Why you need to visit another classroom

It is so hard to get out of our classrooms these days. With the amount of grading, planning, meeting, and TEACHING that teachers accomplish on a daily basis it is no wonder that once you enter your classroom at 6:30am, you might only leave it to go to the bathroom around noon. These expectations seem to grow each year, too. Now there is a movement to force collaboration time on teachers that eats into more planning than ever before.

I actually really support the idea of collaboration between teachers. I even support the notion that schools can set an agenda and time aside for teachers to collaborate with each other. My issue comes from the reporting and oversight that some administrators feel they need to have over the process. I get why. I understand that administrators need to be able to demonstrate to their superiors that the time they are setting aside for collaborate is being well used and that there is some sort of measurable outcome from it. The reality though is that by enforcing a prescribed structure to collaboration and instituting a mandatory feedback process the result is that teachers feel threatened and fearful. Many fear that if they do not produce what administration thinks is collaboration, then their position may be in jeopardy. We need to shift the paradigm of administrators and school boards here to reimagine what collaboration time is really about.

Herein lies the problem. Collaboration does not always have a measurable outcome. To be creative and innovative in teaching means that you can not have a prescribed set of objectives. The organic growth of ideas by putting people together has to blossom, well, organically. Instituting a measurable outcome and goal for collaboration defeats the purpose of letting teachers learn from each other and innovate. You can’t tell someone they have to get together and create an innovation that is measureable and it needs to be implemented and tested by the end of the school year. That is setting up the process for failure from day 1.

A modest proposal

I chose to use my prep-time a little differently than most teachers in my building. While I would still organize and grade papers, plan lessons and work on other administrative stuff, I also reserved three periods out of five, every week, to walk the building and pop in and out of other teacher’s classrooms. I’d usually sneak in the back and sit at a table or just lean against the wall. Sometimes, if my colleague was O.K. with it, I’d take part in class as a student. I’d raise my hand and model inquisitive and curious behavior to kids in class. I propose that teachers be encouraged by administration to observe other teachers without having the burden of reporting back what they see. By not having to report, the teachers would be free to observe with no agenda and just absorb and process what they are seeing. This would in turn also let the teacher being observed not feel that would have to put a ‘dog-and-pony-show’ on. Just let the teacher teach and the observer observe.

Why would I do this?

I love watching other teachers teach. I love seeing how their actions and choices differ from mine. Each of us in the profession bring a different skill set to the content that we teach. By looking at a different class with a new set of eyes, often leads to discoveries and innovation when you least expect it. Sometimes I thought I’d like to learn something new so I would go to a science or math class, or a different grade’s english or history class. Just to learn about something new. It helped me immeasurably. You can’t put a measurable outcome or SMART goal on observations like this. This is where teaching is an artform. You can only learn from watching the masters while they are in the moment. I can not tell you how many things I have stolen from other teachers in my building. Different ways of answering (or not answering) student questions, classroom management tips and tricks, formats for handouts and assessments are all just scratching the tip of the iceberg of some of the things I have directly benefitted by watching master teachers in action.

The next step

I would always try and follow up with whomever’s class I was lucky enough to sit in on. I would usually try to stop by in the morning and just talk shop. This is where collaboration and innovation really happens. It is in the small moments of questioning and reflecting that we get answers and new ideas from what we had witnessed the day before.

Visit other teachers when they are teaching during your planning periods. You will see things you never thought could directly apply to your teaching in ways would could never imagine. Inspiration and motivation to become a better teacher will be staring you straight in the face.

I wish administrators would encourage it more. I also wish that teacher unions and administrators could work out how this kind professional development should be worded in contracts…. but that is a rant for a different day.

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