Most new teachers, at some point in their training, get a chance to watch skilled teachers teach. Although providing few opportunities during institute itself, TFA does mandate that its inductees log a certain number of hours of classroom observation. Once I switched from TFA to a traditional credentialing program, observing the master teacher prior to teaching lessons ourselves was key component of our training Classroom observations are an essential part of almost all teacher training, but ultimately they aren’t that useful. Watching a master teacher in practice offers very little hints into what that teacher did, early in the year, to establish their rapport with students. Classroom observations of experienced teachers can make teaching seem deceptively easy.
What’s really necessary to understand how to teach better is to understand what poor teaching looks like. Sadly, for many people like myself that glimpse into poor teaching does not come until they face their first catastrophic failures in the classroom. Yet even then, many of the specific failures do not become clearly evident. Even after my tumultuous first year, it took me several years to analyze the specific mistakes I had made. What truly helps more than anything is the chance to watch and analyze other mediocre teachers, and examine where they are going wrong, and this can best be accomplished as an active participant in that lesson.
Last week I had the opportunity to watch a student teacher teach a lesson in the school where I am currently working as a long term substitute. Since that teacher was taking over my class for a period, I decided to take a different approach to the approach I have typically always taken for observations; this time I took a seat with the students and (as unobtrusively as possible), imagined myself as a student trying to learn the material. How would I have felt as a student in that room?
Imagining myself in the role of a student instantly changed my perspective on the lesson. The first thing I noticed was the teacher’s pacing back and forth. it was distracting and made him seem fidgety and uncomfortable with what he was teaching. And it instantly created the impression in me that the man was not confident and was not prepared to stand behind the importance of what he was teaching. I instantly felt my interest in the content diminish too. At the same time, the teacher was not instantly prepared and spent an unnecessary amount of time setting up materials that he could have prepared in advance. Once again, even I as an adult felt my interest in what he had to say diminish. If it wasn’t important enough to be prepared in advance, how important could the lesson be? I started to feel my mind wander.
Then it came: “Now you might think this is boring,” he began…and that was it. Only about a minute into the lesson, I had already received the official sanction from the teacher that I was free to consider what he was about to teach as “boring,” And I hadn’t even seen the lesson yet. Looking out over the other students in the class, I saw eyes start to glaze over, cellphones start to surreptitiously come out, and laptops (the school is very technology oriented) start to quietly open.
It became evidently clear to me right then what a million teaching books can tell you but can’t be really understood until it is experienced: members of an audience want someone who will stand behind what they have to say and will let them know right away why what they have to say is important. A good teacher needs to do that. Anything less and even the most motivated listeners will start to become frustrated and tune out.