Once upon a time, a long time ago, at two different times and places, two department chairs came in, unannounced, one to an eighth grade social studies class, and the other, to an eighth grade language arts classes, both with the same objective: to observe the teacher–me.
When neither one saw me where they expected—at the front of the class—both asked, almost verbatim, “Where’s your teacher?” with a sense of urgency that left me, sitting calmly at a student desk in the back of the room, thinking they thought I had gone AWOL, jeopardizing the health, safety, and welfare of the fourteen year-olds in my charge.
Before I could announce my position, as if by invisible cue, both groups of students immediately turned, arms outstretched, pointing to where I was sitting.
As I stood, the social studies teacher waved me off. “I’ll come back when you’re teaching,” he said. Then he turned, retreating.
My students proceeded with their trial of King George III, a culminating activity for the American Revolution unit they been studying. Every student had a role in the proceedings.
My favorites were the students who dramatically embraced their roles, testifying against the King, some tearfully, relating how British soldiers had come into their homes, demanding food and lodging, frightening themselves and their children.
That being said, my proudest moment, I think, was at the end of the five classes’ worth of trials and one jury found the King innocent.
“I’ll come back when you’re teaching.”
And to myself, I shook my head, thinking, Just how do you think this trial is happening, with me sitting, without interrupting the proceedings, in the back of the classroom, if this lesson is not a reflection of my teaching?
Fast forward to the second supervisor. Same opening scenario. Students pointed me out…
As I stood, the language arts supervisor motioned for me to join him where he stood, in the doorway to the classroom.
“I’ve seen enough,” he said. “If your students can be up here, at the board (There were chalkboards then.), teaching each other, explaining how to diagram complex sentences (We did that then.), you don’t need to be observed. Congratulations. Even my high school students couldn’t do what your students are doing.”
He left me feeling gratified and speechless–except to say thank you.
Which supervisor, do you think, became my hero? Which one, do you think, affirmed me as a teacher?
Empowering and equipping students to think for themselves; to take responsibility for their learning: that’s what I thought my role was.
Nowadays there’s fancy terminology for the two different teaching styles: sage on the stage: that’s what the first supervisor was looking for; guide on the side: that’s what the second supervisor recognized and applauded.
The nerve-wracking problem today is that now that observers are looking to see—expecting and demanding to see—the guide on the side every time they appear—announced or unannounced–to observe, it creates a situation in which teachers are reluctant, hesitant, even fearful, to be the sage on the stage—even when that role is perfectly appropriate and called for.
Yes! I liked having students actively engaged, as in the two lessons supervisors had literally walked in on, but on another day, they would have seen me on center stage, providing direct teaching, dare I say “lecturing,” for students to have the underlying background needed to proceed on their own.
As much as I prided myself on being an inductive-approach teacher, for expediency sake, there were times I “sage-on-the-stage” taught. And I am not apologizing for it.
What if observers came in, today, at those moments? I’ll tell you what. I would have been labelled and marked down for being an ineffective teacher–an old-fashioned sage on the stage. Bad luck—bad timing for when they walked in? Unjust.
That’s what’s wrong with observations. They never tell the whole story. They snapshot. Teaching is a panorama. Trust the process, that’s what I say. One, two, or three snapshot observations geared to new artificial checklists of what constitutes effective teaching are frustrating and demoralizing. “Everyone” knows, really, who is really teaching, starting with students. Let teachers teach and students learn–even while both play at it.
King III. Diagramming. That’s my happy and sad, but true, tale of two supervisors.
Moral of the story? …I very much appreciate “hearing” your ideas. (I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours. Hint: I like to think in familiar expressions, not that you have to!)