Sunday, May 22, 2011

What is the message strangers get when they come into your room?

A classroom observation is a "tip of the iceberg" snapshot of teaching/learning.
Lisa Parisi, an elementary school teacher from Long Island, New York, posed this question on Twitter.  The question filled me with emotion.  Why?

Every person that enters a classroom comes in with their lens -- their point of view, so what each one sees and perceives is different.  Usually when visiting parents come into my classroom, they smile.  They're happy to see so many wonderful learning materials available, engaged students and multi-modal lessons/learning events happening.  My administrators usually react the same -- they know me, they understand what I'm doing and we share similar goals.  The most difficult visitors I've hosted have been coaches who don't take the time to sit down and talk with me.  It seems like they already have a preconceived notion of what exactly should be happening in a classroom and they want to see it in action.  Rather than open minded, these coaches appear to be narrow minded with a set agenda.  They have been educators with little classroom experience and less experience with the wide range of learners a classroom hosts.

So, when the question is posed, what is the message strangers get when they come into your room, my answer is that depends on who the stranger is and what his/her agenda/educational experience is.

The question, what message do I want strangers to get when they come into my classroom, is a good one.  It's a great question to think about.  Here's my answer.

1.  I want visitors to see me as a warm, caring teacher who takes the time to listen to, and respond to each student.  Now all teachers know this is easier said than done, but similar to my goals as a parent, this is a #1 goal for me.

2.  I want visitors to see students who are excited and engaged with their learning.  I want them to witness that spark.  Again, every classroom teacher knows that not everyday for every child is an engaging day.  Sometimes due to a myriad of personal/environmental issues, a child may feel less than engaged and empowered - that's when a teacher's warmth and care come in.

3.  I want visitors to see wonderful, rich student projects on display.  You will see these in my room unless it is MCAS time when most work has to be taken off the walls because it relates to the test content.

4.  I want visitors to see an active teacher who is working with individuals, small groups and the entire class in high-level, multi-modal ways.  Again, you will see that in my room, but sometimes you'll see me in the corner on the computer, and what you won't realize is that I'm quickly typing up an email to a parent about a child's mix-up with a play date, behavior question or need for clarification -- information that will impact a child's day.

5.  I would like visitors to see a really organized, clean room, but you won't always see that because teachers know that we are on-task with children the large majority of the day so when it comes down to  after-hours work, sometimes planning for the next day's lessons or student work review takes precedence over organizing materials.

Like teachers everywhere, I want everyone to see my room as a vital, engaging, multi-modal, student-centered, standards-based, tech-savvy environment.  However, I recognize that classrooms differ day to day dependent on the student needs at hand.  That's why I don't like the idea of "walk throughs" similar to the medical model.  "Walk throughs" in a hospital are usually one doctor-one patient, in a classroom there's a complex number of events happening at all times.  Hence, I feel that the best way for a stranger or visitor to understand a teacher's classroom is a series of events beginning with a discussion with the teacher.

When it comes to coaches, I believe the best coaches are teachers with vast classroom experience.  The best coaches have the attitude that teachers are caring, invested professionals, not robots who can be programmed.  The best coaches see classrooms as complex arenas, not one-size-fits-all environments.  The best coaches care more about teachers and students than their own ambition or agenda.  The best coaches are invested in the growth of students, teachers and schools -- they understand that no one teacher can be all things, and that there are many ways to do the job well.  And finally, the best coaches are experts in their subject matter and how to teach that subject.

So in summary, I hope that strangers see what I value: a caring, creative, child-centered learning environment.  I also hope that visitors, particularly those assigned to help teachers, will take the time to know the teachers they work with, and to listen to their values, goals and needs.

I'm really curious what other teachers have to say about this question.  Unfortunately I'm unable to follow Parisi's* discussion on this topic today.  I'm open to your thoughts about this subject as I continue to think about it.  Thanks for listening.

*Lisa Parisi :  Conversations in 3 hours (5/22 - 12 pm EST).Topic:What is the message/story your classroom tells? What kind of branding have you created?