Monday, November 5, 2018

Watch Me Work
Why would the vampire make a terrible teacher?

Because he has no reflection.

*pause for laugh*

I recently was given the opportunity to observe a second grade class and a kindergarten class, and those two teachers observed my fourth grade class. The three of us are a core group of teachers trying to implement a program at my school, one that is being implemented all through the district, who's aim is to help teachers improve not through evaluations but through observations and reflections which are driven by and asked for by the teachers themselves. It's completely voluntary and teacher-guided. There are no evaluative aspects to it aside from those the teacher chooses to put on themselves. Nothing goes to admin. It's purely a way for teachers to work with other teachers to improve practice. I think it's a great idea, which is why I'm a part of it. 

There are two possible ways to go about this. The first is the teacher videos themselves teaching a lesson, and then that teacher and one of the three of us take some time and we watch the video. The teacher sets out what their goals for the lesson were, how they think it went, and so on. Our purpose is non-evaluative. We ask guiding questions only, helping the teacher reflect. 

The second is observations. And this can be split into three types- either the teacher is observed with the purpose of reflecting with the group after the observation and in that way learning about their practice. Or the teacher is observed by other teachers who want to learn from that teacher, after which a reflection still occurs but with a slightly different goal. Or the teacher observes others with the goal of stealing ideas to better improve their own practice. OR some combination of those three, which is predetermined by the teacher with the help of us, who are guiding the observations.

Now, personally, I prefer the first way. I feel that the best way for me to get better at teaching is to actually see myself teach. This, I think, best allows me to strip away any ego or artifice and see what I'm doing while having to explain to myself and someone else why and how it worked. With all the evidence right there in front of me. But that's me, and I know myself well enough to know that it's unsurprising that the one that speaks to me is the one where I get to watch myself. Read into that whatever you please. I know who I am. 

That is in no way to say I don't see the value of observations, be they to learn, to demonstrate, to reflect, or to steal. This can be just as powerful a tool. But the observation I did with the second grade and kindergarten teacher had me wondering something based on the conversation we had afterwards. The conversation, by the way, is equally as important as the observation, if not more so. How often has someone come into your room for some reason, watched, left, and all you got was a nice note, "Thanks for letting us come in! It was great!" Yeah, that's not helpful at all. You were there, give me feedback. Feed me, Seymour! 

In our conversation both the second and kindergarten teacher mentioned that, while they enjoyed being in my room and observing me teach, and the conversation helped me, they felt there wasn't as much they could take from my room to apply to their own. At least not directly. And that makes sense, especially for the kindergarten teacher, I think. There is a multiverse of difference between how a kindergarten classroom has to be run vs the myriad ways a fourth grade classroom could be run. My room is very loosey-goosey, especially compared to many other rooms. I'm working hard to instill a sense of independence in my kids and, as such, there's a lot of freedom practice that simply isn't developmentally appropriate for kinders. Yes, I can see you in the back waving your hand to tell me that kinders can be independent and I know that. I live with one. But a room of 30 of them needs a level of structure that is not as necessary in fourth grade. I don't think this is that contentious a position to take. So while she liked what I was doing, they specific things she was looking for during that observation, like routines, did not jump out as brightly to her as things she could adapt to her own room. Certainly not like things we saw in the second grade room. 

And the second grade teacher also had a harder time seeing routines in my room she felt she could adapt to her own room. But, and I want to be clear there is zero judgement in this statement and I have the utmost respect for how this teacher does her thing, she and I are very different teachers. Her room is super organized and clean and there are expectations in her room that are not important to me in mine. Doesn't make me better, doesn't mean that I'm suggesting she's not a good teacher. We're different. 

I, however, saw things in both the kinder and second grade rooms that I thought I could adapt to my own. They both had incredible transitions. The kids were on top of it. Not that mine aren't. Mine are just...louder about it. After fourteen years of teaching I've accepted that is a Me thing, not a My Students thing. The kinder teacher, thirty seconds after we got into her room, told a student who was trying to tattle/tell another kid what to do, "I boss myself, I help my friends." As soon as she said that I, out loud, said, "Ohhhh, I'm using that tomorrow!" Then I got shushed by a five year old. The second grade teacher's room had a station rotation that I've always wanted to do, but never felt organized enough to truly put into practice deeply. I saw how she did it and it started the old mind a bubbling about how I could break it and rebuild it in mine own image. 

The second grade teacher and kinder teacher, however, said they saw a lot in each other's rooms they could use. 

This is my question. Or series of questions and subquestions. And I'm not sure there are correct answers.
  • Is it better to observe up or down in grade level? For example, if you teach 4th grade is it better to observe 5th or 3rd? 
    • At what point, if any, does the gap become too large to be useful? Could a high school teacher mine things from a kinder teacher, and visa versa? If the answer to that is no, then at what point working backwards would the gap be effective?
  • Even with the ability to see your bias, call it out, and know it, are there some rooms or teaching types that you simply would not get much out of? For example, if you are a hyper-organized fourth grade teacher and you come into my room, and you're a mature adult who is able to see the value in things done differently than your way, would that be more or less effective for you than coming into a room taught by a teacher who aligns closer to your own style? 
    • (My initial response to this one is it's better to see something very different to get as wide a view as possible so you know as much as possible, but is that actually better for my practice? Wouldn't it be easier, and therefore easier to implement in my classroom, if I watched someone who was closer to my own style?)
  • Is it better to observe or be observed in order to improve your practice, assuming the conversation afterwards is open, honest, goal-driven, and reflective.
I think teachers talking to teachers about teaching is the best way to get better at teaching. It's better than any expert or professional development could possibly be, with the caveat (which I may have disagreed with as recently as last year) that first the teachers have at least some training in how to have those reflective conversations. Yes, I know how to talk to teachers about teaching, I know how to help student teachers become better, but reflective conversations with peers, conversations with specific purposes and goals, those are harder than they sound. 

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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