One of the most difficult perceptions for new teachers to overcome is the feeling of being ‘on their own’ with regards to perfecting the art of teaching. All too often, teachers in their first few years on the job complain about a lack of support from their schools and peers and this can lead to frustration and missed opportunities in the classroom.
We all wish that on Day One someone would take us by the hand and show us to the promised land of differentiation and perfect lesson design. Given that the road to success is paved with hard work, did we think that our success would be achieved by merely showing up for work each day? School administrations can be a wonderful source of encouragement and practical advice, but our administrators are not secondary college professors who have to teach us how to teach. They have a school to run, and we already went to college!
Our schools do provide us with opportunities for professional development in a formal setting frequently throughout the calendar year, but oftentimes they can seem not frequent enough, especially when real classroom issues arise daily about things as varied as what to teach to how to deal with that kid making funning noises in the corner. This is where personal initiative comes in, for we were hired precisely because we value education highly enough to not only acquire it, but also to teach it to others.
Every school is like an evolving organism. Variations among the staff, (which is like our diverse gene pool,) produce a wide variety of useful ‘mutations’ that can benefit those who would investigate and nurture the unique properties of each component. For example, there may be teachers who are really good at implementing classroom management techniques, while others are wizards at lesson design. Some may have great tips and ideas about procedural issues, while others will have secrets of organization that would make all our lives easier.
We may not know these things about our peers because we’re so busy looking to ‘the top’ to solve all our problems. The school administration can provide training and advice, yes, but we cannot absolve ourselves of our own responsibility to be active students of our craft, as well. We can wait hungrily for the hunters to bring us our share of the tribe’s food, or we can actively participate it its distribution and acquisition and thus be more effective and useful to the whole group.
Our colleagues are a storehouse of tried and tested knowledge and best practices. Within the four walls of this building are accumulated years’ worth of solutions to any problem or issue related to the classroom. If our staff got together and collectively designed a new teacher training program, it would be the equal – nay, the better - of most college training programs. It is time to unlock that hidden potential and rekindle the spirit of innovation that led all of us to teaching in the first place.
There’s a fancy term called inter-visitation, and it means exactly what it says. To gain insight into curriculum design and implementation, to find new ways of managing your class, to understand how students respond to different types of instruction, visiting the classroom of your peers provides a wealth of opportunity to see a variety of strategies under a microscope, so to speak.
By observing how other teachers do things, we can acquire new techniques for ourselves, gain new insights and observe how those techniques are implemented in real time under authentic conditions. Does this mean I need to spend all my prep periods sitting in someone else’s classroom? Do I have to sit through entire periods and neglect what I have to get ready for my own students? Not at all.
First, identify what kind of advice or improvement that you’re seeking. Perhaps you want to know how to design effective projects. Maybe you want to see how students respond to different teaching styles. Whatever the issue, ask your fellow staff members questions informally. When you identify a colleague who seems to know a lot about what your concerned with, ask their permission to visit their classroom sometimes for a small amount of time.
Thus, when you’ve got a spare moment, go and visit and watch how that teacher does things. When you’ve gained some new insight, go on your way thinking of how you might try that yourself in your own classroom. Talk to your colleague later on about your experience, and perhaps invite him or her to see you putting that technique into action.
Through such informal, collective improvement we can address most if not all of our needs as we improve our teaching art. I, myself, live religiously by this practice, and when I want to know a better way of doing something, I go out and look to what others do and practice those things myself. Whatever is useful and works for me, I adopt, and I have my peers to thank for it. The next time you feel yourself at a loss for how to do something, try inter-visitation. You may find the lessons were better than any other type of training that money can buy!
Yahiya Emerick is a prolific author and high school teacher. He holds a MA in education and has been active in the Muslim community since his conversion in 1990.