A couple of weeks ago something unusual happened. I had visitors in one of my classes. Obviously the pupils were there, they always are, but sitting at the back I had my bilingual department head, an educator from New Zealand and two teacher trainers from Leiden University complete with video camera. I knew they were coming, all of us except for the guest from New Zealand are part of a professional development study group in the area of bilingual education. With this as background it really didn’t feel like a big deal, except it did feel, like I said at the start, rather unusual.
The reason it felt this way is that in teaching, certainly once you get beyond your first year or two in the job, you are largely left alone. The bell goes, the class comes in, the classroom door is closed and you get on with it. As long as no complaints come in from pupils or parents this is generally the way things stay. With this as background it is no wonder that when visitors do come to the classroom it feels at best unusual and at worst threatening.
It is an irritating fact that part of my job is a couple of times a year to spend the best part of a week sitting watching a classroom full of pupils complete tests and exams, checking nobody cheats, but otherwise doing nothing. At the same time there is virtually no time or opportunity to sit and watch a colleague teach, to learn from them or to offer them feedback. Occasionally attempts are made to try and facilitate this sort of visit, but the reality is that it is incredibly difficult to find the space for it in an otherwise packed timetable. Classroom visits to colleagues’ lessons are very definitely not the norm in education. As a result of this it does feel slightly strange to walk into another teacher’s classroom, if only just for a moment. You feel as if you are stepping into someone else’s territory, crossing a line!
It is slightly bizarre that we try to educate our pupils in the importance of working in groups, stressing the benefits that it can bring, learning from the strengths of others and helping them with things that they find more challenging. Yet when it comes to our key activity of being in a classroom with up to thirty children, coping with issues of content delivery, communication, classroom management, use of IT, differentiation and so on, the benefits of working with and learning from others is extremely underplayed.
I feel fortunate that I work at probably a quite open and social school, staff room discussions in the breaks are normally open and frank. Yet I still can’t help feeling that so much could be gained if there was the chance for more observation of other peoples’ teaching styles. But that would seem to require something of a shift in both classroom and school culture, an opening of the doors, doors that like the fire doors in the corridor, tend to swing shut when the last pupil has come in. Are we not missing a chance for better education when a teacher with fifteen years of classroom experience can say that it feels slightly strange to have someone sitting at the back of his classroom?