How Do Teachers Learn about Their Colleagues’ Teaching? Listening to Students

In previous posts, I have described and, yes, promoted teachers observing colleagues they admired and respected as practitioners. Such observations are direct ways of learning how colleagues teach and applying what has been learned to one’s practice. But there are also indirect ways teachers learn about how colleagues teach.

Fourteen years of teaching in three urban high schools taught me many things about teaching. I learned, for example, a lot about my fellow teachers not by watching them teach–I had no time to do so with a daily schedule of five 50-minute classes to teach–but by listening to students.

Every day, a number of students from my five classes came to my classroom before the school day started, during the one period of the day free of students in which I had to grade homework and plan, visited with me as I ate my bag lunch, and dropped by after school as I realigned desks and chairs in the classroom and erased chalkboards.

I was not an especially popular teacher but nonetheless there were always some current and past students who would come by to check on homework assignments, turn in late work, and or just wanted to chat. I found those moments both satisfying and educational. Satisfying in the sense that these students felt comfortable in telling me about their daily lives, dreams and fears. They taught me a lot about the mostly Black working and middle class families from which they came and the ever-changing neighborhoods in which they lived.

Educational in the sense that students also told me about teachers in the school they liked and disliked and why. Which teachers they admired and would turn in required assignments and which teachers they thought were just adequate or even poor, the latter being ones they would do the least amount of work to pass the course.

And this is how I learned a bit about how my colleagues taught.

How accurate these student descriptions of my colleagues were, I cannot say. Some readers could call it gossip and they would not be entirely wrong. Teachers who read this blog surely know that practitioners also gossip about their students.

I often heard co-workers in the faculty lounge (a large room where teachers ate their lunches, spent their “free” periods, and marked homework assignments and tests) talk about their students. I heard teachers praise and criticize students and gripe about the school and district administrations. Teaching issues such as discipline and textbooks occasionally arose but not enough for me to get any sense of how my colleagues taught their lessons. While student comments made me curious about how another English or biology teacher taught, there was no time to schedule a classroom visit to indulge that curiosity.

Most of all, then, over the course of a school day, I would hear snippets of how my students experienced lessons in colleagues’ classrooms. As sparse as that information was, students’ comments and gossip about fellow teachers’ lessons, I found, gave me a keyhole perspective into how my colleagues taught. Yet those tiny packets of information reduced my isolation from other teachers.

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