subtle body language or glances a teacher makes. Or the wait time and how she organizes the sharpened and unsharpened pencils. It’s the way the kids use the glue sticks and always listen for the click when they close them to make sure the glue doesn’t dry out or the way the teacher engages his students in a read aloud. The intangibles are those “ah ha!” moments. I have left every classroom I have ever visited with something new to try or a way I could tweak my teaching that I could immediately implement in my classroom. I believe that often it is the “little things” that make all the difference in the classroom creating an optimal experience for both students and teachers.
- Bonus: A United Front– This one Gonzales describes so well in her own words, “Lastly, there’s one more beneficial side-effect that comes from peer observation: having your students see you together. Something powerful happens when students see their teachers together. You become larger than the sum of your parts, stronger not only in number, but because this simple show of cooperation tells them you are united, which is an important message to send to kids. In the same way that children feel more secure when their parents are getting along, students feel something similar when they see us support each other.” (Gonzales, 2013).
Keys to Successful Implementation
- Set ground rules
Will there be feedback? Will the teacher discuss what they observed with other teachers or administrators? Will the observer interact with the students or teacher? Do everyone have to participate? Set out some school ground rules for these teacher observations so that everyone knows what to expect and there are no surprises or miscommunications.
- Don’t make more work for teachers
When a teacher is expecting a visitor they may be tempted to be “extra” prepared, but this defeats the purpose. These observations are most valuable when they are authentic and not overly-planned. Only debrief or give/request feedback when both parties agree that it would be a a good use of time.
- Advertise observation availability and observing “wish list”
Pineapple Charts (see below) are a great way for teachers to advertise the lessons they are comfortable with being observed teaching and when they will be taught. However, I think it is equally important that the teacher doing the observing is vocal about what subjects/lessons/curriculum they would like to see being taught or used in the classroom.
In another blog post on the Cult of Pedagogy website, Jennifer Gonzales describes Pineapple Charts. I have never taught in a school that uses Pineapple Charts or heard much about them until I began researching this teacher observation topic. But they sure sound like a good idea! Here is a Pineapple Chart described by Gonzales and an example below from her blog post. “ A Pineapple Chart is a system that allows teachers to invite one another into their classrooms for informal observation. The chart is set up in some location where teachers go on a daily basis: the teacher’s lounge, the copy room, or wherever teacher mailboxes live in your school. On the chart, teachers “advertise” the interesting things they are doing in their classrooms, activities they think others might want to observe. The activities could be as complex as a science lab, a history simulation, or a Skype session with a school in another country. Or they could be as simple as a read-aloud or a lesson on badminton.” (Gonzales, 2016)
Image from: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/pineapple-charts/ (Gator Run Elementary, FL)
Gonzales, Jennifer (2013). Cult of Pedagogy Website (Retrieved on April 17, 2018) from: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/open-your-door/
Gonzales, Jennifer (2016). Cult of Pedagogy Website (Retrieved on April 18, 2018) from: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/pineapple-charts/
Iste.org. (2017) ISTE Standards for Educators. (Retrieved on 2018, April 17) from: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-educators