If you would have asked me how my teaching was going during any of the first three years of my career I would have sheepishly replied that “everything was going great” but in truth I was overwhelmed and was doing my best to stay at least one step ahead of my students. I wasn’t simply the duck who on the surface looked calm and in control while paddling frantically underneath the surface. No, I was more like Minnesota’s state bird, the Common Loon; at times I looked calm on the surface while paddling frantically underneath, and at times I simply dove into the water because I felt isolated and completely lost in this most difficult job. Trying to figure out what I was doing tomorrow and trying to get materials ready was my first priority; frankly there was no time to give serious thought to the actual practice of teaching. I wanted to become a better teacher but I really had no idea how to go about doing that.
My first teaching job was in a middle school which was built in the early 1970s during a time when the ‘open school’ concept was trending. The school had very few walls which separated one ‘teaching space’ from another. The teachers who had been there since the building opened talked about how you could stand at one end of the building and see all the way to the other. This was a learning community – think of the West African proverb, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and you begin to understand the theory which fashioned the building. The teachers who opened the building talked about how in the first couple of years, even the secretarial and administrative staff were in the open environment where the ringing of telephones and the occasional student being sent to the see the Principal provided frequent distractions. Gradually this open environment was remedied with a few walls, windows, and other structures, but for the most part it remained a very transparent setting.
In my fourth year, I was moved from an isolated classroom at one end of the building (the classroom doubled as a music space) to one of the common teaching spaces in another part of the building. I went from having a desk by myself in an isolated classroom to having a desk among nine other teachers and around us were several open classrooms. Some of the teachers taught English, some taught Math, while the rest of us taught Social Studies. It was here where I began to develop my teaching practice.
It is important to state that teaching experience and practice are not the same. Many people think they are synonymous; they are not. “Experience means you are simply engaged in the activity. Practice means you are trying to improve your performance.” (Willingham, 2009:149) I was developing my teaching practice and for the first time in my career I was surrounded by teachers who I could talk with about my teaching and (due to the open environment) I could watch other teachers, teach. Now, almost twenty years later I can better understand the effect this ‘teaching laboratory’ had on my practice.
I’m not advocating that we should pick up a sledge hammer and knock out the walls of our schools. This open structure wasn’t ideal and was frequently challenging. I remember on several occasions one of the math teachers would stop mid-lesson, walk over to my area and ask me to lower my voice because she couldn’t compete with the volume. Showing any video in this environment to supplement your lesson was considered taboo because it was likely to distract the other lessons taking place around you. No, I like having a contained classroom where I can use my voice to inspire, challenge, question, and encourage my students and I like being able to supplement lessons with video without being tapped on the shoulder because it’s too loud and distracting. But what should be knocked down are the invisible barriers which limit and sometimes prohibit the development of our teaching practice.
From my centrally located desk I could see five different teachers in their classrooms. I was able to observe their teaching and how they interacted with students. If I stood up from my desk I could see three more classrooms and watch those teachers as well. I witnessed good teaching practice and I witnessed teaching practice which was not-so-good. But perhaps most importantly I was able to work with two other teachers who were true professionals. I observed how these teachers thought and talked about their practice and from their discussions I learned how they continually worked to improve their teaching.
In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, Daniel T. Willingham defines teaching practice as an activity in which you are engaged but also an activity you are continuously trying to improve. He identifies several ways to do this; the first way is to get feedback from knowledgeable people. He mentions how writers seek criticism from editors, and how coaches provide feedback to their players, and how good teachers provide rich feedback to students, all in an effort to help them improve. Yet, as teachers we rarely seek or receive regular constructive feedback from sources who are knowledgeable enough to provide the kind of feedback you need to improve.
Willingham, a cognitive scientist, acknowledges that, “It’s true that teachers get feedback from their students. You can tell if a lesson is going well or poorly, but that sort of feedback is not sufficient because it’s not terribly specific. For example, your students’ bored expressions tell you they aren’t listening, but they don’t’ tell you what you might do differently.” He goes on to explain that “You are busy teaching and don’t have the luxury of simply watching what is happening in your classroom. It’s hard to think about how things are going when you’re in the middle of trying to make them go well!” (Willingham, 2009:150)
It was while working with this group of teachers early in my career that I received rich, honest feedback about my teaching. They could observe my lessons and my interactions with students on a very regular basis. I could ask questions about my practice and about their practice and a professional trust developed between us.
