Last summer I spoke with James Campbell, STEAM Interdisciplinary Specialist at Atlanta Girls School and, more importantly, host of Inspire 2 Impact — a podcast of “real conversations with real educators.” I am inspired by his work with design thinking and interdisciplinary work students and teachers, and I enjoyed sharing my story with him. You can listen here.
When I first joined our instructional rounds cohort, I came with a modicum of hubris. Most days, I am a very good teacher, some days an excellent one, and during a few off days, I am proficient. As a reflective practitioner, I re-examine my curriculum for ways to help students discover a social context for knowledge, to find connections between performing arts and science, history and visual arts, literature, and math, believing teaching needs crayons and computers, books and music, laughter and passion. And until my first instructional rounds observation, I was confident that my curriculum and my teaching were above reproach.
Then I received the first objective, dispassionate observation narrative of a lesson I taught, and the way I thought about my teaching was upended. Previous observation reports I received and those I had written were judgments of teacher effectiveness in the classroom. Most praised my rapport with students, my presence in the classroom, and the activities that structured my lessons. My own observations of teachers contained this same type of praise along with suggestions for engaging students in constructivist lessons. Yet the observation report I received while a member of this instructional rounds cohort was filled with narrative paragraphs of detached prose and direct quotations of my questions and my students’ answers. As a mirror, this report showed me that I had not de-centered my authority in the classroom, that I still directed lessons like a conductor directs her orchestra. Through the narratives, I saw myself in front of the classroom and drew my own conclusions from the experience of reading what others merely saw, not what they thought about the lesson.
Even more illuminative for me was how the observational process had me re-thinking my own observation practice. When I was head of a world language and literature department, I used observations and my reporting as evidence to reward good teachers and to point out deficits of those who were less effective. I once believed that making note of deficiencies and revealing these to those teachers in my charge were how we could improve teaching and learning. If I (or someone else) weren’t there to observe and judge, then how would teachers know if they were effective? How could teachers improve their practice if others weren’t in the classrooms judging their plans and the execution of those plans?
For me, now, this observation practice seems as archaic as lecture-based instruction; for this practice underscores an inherent hierarchy that can pit a teacher against her supervisor and ignore the philosophy that frames a learner-center approach to education. Teachers should be afforded the same voice and choice we give our students, especially when we think about evaluation. Allowing teachers opportunities to scrutinize their own practice in the similar way we allow students opportunities to reflect on their own performance can lead to deeper understanding of learning.