What Do Teachers Know about How Colleagues Teach? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, Jennifer Gonzalez described why she observed other teachers and what she learned. This post continues her description and analysis.

Here are some reasons why:

Reason 1: Seeing Each Other Succeed

Because teaching is such a complex act, the variations in how we do it are endless. We discipline differently. We set up our space differently. We perform strategies in different ways. It’s highly likely that someone else in your building is better at something than you are. By watching the way our colleagues teach, we pick up tricks and techniques that we can take into our own rooms.

On the receiving end, there’s something really satisfying about having a peer notice something you’re doing right. In our work, we rarely get positive feedback on the things we try so hard to perfect. I have definitely never had a student approach me after class and say, “Girl, that anticipatory set was off the hook!” The teachers in my school asked, “Who am I to tell someone else what they’re doing wrong?” And here’s my answer: You are experts. You are experts because you have been there, tried that, had the same struggles. So many people don’t understand what it’s really like to be a teacher. But you do. That’s your expertise. Put a state senator in my class, have him compliment me on incorporating the Common Core in my lesson. Nice, but doesn’t mean a whole lot. Now, a compliment from you? You know. You tell me you liked the gesture I used to illustrate a difficult concept? That’s gold to me. Your feedback means more. So how about we all start holding our own opinions in higher esteem, okay?

Finally, there’s the bonding: Watching another person deeply involved in the work they’re trained for helps you get to know them on a completely different level. And though we work together, we usually follow parallel, rather than intersecting lines. We rarely ever actually see each other teach. And it’s a shame, because every time I’ve observed a colleague, my admiration for them has grown, and each time, I felt a little closer to them. This is something we could use more of in every workplace — educational or not.

Reason 2: Seeing Each Other Fail

How can seeing each other fail be a positive? To start with, we return to the subject of bonding.

The hardest part of letting other people watch you teach is the possibility that you’ll screw up. Then you’ll be embarrassed. Because of this fear, we think we should postpone observations until we are super-prepared, until we have the perfect lesson ready to go.

Here’s the irony in that: You being perfect makes other people hate you a little, and themselves a lot. Or maybe it’s the reverse. Anyway, achieving something close to perfection is pretty damaging in a lot of ways. Conversely, letting people see some of your flaws creates greater intimacy. It makes them realize that their own flaws are not so weird. When I go over to someone’s house and it’s spotlessly clean, I feel kind of jealous and insecure. But crumbs on the counter and shoes in the hallway? On a gut level, I’m more comfortable. In this place, my psyche tells me, I won’t be judged. The same goes for your teaching: If you let someone else see you screw up, they will probably be more comfortable having you observe them. What happens next is you both start to take more risks, try new things. You cultivate a spirit of experimentation and learning together, rather than struggling to out-perfect each other.

Apart from the bonding aspect, failure can lead to constructive criticism, which will help you grow. Someone once said that the real benefit of marriage is having someone in your life who will regularly call you on your crap, who will hold up a mirror so you can face your flaws and outgrow them. In our work, we can do for each other what spouses do on their good days: Gently point out areas for improvement and support each other through the growing pains.

Reason 3: The Intangibles

Every time I observe another teacher, I discover something I’m not even looking for. In my first year, I spent one class period observing Sue, another 6th grade language arts teacher. I was there to see how she conducted a writer’s workshop, but something else she did made a much bigger impression on me.

That first month, I obsessed about establishing order in my classroom: I thought I had to have them all in their seats when the bell rang, pencils sharpened, quiet, ready to learn. If I told them to take out their writing folders, they should have them out and ready in less than 20 seconds. But every time, three or four kids would just drag through the process, or they’d get off-task, or they wouldn’t hear me at all, lost in daydreams. None of the precision I was hoping for. And I got tense about it. I scolded and nagged. And I felt insecure, like less of a teacher, the only one the kids didn’t respect.

