Guest Blog Post by Carissa Bass
Southside Elementary School, Fernandina Beach, FL
Stress. Sleepless nights. Obsessive planning.
Many of us know feelings that come with observations. Despite knowing your administration has seen you on your greatest days and on some of your more difficult days, being observed has the tendency to create a moment of panic.
Then, along comes Robert Kaplinsky’s #ObserveMe movement and now teachers are asking for people to come observe. Wait! What? Why? Why create the apprehension, the worry, or the fear of judgement?
Over the last few years, I have discovered the value in video recording my own teaching for personal reflection. My recordings initially started so I could help a fellow teacher with small group teaching strategies. Without expecting it, the videos became my own professional development that allowed me to hone in on my successes and some areas to improve. But these were safe and comfortable since I controlled who watched these. While scrolling through Facebook one day, I saw a post for #ObserveMe. Colleagues were inviting each other into their classrooms, asking for feedback on how they could make their teaching even better.
As frightening as it was to consider having my peers give me suggestions for growth, it actually seemed pretty logical.
I could not think of anyone better to offer me suggestions than my fellow teachers who were with similar students every day. I realized that being vulnerable and receptive was going to be challenging. But for me, the gift of feedback that would push me to be a better teacher to my students was greater than the fear of an observation.
Going for It
I decided to take the challenge. I created and posted my #ObserveMe sign and was hopeful to have an audience of teachers in my classroom immediately. I even anticipated others would reflect my own excitement and join with their own #ObserveMe signs. I soon discovered that the eagerness wasn’t mutual. I was shocked at some remarks made by peers regarding a chance to observe others and to be observed. A few stated how “insane” it was to ask for other’s opinions. I was questioned, “Why ask for problems and request to be observed?” I even had one colleague tell me that I had already won Nassau County’s District Teacher of the Year, so I had nothing left to learn. I felt defeated but continued to leave my sign posted and email reminders to our school news.
I waited weeks before I had my first visitor. I started to think this just wasn’t going to work. Then one day, a teacher silently walked in with a clipboard and took a seat at the back of my class. I briefly froze. I wasn’t new to being observed by guests or having people in my room but now I was asking a colleague to come critique my teaching – to actually look for flaws. It created an entirely new level of panic. My writing lesson was just okay. My students were engaged and happily participating, although, not always with quality sentence suggestions. The ten minutes felt more like ten years. As I watched her scribbling notes out of the corner of my eye, my heart raced! I was dying to know what she was writing!
On her way out the door, she placed her note on my desk and left as quietly as she had entered. I was like a kid on Christmas morning waiting for a break in the lesson to rush over and read her note.
She mentioned that I helped some students correct a few sentence errors but not all. She suggested that I include writing practice in my small group instruction that would allow for more discussion during practice. Her remarks caused an instant replay in my mind. She was right. I didn’t correct or allow student discussion with every writing error with all students. Therefore, I inadvertently allowed some students to continue with a pattern of syntax errors since there wasn’t any student discussion to explain why their response was not correct.
I started to feel the embarrassment of a failed lesson and a lost teachable moment.
But I couldn’t rewind time. I could correct future lessons. Based on her outside observation, she helped me identify a simple way to help all of my students with their writing practice. We spent the next few weeks really focusing on the quality of sentence writing for every sentence. I allowed my students more time to evaluate and process their own successes and mistakes. Now, my students more freely evaluate their own writings as well as their peers. They have the opportunity to discuss subject/verb agreements, details in their writing, and suggestions to improve their writing. Most importantly, they are given a chance to process their thoughts.
As my year continued, I had a few pop in here and there. Some left suggestions and some just watched. Recently, my administration decided they’d support my efforts and scheduled everyone to #ObserveMe. This past week, I had 39 visitors. Yes, 3-9. I’m still replaying and rereading their observation notes, but I’m looking forward to small changes to help increase my student achievement and my teaching repertoire. It’s hard to believe that a few months ago, I was terrified at the thought of a peer pointing out my weaknesses.
But I’ve seen first hand that, many times, we are so immersed in our own teaching habits that we cannot see the small changes that can result in drastic growth.
Teachers, I challenge you to open your classroom doors and overcome observation anxiety. Allow colleagues to visit your classroom. Ask to go visit other colleagues. Your kids deserve to see that their teacher understands that you don’t have to be bad to get better.
About the Author:
Carissa Bass has taught 1st and 2nd grades in Nassau County for eleven years. She completed her Bachelor’s in Education from University of North Florida in 2006. Throughout her career, she has been recognized as an innovative teacher and leader in her school and district. She has served as a grade level leader, technology chair, and presented many professional development sessions on technology and reading strategies. In 2008 & 2016, she was chosen as Southside Elementary’s Teacher of the Year. For the 2016-2017 school year, she was awarded Nassau County Teacher of the Year. Ms. Bass has a passionate drive and dedication to the teaching profession to increase both teacher and student achievement.