How Can Teachers Improve Their Teaching? Watch Colleagues Teach (Part 1)

Public school teachers are solo practitioners. Each one governs a separate classroom in a school. When bells chime to begin class, elementary school teachers close their doors and face 25 or more students six-plus hours a day, five days a week, 36 weeks a year; secondary school teachers interact for roughly the same amount of time each day with about 150 students as they march through the school year. Principals seldom get into their classroom to watch a lesson more than once or twice a year. Solo practitioners, then, are self-reliant, work alone, and have minimal supervision. The classroom, then, is a teacher and her students interacting as they go through a 40-50 minute lesson. Working in isolation from colleagues, however, in a demanding time-driven setting makes getting better as a teacher a task that is both ongoing and demanding for both novices and experienced practitioners.

Improving one’s craft comes from many sources (e.g., taking graduate courses, self-evaluation of lessons, school-based staff development, and peers). One often overlooked way of teachers learning new ideas and techniques is to observe colleagues whose craft and humanity they admire, respect, and trust. Teacher Jennifer Gonzalez described how she adopted and adapted techniques she had picked up from a colleague she observed. She is an exception. Most teachers seldom observe colleagues and tap into expertise just across the hall.

In U.S. elementary and secondary schools, of course, teachers gather during faculty meetings and special occasions such as district mandated professional development running half- or full days to improve how they engage students in the hard work of learning. But such required days of district professional development are seldom planned and implemented by teachers. Nor when planned by district administrators do they include classroom observations.

Surely, observing a fellow teacher elsewhere in the school or the district for a few lessons followed up with a discussion–without making judgments of a “good” or “bad” lesson—offers a splendid opportunity to learn new and, perhaps, better ways to carry off a reading, math, or science lesson while interacting with students. Teachers learning from teachers is an under-used resource in “professional development,” the jargony term for teacher improvement.

Ah, “professional development.” Depending upon available monies, district administrators schedule a few such days during the school year of lectures and workshops or school principals set aside an hour or so during the week at faculty meetings for staff to gather, listen to experts, and even schedule time for teachers to interact and share lessons. Yet of all the items on an administrator’s to-do list, teachers learning from one another remains near the bottom of tasks remaining to be done.

The fact is that in nearly all elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. (there are nearly 100,000 public schools), most of those 3 million-plus teachers are isolated and insulated from one another during the school day. They have little to no time to watch a colleague teach and discuss the lesson afterwards.

Just like medical doctors. The vast majority of physicians, once the medical version of a solo practitioner, have historically been solo practitioners owning their practice. Over time, however, they have become salaried employees just like teachers. Since the early 1980s, doctors practicing alone fell from four out of ten to just over one of ten. Yet even as salaried employees working in large clinics or hospitals, physicians still work in separate offices where one doctor observing another work with a patient remains a rare event.

U.S. teachers, then, are salaried solo practitioners in schools as small as 250 or as large as 3,000 students. In separate classrooms, they teach lessons and listen to individual students before, during, and after the school day. Being a solo practitioner six or more hours a day is unrelenting, enervating and, truth be told, a deeply and personally rewarding job. District school boards and administrators, of course, know this but too often ignore an inexpensive and available tool to improve teaching.

So why does the common approach to professional development often omit teachers observing each other’s lessons? An answer to the question begins with the prevailing way that U.S. schools across 13,000-plus districts organize themselves to accommodate the unforgiving fact that over 50 million students between the ages of 5-16 must attend school.

The age graded school and its demanding schedule of a teacher in each classroom staying with one group of children for an entire day except for recess,lunch, and physical education in elementary schools and for secondary school teachers teaching five periods out of a seven- or eight-period day–help explain the lack of time teachers have to observe nearby lessons. Reorganizing the daily schedule to permit teachers to observe and conference with one another and getting teachers to participate is a big deal that some school leaders and cadres of teachers may consider but more often than not, forego. The unforgiving, schedule-driven day in nearly all age-graded schools is a structure within which teachers work and students learn. Altering that structure to permit teachers to learn from one another during the school day is tough but not impossible. Doing so, then, is not a matter of “can’t;” it is, understandably, a matter of “won’t.”

And so being solo practitioners has its merits. But without professional interactions among teachers through observations and conferring over how they plan, enact, and assess their lessons–while avoiding judgments about “good” or “bad” teaching–a possible path to improved teaching is marred by structural potholes and detours.

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