Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Absences; Peer Observations

In my Precalculus class, there are 15 students. (I know, it's really nice.) In the past month, this was their absence pattern (the ones that are "extraordinary", anyway... I'm not counting the daily illnesses):

* Students A, B, C were gone to a Model U.N. conference for close to a week.

* Students B and D (who also happens to be a new student transfered into my class at the semester) were absent two days later for an all-day leadership conference.

* Student E was absent for 1.5 weeks for a health checkup in the States (that experienced extra delays because she needed to run extra tests and to wait for their results).

* Student C then broke her collar bone(!) playing soccer, and was gone for a few days at first, then later on for another few days for a follow-up visit in the States.

* Students D, F, G then missed 2 days the week before a test in order to attend a soccer tournament. (The soccer tournament was away and lasted all weekend and so it affected their performance the following week as well. On Monday they could barely stay awake.)

* Starting today, student H is going to be out for a few days for a knee surgery.

ALL of this for a class of 15 kids -- in the span of a month?! Is this normal?? It's AWFUL to hear about their various health problems, and to be sure, helping kids make up their work after school and (in lack of a better word) "competing" with their other teachers for their time / energy outside of class now feels like the norm rather than the exception. :( I am sure it diminishes their desire to learn, when they come back from a long, often unavoidable absence and they realize that they have so much catch-up work to do in EVERY class. Truly, the long weekend cannot come soon enough, for them OR for me!!


In other news, I have arrived at the hypothesis recently that how you observe someone else teach is immediately related to how you teach. I love watching how a teacher does group work. I like listening to them talk in front of class, but after about 15 to 20 minutes, if the teacher is still talking, I start to shift in my seat when I observe their kids starting to shift in their seats and starting to create that barely audible hum of impatience in the room. When they finally break into group/individual work, I like to watch the kids to see who's on task and who's not, and whether the teacher picks up on it and does something about it.*

Other teachers who have occasionally stopped by my room, in contrast, only like to stay for the 5 to 10 minutes when I am talking in front of the room. As soon as my kids move into groups/pairs, the teacher usually stands up and leaves, because they don't value that part of my class and/or don't find it interesting. They think that the "teaching" is done as soon as I assign work, when in reality that's when my real teaching starts. It's not quite the inverted classroom model (because I still deliver material during class), but the group/individual work they do definitely bears on their learning much more than anything I could/would say in front of class.

I wonder: how do you observe other teachers?** What is it that you pay attention to and that you value?

*Other things I pay attention to: If the teacher assigns a short "Just try it!" guided exercise, I like to see how much time they wait before going over the answer. (If they wait too long, the kids are bored. If they wait too short an amount of time, it removes the thinking for the kids and renders the exercise ineffective.) If they pick kids to present a problem, I look around the room to see whether other kids are invested. If they involve multiple senses in the lesson, that's my favorite! But only if the activities are still immediately relevant to the learning objective. If the teacher is writing on the board, I pay attention to whether they write out complete big ideas and how they organize/label their work on the board. (If a kid looks up after a couple of minutes of being "tuned out", can the kid still immediately follow what's going on?)

**Every time I walk into another teacher's classroom -- whether it's math or otherwise -- I always think, "Wow! This is great! I should do this more often!" When I was a super-newbie teacher, observing other people helped me learn their styles; now it helps me re-affirm some of the choices that I make inside my own classroom, and turns those details into conscious decisions rather than some de facto sort of thing. It seems so obvious that I should be regularly watching others teach, but it's always the most obvious things that we do the least of!! ...Anyway, how often do you observe your peers?


  1. mimi! you must read this essay:

    it's about absences and so much more. bascom talks about writing it here:

    i also LOVED what you had to say about observations--such an important exercise. when we have faculty meetings and talk pedagogy, i ALWAYS leave with juicy gems!

  2. Katy, that article breaks my heart. Is that the kinds of students you work with? If so, hats off to you.

    Back in the Bronx we had kids with crazy families, but they had stability at school, at least, and most things that happened at home weren't crazy enough to keep them out of school...

  3. My first year of teaching, I made a deal with a colleague for her to cover my class during her planning period one day every other week (I did the same for her on alternate weeks). On my covered day, I would spend my planning period and my covered class period observing two teachers who taught the same subject. I spent a semester observing two 20-plus year veteran chemistry teachers and my colleague observed a veteran and a second year journalism teacher. After our observations, we’d meet up afterschool and discuss the differences between the two teachers we observed: either how both of their differences worked equally well (formal vs informal style, structured vs unstructured, etc.) or how one teacher’s lesson seemed to have a more positive impact on student learning than the other’s and what the specific difference was that made it more successful.

    It was an invaluable experience because we focused our energies on the differences that had the greatest positive impact on learning, rather than what I consider the “book report” approach common to observations of classes outside your subject area: I saw this this and this in the classroom but I have no idea if lectures or small groups would’ve been the best approach for this lesson because I don’t teach history or language arts.

    Paul Hawking
    The Challenge of Teaching Math
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  4. I'm putting together a list of the top 100 high school teacher blogs, and your site was recommended by another blogger on the list. I'm contacting all the bloggers via e-mail so I can interview them for my article...I couldn't find your contact info so could you please e-mail me at and include the title of your blog in the e-mail? thanks!

  5. Oh, observation! You're so right -- every time I do it, it makes things better. So why don't I do it more? Thanks for your post; it will prod me in the right direction.

    And as to absences, oh, man, I have that one too. Right now, baseball season is starting. Four of my 18 play varsity. Which means that they ALL miss one class in three -- in addition to others being away at leadership conferences, college visits, wisdom teeth extractions, etc etc. Which makes it hard to keep everything together and moving forward.

    But forward we go anyway! ¡Adelante!

  6. @Paul That sounds amazing! I am really lazy and don't regularly observe other teachers. If I had some other buddies at school who did it regularly as well, it'd really help me stay motivated. Thanks for the idea! (Even though, I have to say that I'm really protective of my teaching time in class; I don't like it when other people cover my classes, because it affects my kids' learning a lot. So, I'd probably work out a different deal...)

    @bestcase I'm glad you sound so positive. (And the stuff on your blog is really interesting, even though I don't teach statistics!) Keep it up. :) :) On my end, I'm hoping that the absences are tapering... Already we only see each kid 4 hours (instead of 5) a week. I need all the time that I can get with them!!

  7. I've marked this unread in Google Reader and have been meaning to respond forever... because I love love love classroom observations. My first semester, I only taught from 12-5, and so I spent all morning lesson planning and grading in the backs of more experienced teachers' classrooms. I noted everything from the language they used to correct misbehavior to the types of questions they were asking, and it helped me grow so much that first semester. I'd walk in thinking about what I was struggling with (content or culture) and leave with so many concrete ideas.

    Now, I'm mostly focused on the instruction and the way the teacher interacts with students (or ratio of talk time, as Lemov puts it), specifically in terms of questions or non-answers that push students to engage at higher levels. It's certainly reinforcing for me the interplay between culture/management and content... so hard to improve one without the other.

    I also like to do a rigor check to get a sense for the depth of content and complexity of content that students are working on; observing at high-performing schools was particularly helpful in this sense, and made me repeatedly raise my expectations for my students.

    Maybe I'm just really nosy and like seeing what others do, but I think observations are the most fun and one of the most effective ways to improve :)

  8. @grace I read somewhere on some blog a while ago that for a PD they just watched videos of "masterful" teaching and discussed what they saw. If only every school had regular PD such as this, either with outside resources or with each other's teaching tapes! I guess it also takes a really open school culture to be able to do that.