How to Learn from Other TeachersSeptember 21, 2017
I think the most frustrating thing for me about teaching is the isolation.
Not just the physical isolation of our classroom spaces–being the only one who seemingly holds our role in the room, alone as the adult–but also the way that we never get to see one another practice our craft.
We rarely get to see other teachers teach.
As a result, most of our information about what other teachers are doing comes from secondary sources–our students, their parents, our colleagues, or, more professionally, from books, articles, blogs, or journals.
What would education look like if we changed this?
In my many roles this semester, I’ve gotten to be in lots of West Virginia classrooms. As a supervisor of English Ed interns, I’ve gotten to visit 7th graders and their teachers. As a teacher of preservice teachers, I’ve gotten a glimpse inside the myriad classrooms they’ve been placed in. And as a substitute teacher, I’ve gotten to “be” ten different practitioners so far this year.
I love, love, love going into these other classrooms. From the first impression I get from the empty space, to the first students who walk in the doors, to the ways I see teachers and students interacting as I study them–I love all of it.
There is beauty in every single classroom in West Virginia.
Getting to see all of these learning environments supports, strongly, the idea that no two teachers will ever teach alike. There is value in that truth–if the instruction we value for our students involves choice, authenticity, rigor, and relevance, then the instruction we want our teachers making involves those things too. That means providing time and training and encouragement for teachers to design their own curricula, assessments, and and products.
Because we don’t live in a perfect world, many teachers don’t get to do those things–but what does become reality is the fact that no two classrooms are alike, nor should they be.
What we can do is embrace that reality and learn from each other. Collaboration is a goal for many of our students’ thinking; why not apply it to our teachers’ learning, too? Here are four ways you might do this with your colleagues soon.
Ask Questions. As you’re enjoying your school’s delicious lunch special in a tiny student desk with your teacher friends, don’t just talk about what happened last on The Walking Dead. Ask questions: what are you guys working on this week? How do you approach grading that? What struggles are your students having? Where do you wish you could improve?
These questions help not just the asker, but the answerer, too. How many times do we actually get to talk about the pedagogical aspects of our work? I know when I tell stories over the dinner table I don’t talk about my methodology or lesson planning. I talk about the kid who tooted incredibly loudly in the middle of an active shooter drill, causing the whole class to burst out laughing in the dark classroom (that happened yesterday). Asking questions helps us learn not just about one another, but about our own teaching, as well.
Observe One Other. It can be tough to fit everything a teacher has to do into 24 entire hours, let alone the free moments we get in a school day. But take some time, even if it’s just once a month, to pop into a friend’s classroom on your lunch, plan period, or PLC bell. Just see what they’re up to for 15 minutes and learn from them–the way they arrange their space, the precision of their language, how they have kids organizing materials, or who and what and how they’re teaching.
We can always learn from one another, even across content areas. Invite others into your room, too; you never know what good someone else’s eyes might see that yours have missed.
Share Resources. Standing in line at the copy machine? Have a glance at what your peers are xeroxing. And do steps one and two, too–ask questions about those questions, or mentor texts, or essay samples, or whatever it is you see. Get talking about the work we do on the most nuts-and-bolts level–how do you organize your planning? Are those copies for today or tomorrow or next week? How do kids turn them in? How do you grade them? Let your curiosity guide you.
Listen. The final step, of course, is to listen thoughtfully to what you learn during this process. We have to open our eyes, ears, and minds to what good we can see in one another’s practices. Don’t pre-judge the math teacher making a thick stack of copies of practice problems. Don’t assume the English teacher relying on the textbook comprehension questions has nothing for you to learn.
Every teacher does good work–young and old, new and veteran, AP and on-level, quiet worker or schoolwide leader. We spend too much time assuming the worst of people in our world–we don’t need to make our jobs harder by doing this at school too. Look for the good. Teachers are awesome. All you have to do is remember that, look for it, and prepare to learn.
Imagine would education would look like if we did.
Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident. She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, chocolate graham crackers (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing about secondary readers-writers workshop at Three Teachers Talk.