Observing other teachers is such a great form of professional learning. There are many things to be learned from being part of a lesson taught by a more experienced teacher. However, sometimes I worry that for new teachers, the complexity, nuance and skill of establishing classroom norms which facilitate learning could be missed when observing a one-off lesson. We all know that although teaching is a fairly simple process, the foundations which we build in establishing our classroom culture can sometimes be overlooked if observers only see the product of this hard work and persistence over time.
For example, a new teacher observing a teacher who has taught the same pupils for two years might see pupils who enter the room purposefully, young people who know where to collect materials from, who begin work on the ‘do now’ task straight away, and who don’t argue about seating plans or today’s task. It’s important to unpick the careful groundwork which has been done by the teacher long before this observation and consistently applied every lesson, to achieve this level of normality.
For me, this begins long before the first time I see a class. Prior to this, great teachers spend time exploring what they want classroom routines to look like and what the expectations are for each lesson. The confidence this can bring to new teachers, simply by having the clarity of thought and the reassurance that you’ve planned for all experiences is a huge aspect which will help propel early career teachers forward allowing them to focus on the learning in the classroom. I remember planning and scripting the most simple of routines in my first few years of teaching. Who would do what when handing out materials, what I would say, where I would monitor this so that I had the best vantage point and so on. Over time, these routines became established both for me and for the young people.
As many teachers approach the start of a new timetable, here are some of the things which I’ll be focussing on when I meet my new classes.
If possible, always try to be at your door waiting to welcome pupils to the class. This is so important on so many levels. It allows you to warmly welcome your class, greeting each learner individually and starting positively by commenting on something personal to them. It demonstrates that you are organised, ready to teach and establishes a routine for every lesson which allows you to build relationships. It also allows you to guide pupils to what you expect them to do on arrival and remind them as soon as they enter the learning space. ‘Good to see you looking so ready to learn’ ‘I can’t wait to see what you produce today.’ ‘We don’t enter the class that noisily….’ ‘Bags under tables, and jackets and jumpers off.’ This is obviously not always possible. This year I’ve been teaching in three different spaces, and frequently I am moving from one area of the school to another. But, where I can, I always ensure that I’m at the door monitoring corridor and supervising pupils’ arrival. It’s not just about being there physically, (which arguably could be what is interpreted by a newer teacher) – it’s about setting the classroom culture through all you do, say and project to the young people.
Having something on the board or desks for pupils to think about or do straight away ensures lessons always start productively. I think it sends a message to pupils that every second of the lesson is important and precious, and that no time will be wasted. I usually make sure this is a retrieval task so that pupils need minimal guidance from me, giving them an opportunity to revisit prior learning and get straight to work, allowing me to check attendance and log in to computers. This comes with a warning though and I think this is where simply observing colleagues can lead to good intentions, but lethal mutations. The task or question needs to be about the learning. It’s not enough to simply put up a ‘busy’ task to occupy the pupils, which is sometimes tempting to do when we are planning outcomes rather than learning. It is important that this starter makes young people think hard and builds on prior learning.
Through your interactions with pupils it’s important that right from the start, young people know that in your classroom everyone is expected to learn. The message should be clear to everyone that it’s not just those who are keen to answer and put their hands up, who will be required to work hard. This awareness of ratio and participation has been a game changer in my classroom. Mini whiteboards, cold calling and annotating live models are some of the best ways I’ve found to ensure high participation rates in class. Again my worry is that simply observing colleagues using these techniques is not enough, we need to have an understanding of how they are being used to ensure evidence of learning is being elicited from every single person in the room.
For me, this is vital to pupil motivation. Whatever the task, the teaching needs to be so good that the pupils achieve success. The achievement motivates. That hit of dopamine when you succeed. But it won’t have the desired effect if it’s too easy. So pitching the task correctly is so important. The sense of accomplishment is what drives learners to continue and make progress. Forming these positive learning habits are what help create a culture of success.
Don’t give up. Keep running the routines. Keep persevering. Keep reminding pupils of what you want. I promise – this is exactly what the experienced colleague had to do at the start. It may well look like everything just magically happens and the pupils respond for them, but beyond the surface of what you see there has been careful planning, scripting and practice of these seemingly simple techniques.
Observing an experienced colleague can teach us so much, but avoid reducing their practice to merely what is surface level and ensure that the careful nuance of their every movement and word paints the full picture of their proficiency in their craft.
Have a great week – get out and observe a colleague this week if you can. The art of digging deeper whilst watching their practice and considering what impact it has on the teaching and learning can be really powerful! I’d love to engage more with anyone who has any feedback.
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