I believe it to be a great privilege to spend time in a classroom watching a good teacher at work. When in this situation I often find myself thinking about the approaches that the particular teacher being observed is using, sometimes commenting to myself that “I wouldn’t have done it like that,” or “I wish I had thought about doing things that way.” I suspect that as teachers we all tend to be critical of the performances of our peers, but hopefully our critical reflections are for the most part positive and as much focused upon ourselves as on those we observe.
So it was that today I spent time in two separate classes observing a couple of student teachers working with primary school aged students, all of whom had been assessed as having a range of special educational needs. In such situations I always feel that it is important to put the student at ease, a friendly smile and cheery hello can only go so far towards relieving the inevitable tensions felt, but not to give either would be churlish.
After watching each lesson it was a pleasure to discuss what had been observed and to listen to these excellent young colleagues as they talked with great enthusiasm about what they had learned during their brief placement in the school. Both articulated their experiences in a thoughtful manner, describing their many successes with the students, and asking questions about the few difficulties they have experienced along the way. Getting to grips with new forms of assessment, the use of augmentative systems of communication and school approaches to behaviour management had clearly presented a challenge. But these two tyros were clearly equal to the task and saw each new experience as an opportunity to learn.
Teachers in English schools have become accustomed to being observed as they work. Sometimes this is characterised by the creation of a supportive environment in which peers with a genuine commitment to their own professional development share ideas and reflect in a positive manner upon the performance of a colleague. At other times the experience lacks the supportive conditions that we as teachers claim to value so much in education; as for example when a school inspection is in place and teachers are scored rather like performing skaters on an icy rink.
I was once told by an inspector colleague, a good man and experienced educator, that teachers can learn much by being observed. I remember my repost was along the lines that it is equally important that we as observers, are prepared to learn from what we see. Furthermore, I suggested, the real value of the observation is only to be achieved when we engage in a professional dialogue with the observed teacher, and make the effort to understand the reasoning behind their actions, and the context in which we operate. Observations that are simplistically used to make judgements and do not form the basis of professional dialogue have little real value in education.
Each observation this morning lasted about forty minutes and was certainly an informative and enjoyable experience. The real learning, both from my perspective as the observer, and hopefully for the young student teachers, took place in the half hour discussions that we shared when the lessons were over.
As ever, my morning visit to school was an uplifting experience. Seeing children enjoying activities under the guidance of committed professionals in an atmosphere conducive to encouraging learning, ensured that my working day got off to a good start. So thank you to the two young teachers for the privilege of seeing you at work, and to the school which afforded hospitality to myself and continues to inspire both new teachers and students.
P.S. To my literary friends, I wish you a belated happy Bloomsday! If it seemed like a long day, reflect upon Joyce’s interpretation of the working week:-
“All Moanday, Tearsday, Wailsday, Thumpsday, Frightday and Shatterday” (Finnegan’s Wake)
If yours was really that bad, I suggest you go into your local school and (after gaining consent) watch a teacher at work – hopefully this will brighten your day!