A recent article in Kappan Magazine* details a talented elementary school teacher who was being observed by another educator (external to her building). The observer wanted to learn from the teacher’s uncanny ability to differentiate instruction to multiple learning styles in a humorous and engaging way. However, what became more striking to the observer was that none of the teachers on the same grade level with whom she taught had ever observed her; not once. In fact, one teacher had worked alongside this master teacher for nine years and the other for seven years. The author exclaims that this, “isn’t just poor practice, it’s almost malpractice.”
Now, before there are too many feelings of guilt, I am the first to admit this has described me at times. In fact, just a few months ago, I saw a news segment that featured my assigned mentor teacher from my first year in the classroom. She was being honored for her 50th year in education and has no plans to retire. In my initial year and those that followed, she gave me advice on lesson plans, pedagogy, school culture, classroom management, and so much more. Yet, I can only remember watching her teach one time! Imagine all of the decades of knowledge that were readily available to me that I did not take advantage of when I had the opportunity.
As I reflect, I realize that my focus was upon teaching my own classes, grading assignments, meeting the immediate needs of my students, and a variety of other daily demands. The truth is, however, I could have made time to engage in observations and further hone my skills as an educator. As Father James Keller noted, “a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” Margaret Fuller similarly opines, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” I believe both would argue that we have a duty to share what we have learned so that others may grow. Naturally, this benefits students and advances our profession, which is where our focus must always remain.
In some ways, I find it ironic that we impart knowledge every day to the students who pass through our doors, but rarely do we do so with the adults on either side of our own doors. Observing colleagues is quite common and even required in other professions, from surgeons to electrician’s apprentices and those practicing law. I challenge you to take a page from their script and try the same. Start small and schedule a time with a colleague you admire. Do not worry if the subject matter being taught is vastly different from your own. In fact, you may be surprised by how much you can learn! Then, if you are feeling confident, invite others to observe you. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make time to discuss the observation afterwards. This should not be an evaluative conversation or a time to pass judgment in any way. Rather, it is a time to ask questions, discuss techniques, and grow together as colleagues. Light a fire and, in doing so, perhaps rekindle your own.
*“Getting Better at Learning” by Joan Richardson in Phi Delta Kappan, November 2016 (Vol. 98, #3, p. 4), www.kappanmagazine.org