Sunday, May 8, 2011

Opening up the classroom

Some stuff you can do without permission
Classroom in the Afternoon
Image from Thomas Favre-Bulle's Flikr Photostream

Last week I wrote about some ways you can use student evaluation without having to ask permission or reform the way your whole school runs. This week I want to try to do the same thing for classroom observations. Most teachers I speak to agree that watching someone else teach is a really powerful way of improving what you are doing. It is also incredibly useful to have a critical friend sit up the back of your classroom noticing things that you might miss. The conversations you can have when both teachers are there for the same class are going to be a much better influence on teaching than the usual staffroom recounts. Here are four ways to open up the classroom a little more that don't need any permission from administrators:

  1. Get a student teacher. Student teachers are probably the only teachers that most of us regularly have in our classrooms. They are inexperienced, but the good ones have fresh eyes and new approaches. And the nervous, struggling, scared ones will want to know how you do what you do so they will watch closely, ask you questions, and discuss afterwards. All of that stuff is gold in terms of seeing what you are doing more clearly.
    Taking on a student teacher as a mentor is a big commitment. So if that's too hard - steal someone else's. There is nothing sadder than a student teacher reading a novel on a free period because they can't find anything better to do. Invite them into your classroom so that they are seeing something new and different whenever they can.
    The nicest thing about student teachers is you can teach utter faceplant lessons in front of them in the safe knowledge that they'll be out of your school soon and not around to laugh at you.
  2. Team teach. If you have one of those accordion style foldback walls in your classroom let it live out its purpose and fold it back. Teach a big sprawling class of fifty with a friend and you'll probably both learn something. If you plan to do this on a regular basis you'll be on the way to improving as a team (the complete opposite of what's likely to happen with all of this teacher performance pay rubbish).
  3. Work it out with a friend. Send someone this post and suggest that you swap some classroom observations. Give them a specific date and time so that it doesn't all get lost in the hectic whirlwind.  Although teachers in schools rarely visit one another's classrooms there is a huge unmet hunger to do so. People in your school have heard rumours of what is going on in your classroom and they would probably love to see them confirmed - give them the opportunity.
  4. The cheat's solution - "Don't mind me". If there are no student teachers about, and your school is too unfriendly or you lack the confidence to invite someone else into your classroom you can always try the cheat's solution. Last year I taught a school yearbook class in a computer lab. Quite frequently I'd still be working on a page or filing photos when the next class came in. If you're on a computer at the back and clearly involved in what you are doing you can always stick your head up and say "Don't mind me". This way you get to be the uninvited guest in someone else's classroom.  Sure you're not getting the professional conversation or the feedback on your own teaching but it's a start. 

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