First Day Observations: Pulling Back the Curtain To See the Wizards

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School started for real today.

I like the way my school does opening day. When the weather is nice, the homeroom teachers stand in the schoolyard with picket-like signs bearing class numbers and wait for their students to arrive.

Administrators, counselors, and non-homeroom teachers like myself roam the schoolyard with lists of all the students and their assigned classes so we can direct new students and those who’ve forgotten their assignments to the right place.

Everyone is very excited and the whole scene takes on the atmosphere of a reunion. It is fun to see students returning and to meet those arriving for the first time. The former are confident, smiling and effusive while the latter group is less sure of themselves and somewhat wary.

Parents of returning students greet teachers warmly (for the most part) while those we meet for the first time seek reassurance and answers to questions about uniforms, supplies and dismissal times. I linger in the yard with a box of tissues to disperse to happy or overwrought parents for drying their tears.

We all feel good about school for a while, and it is always interesting to see how long that good feeling lasts. I rarely get up to the third floor of our building, but on our second floor that good feeling made it all the way through the day.

I taught my first general education class this afternoon and found out that sixth graders can be polite and coherent and that some know way more about Mayan civilization than I do. That last bit is actually no big accomplishment, but I came away impressed and much more relaxed about having 34 students in the class instead of the 12 I got used to teaching special ed.

I roamed from class to class in our academy of five classes, one general education class for each of our three grades (6,7,8) and a self-contained special education class in the two lower grades. I’ll be teaching social studies to the 6th and 8th grade general education classes and reading to the two special education classes as well as another from a different academy.

All the teachers in our academy conveyed the same information about uniforms, procedures, trips, activities, and more, and it was interesting for me to wander from class to class and see the differences in delivery

I’m starting my sixth year teaching and today was the first time since student teaching that I could watch another teacher conduct a class.  I don’t know what the students learned today, but I got great insight into the teaching personalities of my colleagues.

This is not how it should be.

Teachers need to be able to see each other teach. We need to see what works and what doesn’t. We need to hear how a lesson is delivered, or observe how technology is used.

Almost all the proposals for making schools better have some language about spreading best practices. The more extreme ideas include taping a skilled teacher delivering a lesson and showing that lesson to students around the country.

That suggestion ignores the fact that one of the prime predictors of student achievement is the quality of the relationship between student and teacher.

Putting the silly proposals aside, there are still powerful reasons for having teachers watch each other.

But despite the almost universal approval of interclass and interschool observation it almost never happens because if I’m going to watch you teach someone else has to cover my class since I won’t be in it.

Coverages are expensive in dollars and student learning. No one wants to bear either cost.

That’s the funny thing about this whole discussion of improving education. It goes on and on and on despite no one having any intention of making any real changes.

You see, real change is expensive and, as I said in my last post, if it works they pull the money rug out from under you.

As one of my colleagues responded, it makes no sense to punish schools for doing better.

Nope. No sense at all.

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5 Responses to First Day Observations: Pulling Back the Curtain To See the Wizards

  1. Linda704 says:

    Another great post, Deven. You are so right. Even as a coach, when I go into other teachers’ classrooms, I learn new things which I bring then to others. When I see great teaching, I think about how I wish I could “bottle it” to share.

  2. kchichester says:

    I don’t think I’ve watching anyone else teach in 20+ years. Wish I could, but there is no time. My first day spent with 4 9th & 10th grade Special Ed ELA classes, scheduling/rescheduling students on my caseload, schedule/begin paperwork for a Manifestation Review, and begin one other student’s MET. Special Ed teachers have too much extra paperwork. I wish I had more time to develop dynamic, differentiation lesson plans. – It’s been a long day.

    • Deven Black says:

      You amaze me, Karen. I get tired just reading about your day. I know I’m going to have to keep on top of record-keeping and portfolio management for my 70 or so gen-ed students, but not having to write IEPs and do the obsessive assessing and record keeping they require will more than make up for the new work.

  3. Michael J says:

    “The more extreme ideas include taping a skilled teacher delivering a lesson and showing that lesson to students around the country” is very silly. We agree on that.

    But what do you think of “showing that lesson to teachers around the country.” I think it would be a great PD if teachers could get a chance to talk about what worked, what didn’t and how what worked could be used in their own classes.

    If the videos were posted at YouTube and connected to either a twitter stream or an ed focused wiki, like English Companion, it seems to me it would be a reasonable way to scale professional mentoring, without the cost and time sink of most PD.

  4. Deven,

    I agree heartily. I was lucky enough to be a teaching intern in Philly before becoming a teacher. Interns worked full-time in a classroom with a tenured teacher while taking certification courses. Our real purpose was to reduce class size. Rather than hire another teacher, the school could pile up a class with over 32 kids and then bring an Inter in to help the teacher. Sometimes I worked with more than one teacher during the day. Of course, the program is no longer–it was a great one.

    I learned more in that year and a half, watching how other teachers delivered content, organized their room, managed their classroom, assessed student progress, than any education course or even my (useless) student teaching ever could have. I was fully prepared for entering my own classroom in Philadelphia and I knew ‘the system’ better than any other 1st year teacher in the building.

    Now, 5 years after getting my own classroom, I have not had the luxury of watching other teachers teach. We have ‘observation days’ allowed through our contract, but you can’t take them in your own school, and the only time I’ve ever used one was to go on a job interview!

    So sad that everything, in the end, comes down to money, not what benefits our kids!

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