I also observed how these teachers prepared to teach each day. I remember how each morning one colleague in particular would move from his desk and go and sit in his empty classroom. He brought with him his student rosters, seating charts and his lesson plan. His lesson plan wasn’t terrifically detailed; it would have received criticism from researchers. But it was enough for him to think about what his objectives were for the lesson and how he aimed to help his students achieve the lesson targets. He sat there enjoying his morning coffee, thinking about his lesson and considered his students in each class and how he would teach them. In contrast, I was usually running to the copy room for materials and rushing into the classroom just before the bell. Even today I have to stop myself from sifting through email and running to the copy room when I should be thinking about my lesson in advance of entering the classroom.
Later in the day these colleagues would hash over the lesson they had taught earlier. Others would chime in with their observations. Often these conversations were brief but the feedback was regular and thoughtful and presented in manner which allowed for improvement of practice. This situation was unique and I often think about those experiences and how they influenced my teaching practice.
But how can teachers improve their practice in their current environments? How can teachers receive regular and critical feedback about their teaching? Willingham suggests that teachers find another teacher (or two) with whom you would like to work. “Naturally it would help if this person teaches the same grade [or content area] as you do. More important however, is that you trust each other, and that your partner is as committed to the project as you are.” (Willingham, 2009:153) I would also suggest that schools afford structures which allow this relationship to exist. Often schedules and other duties make these potential relationships difficult to maintain.
Willingham also suggests that you video tape your lessons and watch the footage alone. “Watch these tapes with a notepad in hand. Don’t begin by judging your performance. Consider first what surprises you about the class. What do you notice about your students that you didn’t already know? What do you notice about yourself? Spend time observing. Don’t start critiquing.” (Willingham, 2009:153)
Once you have grown accustomed to watching your own teaching then Willingham suggests that you and your teaching partner watch other teachers either on tape on in their classroom. Afterwards, have a critical discussion about what you observed and talk about how the observed practices can be improved. This will help in determining if your relationship with your teaching partner is positive and if there is enough trust to continue. The next step would be, with your partner, watch and comment on each other’s video-taped lessons. Be supportive and focus on behaviors. “The teacher whose tape is being viewed should set the goal for the session. She should describe what she would like the other to teacher to watch for in the session.” (Willingham, 2009:155)
Willingham also suggests a final point to this process. “The purpose of watching your partner teach is to help her reflect on her practice, to think about her teaching. You do that by describing what you see. Don’t suggest what the teacher should do differently unless you are asked. You don’t want to come off as thinking you have all the answers. If your partner wants your ideas about how to address an issue, she’ll ask you, in which case you should of course offer any ideas you have.” (Willingham, 2009:156)
We have tried to facilitate a similar process at our school. With video camera in hand I asked a few teachers if I could video tape their lesson. I then edited the video to identify specific formative assessment practices which we could share and discuss with colleagues. Many commented that this process was helpful and they also appreciated the focus on the pedagogical practices. While this process does facilitate the observation of practices, it is more difficult to solicit rich feedback because when viewing in a large group setting as we did, the key aspect of trust between teacher and observer hasn’t been developed.
Finally Willingham offers some ideas for improvement of practice which can be managed alone such as keeping a teaching diary. Writing in a diary or journal is an inherently reflective exercise. You can “make notes that include what you intended to do [during your lesson] and how you thought it went.” (Willingham, 2009:157) It’s also good to look back at previous entries and reflect on your practices over time.
At our school we have tried to facilitate something similar by offering a weekly survey of formative assessment practices. Teachers can look through a list of practices and indicate if they used that practice in their classroom during that week. They can also write other reflections about their practice if they want. Over time there is a record of their practice which they can reflect upon and perhaps identify areas of their teaching which they would like to improve.
Certainly there are many other ways for teachers to improve their practice, not just in their pedagogy but also within their knowledge of content. I’m intrigued by the uses of technology and how the teaching community is much more connected now than at any time in history. There are some great websites which facilitate interesting thought and dialogue about teaching practice from a variety of educators. One such site is The Educator’s PLN (Personal Learning Network) which houses a variety of resources as well as a collaborative platform for teachers to engage with each other. There are many blogs and other websites which cater to a variety of education and teacher related topics.
Indeed, the risk of being isolated in this profession, as I once felt, has diminished. Teachers who truly want to improve their practice can create a similar, albeit virtual, environment to what I experienced when I was moved to into that group of colleagues several years ago. Schools have a responsibility to remove barriers which may inhibit this growth, but ultimately teachers must choose to improve their teaching practice.