Understanding why so few American teachers observe each other

I’ve been reading over the results of the2009 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher.  One result which did not surprise me was that the majority of teachers and principals believe “greater collaboration among teachers and school leaders would have a major impact on improving student achievement.”  

The details about the kinds of collaboration, however, are pretty interesting.  The types of collaboration that are reportedly most common in schools today: “teachers meeting in teams to learn what is necessary to help their students achieve at higher levels; school leaders sharing responsibility with teachers to achieve school goals; and beginning teachers working with more experienced teachers.”

The least frequent type of collaborative activity? “Teachers observing each other in the classroom and providing feedback.” Less than one-third of teachers or principals report that this frequently occurs at their school.”  This gave me pause… Maybe because it hits close to home.

I personally believe teachers observing each other and providing feedback could lead to great progress. Administrators at my school often encourage teachers to visit one another in the classroom, both formally and informally.  Though it has happened before on various occasions, it never seems to stick as a practice.

Right now, I facilitate regular meetings among the middle school English teachers in my school.  We recently discussed the possibility of conducting inter-visitations.  We all agree it is a good idea, but admit that we somehow never get around to it when we are supposed to do it.  Time is always the excuse, but I’m not sure that’s really why, since we can easily cancel a meeting, as we’ve done in the past, to make time for it.

Since the survey results suggest that this roadblock exists on a national level, I’m taking some time to unpack my thoughts about what might be impeding the development of peer observations among teachers.

History: First, consider the history of classroom observations.  Teachers taught in isolation from one another.  The only people who generally came into classrooms were the principals. The purpose of those visits? To “supervise” the teacher most likely. Such visits had all the potential to undermine the authority and/or autonomy of the teacher, in ways both subtle and explicit.  Many principals have changed to a more supportive, less authoritarian approach to supervising teachers, but the taste of so many years of hierarchy lingers.

Even though peer-to-peer observations would seem to have nothing to do with this history, I have a hunch that most teachers still have “the principal’s visit” as their only frame of reference for hosting another adult in their classroom.  And frames of reference do matter.

Let’s pretend that the only pet you’ve ever known was a dog and that dog attacked you, more than once. Since that day, you haven’t liked dogs.  One day, your partner brings home a cat and tells you, “Relax, this is a completely different animal.”  Don’t you think you might be a little mistrustful, at least at first?  Better yet, let’s say your partner simply suggests that you get a cat.  Is it understandable that you’d be a little reluctant, or that perhaps, it wouldn’t be at the top of your list of things to do?

Art: Next, we have to come to terms with the fact that, as much as we’d like to treat teaching as a clinical practice–which is a helpful model in many ways–teaching is also extremely personal.  There is an art to it, and in the words of the great singer, Erykah Badu, “I’m sensitive about my sh**!”  We are sensitive about this work we put our heart, souls, and imagination into, as well as our brains.  Although there are many best practices from which we can learn, there is also the reality that what works in one moment might not work in the next.  What works for one student might not work for another.  What works for you might not work for me.

We teach in public schools, but having someone come into your classroom often feels more like having someone come to your home.  You want to make sure your dishes are done, dirty laundry is not lying around, etc.  You want to be ready.  I can’t fully explain why, but even when the plan is exactly the same, the art is a little different when it’s not just you and the students.

Spirit: Finally, we need to recognize that every single person in the room has a presence that affects the dynamic of the class.  The spirit with which a visitor enters a classroom can matter greatly, and the spirit with which the teacher responds to the visitor matters too.  Kids have keen observational skills, and they know when a visitor is judging them, or judging their teacher.  When a visitor enters and the teacher becomes nervous, kids know it.  Likewise they sense when an adult is there to support them and support their teacher.  When the teacher and students feel “seen” in a positive way, everyone responds in kind.

For example, my advisor from Bank Street College observed me regularly in my classroom through my first and second year of teaching.  She always brought such a positive attitude into the classroom and interacted well with my students.  She made us all feel like we were doing something important and special.  Even when things seemed to be going badly, she found positive things to focus on, as well as asking me questions about what I thought had gone wrong. This was tremendously helpful and gave me confidence with my students.  After a while, I learned to deliberately build on what was working, even when she wasn’t there to point it out.  As a mentor to a new teacher, I tried to emulate my advisor’s approach, always attempting to have a positive effect on her classroom while I was there.  This way I would see her at her best, and she would feel comfortable talking openly with me about her practice.

I have also been a subject in a number of research studies on teaching.  Mostly the observers have come in with a positive outlook that has a slightly positive effect, if any, on the classroom environment.  But I’ll never forget one researcher, who came in every week for a few months, and always sat with a scowl, taking notes furiously.  I had the feeling I was being judged, and I’d often feel angry after she left, though I never said a word about it.  Coincidentally–or not–it also seemed that class never went as well as I hoped when she was around.  After a while, my students started to feel judged as well. Even though she had introduced herself to the class at the beginning of the study as a researcher, my students started asking with a scowl that matched hers, “Who is that lady?”  Once a student asked her straight out, “Why are you here?

All this is to say that if we want to move in a direction where teachers are observing one another regularly, we need to do so in a way that recognizes all the layers that are at work in this shift.

Back at my school, the English teachers and I have decided that we will visit one another on an invitation-only basis.  That way we are each mentally prepared for the visit, and we can select lessons or classes we may want specific feedback on, rather than having someone pop in at random.  I think it’s important that we made that decision together, and that no one is forcing anyone.  I am curious what we will learn.

[image credit: websofvegas.com]

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