Over the past two years our school has been involved with an action research project run by Curtin University in Western Australia. The project examines classroom climate by surveying students about their actual perceptions of the classroom environment and how they would prefer the environment to be. Individual teachers receive the results and have a set period of time to reflect on them and plan and implement changes in their classroom. The survey is then readministered and the final results compared to the initial ones.
Last year the project was voluntary and around 30 teaching staff opted to participate. This year all teachers are required to participate and the Curtin University staff are currently in Adelaide to administer the initial surveys. We will then gather in our Curriculum Teams (groups formed around shared learning groups, not necessarily faculties), and engage in a process of active collaborative reflective practice as we plan for how we will improve our own classroom environments.
Today in Lesson 6 was my turn for my Year 8 key class to complete the survey about my classes. I will be honest, I was a tad nervous. Part of me wanted to peek over their shoulders and sneak a look at their responses – but I didn’t. When they asked me questions to clarify meanings (some of the language is a little difficult for Year 8s) I kept my eyes glued solely on the question they were referring to. I won’t lie – that wasn’t easy.
This taught me something about my relationship with them that perhaps until now had been recognised mostly subconsciously. I WANT them to like me. It sounds like such an adolescent thing to express, but I do. And I doubt any teacher would disagree. We don’t want to feel that a group of kids dislikes us – either personally or as a professional. Of course I recognise that some people will not be my biggest fans and that’s okay. But I hope they make a balanced judgment on that and that we can still have a mutual respect for each other.
But let’s face it, education is mostly about relationships and this goes as much for teachers as it does for students. And as nervous as I was about them completing this survey about my classes, I realise that this gives my students more of a voice in an English classroom that is largely dictated by what the current curriculum tells us we need to cram into the school year. One of my goals this year is to help my students take ownership of their learning, and this survey is one avenue to help them do so.
As for the slight sense of judgement I was feeling as they filled in their online tick boxes – well, to be fair, don’t I make judgments about them every day regarding their attitude, progress and abilities? It’s only fair that they get to respectfully tell me how they perceive my classes. Yes, they’re only twelve or thirteen and have no formal training in ‘quality teaching’ – but they are the ones currently experiencing what it means to ‘get an education” and whilst I will take their feedback with a grain of salt, they deserve to be listened to.
I will continue to post my reflections as the project progresses.
Over the past couple of years there has been increased discussion between our staff and leadership about reflective practice – reflecting on our teaching with the purpose of continual improvement and professional learning. One particular strategy that has been mentioned repeatedly is that of peer observation – inviting a colleague or member of leadership into the classroom to observe your lesson and then engage in a professional dialogue about what is happening in your classes.
Considering that as teachers we are constantly observing and assessing our students and their progress, you would think we would be comfortable with this idea. But to me it seems that the evidence suggests otherwise. Teachers often talk about working in a profession that is extremely collaborative, and yet at the same time we spend a lot of time working in isolation. Sure, we meet with our colleagues and discuss curriculum, pedagogy, methodology, behaviour management strategies, etc. Yet once we step into the classroom, it is one of us with up to 30 kids. The thought of another teacher or member of leadership coming into the classroom to watch what we are doing can be a very scary one!
But when you think about it, we’ve all been there before! We were all pre-service teachers once, with a mentor and/or university supervisor giving us constant feedback and expecting improvement. Assessment and constructive (and I stress the importance of constructive) feedback was expected! On the other hand, I have learnt a lot about my students and myself as a teacher from observing pre-service teachers who I have mentored – a fact that surprised them when I told them, and that would not have occurred to me either if the situation was reversed.
Last week a colleague and I were fortunate enough to have four visitors from Sweden and two consultants from Catholic Education SA come into our respective classrooms and observe Reading to Learn lessons that we had prepared and were implementing – my colleague with a Year 8 English class, myself with a Year 8 Italian class. Whilst these people were not there to ‘assess’ us, but were there for their own professional learning experience, the discussion that followed between my colleague, our guests and myself revealed that having them observe our lesson was an equally important to our professional development as it was to them. Through answering their questions, we were able to reflect on our teaching and came up with a number of ideas about how we could improve or adapt the strategies we were using to suit different purposes.
So, I think as a profession there needs to be a psychological shift away from seeing observation as an assessment that we will lose our job over if things don’t go to plan. Instead, there needs to be a culture of trust in schools that ensures educators feel comfortable inviting other educators into their classrooms, with the knowledge that it will provide an opportunity to have a productive dialogue afterwards in which both participants can reflect on what they saw or what they did and learn from each other.