Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

What I Learned About Teaching from Observing My Peers

July 06, 2012

Back in April of this year, I read a post on Impatient Optimists about new teacher evaluation systems and how to ensure accurate teacher observations. The piece quotes Jesse Jeff, a teacher and union leader from Memphis City Schools, who said that the city’s new evaluation system has “forced me to take a look at pedagogy... and become a better teacher. And I am.”

For the past two years I have had the opportunity to serve as a peer evaluator in Hillsborough County, Florida. Based on my experience in this role, I have to agree with Jesse Jeff—observing my colleagues in the classroom has forced me to take a look at my own pedagogy and as a result, I have become a better teacher.

Hillsborough County Public Schools are taking part in the Empowering Effective Teachers (EET) initiative, which is intended to provide all teachers with observations from their administrator and a peer evaluator (this is where I come in). These observations are used to give teachers feedback that can help them improve their practice. The administrator and peer evaluator use data from the observations to complete a formal evaluation for the teacher at the end of the year. These evaluations drive professional development for both teachers and schools.

Being able to observe colleagues teach has taught me a lot about my own teaching. One lesson I’ve learned is that planning is more than finding fun activities that will hold students’ interest and involve some content. For example, I have used a cell cake activity each year with my fourth-grade students. I bake rectangular and round cakes ahead of time. In class, students work in groups to decorate their animal or plant cell with candy. Then—their favorite part—they get to eat their cells.

Yes, it was fun. Yes, it connected to cells (somewhat). But what did students have to do? How did this activity align with what they specifically needed to know about cells? When I’m back in the classroom, I’ll use backward design to see what my students need to know about cells and how they are expected to apply this knowledge. Based on that information and my students’ interests, I can then design learning activities that will meet my instructional outcome.

I have now seen good planning—backward planning—and great lessons. I’ve had the opportunity to sit and talk with teachers who consider standards, expectations for their students, students’ needs and abilities, and appropriate resources that could support learning. These teachers aren’t just looking at one of those components but all of them together. Observing teachers and their planning practices has made me reflect on and reconsider my own planning processes.

Another lesson I’ve learned is to let go of control. I’ve observed excellent teachers creating cultures within their classrooms where students are encouraged and feel safe discussing learning, questioning one another, and therefore driving their own instruction. There’s a saying that at the end of the day the students should be tired, not the teacher. I was always exhausted when I left my classroom. I didn’t understand how engaging my students in authentic learning experiences would make my life easier and provide an even better education for them. When I return to the classroom in fall 2013, I will create a culture where students feel encouraged to ask questions, start conversations, and make suggestions about their learning. I will work with my students to educate them instead of teaching at them.

As I begin my last year as a peer evaluator, I’m also looking forward to returning to the classroom and putting into practice all that I have learned through my observations. This hands-on learning has been more beneficial than my graduate programs and professional development put together. I’ve been able to work alongside other educators and have real and honest conversations about what constitutes good teaching. Good teaching is not a formula; it is not cookie cutter. It is hard. It is rewarding. And good teaching—effective teaching—looks different in every classroom.


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