I know I was not alone in being inspired early in the school year by the talk surrounding the #ObserveMe theme that was appearing on twitter and through blogs, in the wake of Robert Kaplinsky’s (@robertkaplinksy) blog post in August. I discussed this idea with my academic dean and with our school’s president and they were both supportive of the idea of trying to launch such an initiative at our school. For a variety of reasons, I did not want to be the teacher doing this, I wanted a cohort along with me.
In one of the wonderful synchronicities in life that make me so happy, I received our staff received an email about a program led by a local leadership group. They launched a class last year for local teachers and the capstone of the year long class is a school improvement project. Two of my colleagues participated last year. One of them launched an initiative related to the libraries on our two school campuses and the other launched a character awareness/character development project that is run by students. I saw this email as my opening to formalize this goal of mine and to have a reason to seek participation from a number of my colleagues. I asked for permission to apply since the program would require me to miss one day each month from September through April (our last class meeting is this Thursday) and this would put a bit of a strain on my students and my colleagues. I do not think that I have missed 8 days of school combined in the last three years, so a guarantee of 8 absences in one year felt like a huge commitment. I was approved by my school and accepted by the program and I am glad that it worked out that way.
Over the course of the year, we have had a number of pretty inspirational speakers and conversations. I have met colleagues from local schools and learned about their school cultures. I have learned a great deal of local history that I was unaware of before. Overall, it has been a worthwhile experience and I am recommending one of my department colleagues for the program for next year.
I pitched the idea of launching an #ObserveMe initiative at our school to my upper school peers at a faculty meeting late in January. We had five weeks of uninterrupted school scheduled between the end of our spring break and a long Easter weekend. I pitched this time period for the project and I solicited volunteers. I had nine colleagues volunteer to join the project and they came from everywhere in our school. An administrator who teaches history, a school counselor who does not currently have classroom duties, our lead college guidance officer who teaches a section of French, and six other volunteers who together represented every major academic department at our school. I asked them to commit to one class visit per week over the course of the five weeks I had targeted.
The project had a rough start. One day after returning from our two week spring break, a record snow storm hit us dropping over two feet of snow on our school. We were out of school for the remainder of the week. I regathered and asked folks to still try to commit to one visit per week, but it would now be four weeks. Since we had ten participants (myself included) I hoped for 40 class visits over a month. I set up a shared google spreadsheet where participants would have their schedules posted and they could make notes for days/times where visitors would not be appropriate. They also all made notes about what they wanted their visitor to focus on during the time in class. I tried to make sure that people were comfortable with visitors and that they understood that these visits were not for evaluative purposes, they were for sparking conversations. If the observer kept comments focused on the concerns raised by the classroom teacher, then (I hoped) the conversations would feel supportive and instructive.
While life got in the way of some of the participants, we got close to my goal. A total of 37 class visits occurred during the 19 day span of the project (we were off on Good Friday during the fourth week of the project window.) I sent out a questionnaire and received a number of positive responses, some of which I will share (anonymously) below.
- More to the point, I like that having visitors in my class keeps me “honest” in a way; I find that having someone new paying attention to what is happening really helped me to focus on my own words and interactions with students.
- I remember up until about a year or 2 ago we were required to be visited by one colleague and visit one or 2 colleagues each year. Then we had to fill out a sheet saying who we visited and who visited us. I always found this to be a chore, something to check off my “to do” list. Although your project was more involved (many more visits to be made and many more visitors than the old requirement), it felt more helpful and less annoying. I believe the reasons for that were that it was more of an exchange (you visit me/ I visit you) and there was a purpose – we wrote in the google doc the feedback we were looking for. This structure really helped make it worthwhile.
- It makes me want to take classes again. I appreciated seeing how everyone engaged their classes, especially the quiet students.
- Overall I really loved the opportunity to see my peers in action. It brought me a sense of respect for the energy they put out with students and pride about the quality of education the students are receiving.
- I really liked the opportunity to visit classes and talk about teaching with colleagues, and I think it would be a good thing for visitations and discussions to become part of the school culture. But, I am skeptical about it happening without teachers being made to do it.
Overall, I have to say that I am pleased with this experience. I chose not to hang a note on my door as I know many others have done because I chose not to be that public about this at this time. Since I had a small, dedicated group of volunteers and I did not want to insist that they hang such notes, I chose not to do so. I am seriously considering starting next year with such a sign outside my door. I came into this project with the idea/belief that visiting each other more regularly and more intentionally would lead to important conversations about our craft. The feedback I received, and my experience in so many different classes during this time, have reinforced and deepened that belief. I worry about the skepticism that a number of the participants expressed regarding whether this can become a part of the regular fabric of the school. I believe that this would be a much greater benefit to our students AND to my colleagues if this became a regular and widespread practice, but I suppose I should concentrate my energy on planting these seeds in my little corner of the world first.
Many thanks to Robert Kaplinsky for sparking this fire and to my colleagues who jumped in and gave their time and energy in addition to their normally busy days.