Can you afford to close the door?

There’s an old saying in education that goes something like this – once the students are in the classroom, you can close the door and only you and they know what happens.  Whether said seriously or in jest, it can be true if you want.  After all, it’s not like there are a large number of people who really want to drop into your classroom at a moment’s notice or even care what’s happening.

When I taught Computer Science, a colleague across the hall would go for a stroll during his prep class.  My room had no windows and so I always had the hallway door open.  Now, Al was a biology teacher and not a real user of technology at the time but it didn’t matter.  He would stand in the doorway which always seemed to be at my back and just look at what was happening.  I never seemed to catch him at it until I noticed that the students weren’t hanging on my every word or they had looked up from their projects to catch the visitor.  Later, over lunch, we would sit and chat about what he saw.  In reality, I found it very helpful.  He had a few years more experience than I and was always engaging his students in experiments and hands-on activities.  It was just the sort of thing that I aspired for in my Computer Science classroom.

I must admit that the first time that it happened, I was really freaked out.  But, after a while, it just became a bit of a routine and eventually he invited me to drop by and watch what was happening in his class.  I had no idea about the content that he was teaching but just watched his style and was able to be the eyes in the back of his head periodically.  It turned out to be one of the best things that I ever did to refine my art of teaching.  Little did I know that later on some idealog would actually give it the name peer coaching.  It was just something that we did to get better.

Later on in a consultative role, I found myself working with teachers from all grades.  Now, I had never taught in a kindergarten classroom – in fact at the time, I remember it being pretty intimidating.  Those students are so small and look like they could break!  But, an early years’ teacher, Eleanor, took me under her wing and explained to me the art of observation and how play based learning worked.  Man, I still don’t think they pay these wonderful teachers enough.  It was so valuable to me to have her watch me deliver professional learning sessions for these teachers on the sorts of computer activities that applies to their classrooms.  We always met shortly afterwards to go over her observations.

I sincerely attribute any success that I might have had to these terrific teachers that just watched and told me what they saw.  It was purely observational and I was left to draw my own conclusions as to whether or not they were effective.  Later on, I actually had formal training in peer coaching and got a deeper understanding of the technique.

One day, over cleaning the dishes in the lunch room, I learned that another colleague had gone to a similar session and was looking to pair up professionally with someone to help his craft.  We did and observed the more formal process of peer coaching and really leveraged it for both of us.  To this day, we still get together to chat and talk about things.  We’ve extended the concepts to parts of our personal lives.

I frequently wonder where I would be had I closed the door way back when Al first walked into my room.

These days, the opportunities for peer coaching are there for people to use to their advantage.  It’s a whole art that really goes beyond simple classroom visits.  I can’t speak highly enough for the power and huge value that comes from leaving your door and mind open.  But, I would suggest that it can go further.  Through the use of social media, there are peers that you can make connections with in your school, down the street and across town, at another school within the same district, and world-wide.  These are typically private conversations but at times can be found way out in the open.  It’s a different type of coaching but it’s coaching none the less.

Implicit in any form of coaching like this is trust.  You don’t just pull a name out of the hat.  It requires taking the time to learn about the potential peer.  Perhaps even Skype calls or Hangouts would be necessary to see if this is going to be a good fit.  But, it’s worth the effort.  Finding that peer who is ready to help you grow in your profession can be make all the difference in your career.

Leave your door open.

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One thought on “Can you afford to close the door?

  1. Doug,

    It is interesting that this entry comes in today, because it was just a few hours ago that I had an opportunity to “observe” Bryan Jackson lead a workshop session for some students attending a summer writing camp. The interesting thing about it was that I was getting ready to head out for an evening in Hamilton, Ontario and Bryan was leading the session in British Columbia.

    The medium? ds106radio, an open space streaming internet radio station that enables anyone “grab” the airwaves and broadcast whenever they want.

    Bryan had opened up his classroom to the world, and was busy teaching away while I and a few others listened in. Not only that, I was able to use Twitter to comment on Bryan’s class, and he was able to communicate back to me along the way.

    I walked away from my half hour in his class understanding this type of technology as a “way in” to similar teaching situations in my own district and, indeed, around the world.

    I think a huge hurdle for many teachers is being comfortable with the idea of someone watching! I think that there are always issues of power and trust that, no matter what “technology” is used to mediate the observation experience, need to be understood and respected.

    That said, there has never been a time when the opportunity to “drop in” to another classroom has been so rich. Imagination…creativity…innovation. Great possibilities to address teacher isolation, peer coaching and professional learning!

    Thanks for opening up this conversation!


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