So there I was in Sue’s class, and the first thing I noticed was that when she told them to get their writing folders out, they moved slowly, too. And one kid got up and sharpened his pencil, even though they should have already done that. And another one walked up to Sue to ask her something privately – another aberration in the plan! – and through it all, she just sat on her stool at the front of the room, mellowed out, waiting. For me, this was nothing short of a miracle. I had never considered not freaking out to be an option.

So much of what we gain from watching each other teach falls into this “intangible” category: attitudes, pacing, small calibrations that make things work a little better. And it happens especially when you observe people who teach the same students you teach. If you are in elementary, go along with your students to specials every now and then and see how that teacher deals with them. In middle school, arrange to have your class covered on a test day so you can observe someone else on your team. Seeing your students with another person gives you ideas you never would have come up with on your own.

Bonus: A United Front

Lastly, there’s one more beneficial side-effect that comes from peer observation: having your students see you together. Something powerful happens when students see their teachers together. You become larger than the sum of your parts, stronger not only in number, but because this simple show of cooperation tells them you are united, which is an important message to send to kids. In the same way that children feel more secure when their parents are getting along, students feel something similar when they see us support each other.

This principle applies all the way through college, and could be more significant at that level. Adult students may be more likely to challenge their instructors, perhaps because there’s less of an age difference, or because their life and work experience could result in a lack of innate respect for your position. The occasional presence of another professor or instructor in the room reminds students you are part of a larger group that has some authority, that others have your back.

Getting Started

You don’t have to wait for your school to set up a formal system of peer observation to start watching other teachers. In fact, the more spontaneous visits often yield the most interesting insights. Ask another teacher if you can grade papers in the back of his room during your planning period. Or if time is short, just come in for the first fifteen minutes.

And let your peers know your door is open. Some schools have instituted a “pineapple welcome” program, encouraging teachers to occasionally hang a picture of a pineapple — a traditional symbol of welcome — outside their doors, to let peers know it’s a good time to drop in….

To make observations go more smoothly, consider these tips: Decide ahead of time if feedback will be given. Some people are more likely to let you observe if you’ve agreed in advance that you won’t offer any commentary on what you see. Sure, they won’t grow from that arrangement, but it’s a step some people need to get more comfortable with the process. If you have agreed to provide feedback, always start with positives. When you do offer criticism, just point out one or two very specific things, and be descriptive rather than judgmental: When you did ______, these students did _______.

And be cautious about participating. It’s tempting sometimes to pipe up with a comment – after all, you’re likely one of the most engaged people in the room – but resist that urge and wait to be invited. I’ve seen teachers who overdo this and end up hogging all the airtime to the detriment of the students.

I still prefer to teach with the door closed, because cutting out distractions is high on my list of needs. And if it’s important to you, by all means keep yours closed too, but close them only in the literal sense. You can have an open-door policy and still have a closed classroom door: Just let your peers know when they are welcome.

Ours is a delicate, nuanced art, and though books and workshops offer all kinds of interesting ideas for how we can improve that art, the resources that lie behind every door in your school can offer something even richer, if you’re brave enough to let each other in. 

Gonzalez urges peer observation when a teacher believes it will aid her. And, as she says, peer observation has helped her considerably as a solo practitioner. But she is in a small minority of the three million-plus teachers in the U.S. who have opened their doors to colleagues to learn more about their teaching.

Peer observation is one of the ways that teachers learn about how their colleagues teach. And seeing other teachers who you respect, even admire, is a way of improving one’s own practice. But given the organizational and political barriers inherent to public schools, a teacher seeking improvement on her own needs bravery, even courage, as Gonzalez points out, to arrange observing a colleague.

The next post takes up other ways that teachers come to know how other solo practitioners teach.


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3 responses to “What Do Teachers Know about How Colleagues Teach? (Part 2)

  1. Beverly Carter

    One of your best, Larry.

    On Sat, Jul 9, 2022 at 1:00 AM Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom

  2. Pingback: Watching Colleagues Teach (Part 2) | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

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