Jun 21, 2012

Advice for a New Teacher: Watch Others Teach

A couple days ago, a certain math teacher/blogger put out a "Call for Advice for New Teachers." The response has been amazing so far, and I'd wondered at first what I could possibly contribute... But I decided to mention something that's been on my mind a lot for the past couple years.

I'll keep it quick, because lots of folks have already given remarkable advice, and and my suggestion is pretty simple: Every now and then, or even just once or twice during the year, sit in on another teacher's class and watch them teach.

A couple posts have alluded to this idea with advice like "engineer friendships," and "observe, observe, observe" in the case of advice to a student teacher, but I think the call to observe is equally relevant for anyone in the classroom. This seems to be one of those things that everyone agrees would be helpful but somehow doesn't actually happen all that often. Some schools have organized peer observation programs, but most don't, so it's usually up to the individual to give up a prep period to do something that will never, ever seem pressing. But it's worth it...

It doesn't have to be a teacher in your subject area, or someone who works with students who are the same age as yours. Simply getting out of your own class and into a fresh environment can be amazingly eye-opening. Lots of unexpected things can happen when you venture beyond the walls of your own classroom. If you witness students you teach working in another environment, for example, this can help you see their strengths in a different light and appreciate all the other classes they're taking simultaneously to yours. If you see students in a class that comes before or after yours in the school's year-to-year sequence, you'll get some perspective on where they're headed or where they've been. Heck, it doesn't even have to be a teacher who's all that fantastic. Some of the most valuable observations I've made have involved watching someone and cringing to myself, "Why, oh why, are they doing it this way??" and then realizing immediately afterward that I do exactly the same thing. The goal isn't necessarily to see models of how to teach effectively, although this will certainly happen. In my experience, it simply about shaking things up and giving yourself some fresh perspective.

If this kind of thing isn't common at your school, you'll have to muster some courage to make it happen. Make friends with folks at your new school, then brooch the subject casually at lunch ("Hey, does anyone ever do peer observations here?") Then, if your new friends seems receptive, try suggesting that you might stop by their class some day, at their convenience, with plenty of advance notice!! I've found that usually people are amazingly receptive, and even excited to have a visitor. You might even inspire them to sit in on a few others' classes, who'll sit in on a few others' classes, who'll sit in on a few others' classes...

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