The Power of Peer Observation: Part II, The Practice

This year I decided to take a class. From a peer. During my planning period.  Yes, I’m learning a lot about Art History. But I’m learning just as much about how to be a master teacher.

In The Power of Peer Observation: Part I, I discussed the positive benefits of peer observation.  In this post, I would like to reflect on the power of a year-long observation in which I’m currently engaged. This year, I am taking an AP Art History class from one of my peers, Mr. Howard, during my planning period.  Mr. Howard is also our English Instructional Leader, so he has a full load of classes with three preps and a whole list of administrative duties as well.  He is skilled at managing administrative duties along with the tremendous demands of the classroom and remains positive and professional.

Within the first six weeks of being in the class, I learned an enormous amount about art history, but I also was reminded of how valuable it is to watch another teacher in action. It’s the best—yet most underutilized—embedded professional development available to teachers everywhere.

Here are four things I learned from observing Mr. Howard:

  1. Procedures and protocol are the most critical element of classroom management: Mr. Howard may look like a whirling dervish in action—he sings, he randomly shrieks if a student says something awesome, he breaks into a French-Cockney-New Jersey accent at various intervals—but his classroom runs with all the dots connected.  He has a very detailed curriculum. His syllabus is comprehensive and clear. His handouts are useful and engaging. All the students know where to turn in homework – in a simple cardboard box on a bookshelf by the door. All the students know where to pick up graded papers – in a hanging file folder marked with their name in the back of the class. All students know where to find the homework online if they forget to write it down—on his art history website.  He established the ground rules the first day and maintains the order and consistency by using these procedures every day in the same way.
  1. Being able to create a lesson or learning opportunities on the fly is vital.  If routines and protocols are the hallmarks of a good teacher, flexibility is the hallmark of a great one. Great teachers improvise when they sense that one part of a lesson has gone on too long or when an activity isn’t long enough.  They formatively assess on the fly, and then invent extemporaneously a re-teaching method. They can change instructional horses in the middle of the curriculum stream, and they don’t miss a beat. Here’s an example: Mr. Howard recently executed a lesson where groups of students compared and contrasted art works from different cultures and time periods.  As the groups were finishing the assignment, it occurred to Mr. Howard that if each group presented their findings, the presentations would burn an enormous amount of time he didn’t want to spend in class.  In a split second, he made a master teacher decision.  He jumped up, charged out in the hall and instructed students to tape their work on the lockers.  One person from each group then stood next to the poster to serve as docent.  The rest of the class took an analytical gallery walk, from station to station observing each groups’ work and listening to each docent’s comparison/contrast analysis.  Mr. Howard’s whole showcase element was conceived and executed on the fly. This spontaneity is the very thing that makes him a great teacher. His objective was met, his time was salvaged, and the groups were engaged and discussing art throughout the activity.
  1. Showmanship is mandatory if you are a high school teacher:  Good classes are a lot like a great show, a calculated performance that looks almost impromptu in the delivery.  Students should be engaged in their own learning, yes, but they should also look forward to coming to your class for the show alone.  Let your class be one where kids know something fabulous or funny or interesting is bound to happen every day. AP Art History is that kind of class, and Mr. Howard, as PT Barnum, is at the center.  He is a physical teacher, who runs the length of his white board, scribbling or flinging his arms wildly to make a point. He quotes lines from songs, movies, books and alludes to current events and popular culture while teaching 20,000 year old artwork. He tells stories that appear, on the surface, to be off topic, but he connects it to the content in a vivid and seamless way.  I am never, ever bored in his class. Neither are the students.
  1. Clear communication is the key to teaching.  As he passes out assignments, Mr. Howard directs the attention to what he’s doing: “I’m giving you reference notes and questions for discussion.”  This is procedural communication and must be delivered with clarity and utility. But the other side of this coin is the communication that explains to them what great looks like.  Before a Socratic discussion about a prehistoric piece of art, Mr. Howard says, “Today we will leave the realm of the advanced, soar above the realm of honors, go beyond AP. We are entering the realm of awesomeness right now. We are going to use ridiculously smart words to describe art today.”   When the student he calls on to offer an analysis of the art work hems and haws around a bit, he shouts, “Don’t degrade yourself.  Don’t show weakness!”  The class laughs, the girl struggles some more, but eventually, she articulates her point, she uses evidence, she succeeds in the realm of awesomeness. “Big words,” Howard shrieks.  “I need to hear big words!”

These four elements of effective teaching are hard to demonstrate in a sit-in-get professional development because there is no way you can measure or codified these instructional necessities.  These four things – procedures, versatility, communication, showmanship—can’t make any educational company, like Pearson, any money. There’s nothing to market. There’s no vendor for this. It’s just practice, practice, practice.   And watch others who are masters in their field.