A few weeks ago I was talking with a high school foreign language teacher that I work with about visiting one of her classes, and she suggested that I would probably prefer not to visit her 4th block class because it was one of her advanced classes and so she "wouldn't be teaching much" in that class. I've had conversations like this with teachers before, so I suspected I knew what she meant, but I asked her about it anyway. She said that most of the students in that class were pretty self-directed, and had mostly mastered much of the language's basic vocabulary and grammar, so she didn't spend much time standing at the front of the classroom conducting standard "lessons."

In other words, in that class she didn't spend much time doing things that looked like what a teacher is supposed to do.

She told me that one time in that class, she had an extended conversation in Spanish with one of her students which lasted most of the class period, and she speculated on what her principal would have thought if he had come by and seen it; she thought it would have looked like she "wasn't teaching." She said she is uncomfortable having visitors in her classroom in situations in which the students are doing most of the work and she's "just watching them," and we ended up talking a fair bit about what good teaching looks like and the need for teachers and principals to get over the idea they have that if a teacher is not standing in front of a classroom talking, actively working, and obviously “teaching” then a) the teacher is not doing their job, or b) there is not powerful teaching and learning going on.

I was curious about the principal's thoughts on what good teaching looks like, so the next time I saw him I asked him this question: "If you were in a teachers' classroom, and you saw students working in small groups, actively engaged, working collaboratively, on-task, and learning, and the entire time you were there the teacher was just walking around watching and listening, and didn't speak, what would you think?" He told me he would be a little uncomfortable if he didn't see signs that the teacher was actively directing the students' activities.

Later in the same conversation, he told me about a time during his first year as a teacher at a school, and his principal came to observe one of his classes on a day during which he had selected several different students to “teach” the class. He said he was "sweating a little bit" because while the students were doing a good job, and in fact were engaged in what he thought was very powerful learning, he was mostly just watching and not actively doing anything that "looked like" teaching. (He said the principal told him afterward that he was very impressed with what he saw in the classroom.) We talked further about principals' expectations for the type of teacher behaviors he or she expects to see in a classroom, and the effect this has on the teachers' understanding of, and willingness to implement, good teaching.

I came away from these conversations wondering how many principals may say that they want their teachers to implement learner-centered activities, or that the students should be doing most of the cognitive work in a classroom, or that students should be directing their own learning, but what they actually want to see in their classrooms is teachers engaged in things that "look like" teaching. I suspect teachers are very good at figuring out what their principals really want to see, and I suspect that that's exactly what they give them.

Photo Credit: Polish Institute of International Affairs via Compfight cc


Inspector Columbo is my hero

March 21, 2016
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Back in the 1970's there was a popular TV show called "Columbo," which starred Peter Falk as a fictional homicide detective. Columbo came across as a kind of lovable doofus, a kindly almost grandfatherly man, but not particularly bright, and certainly not smart enough to catch the criminals he was trying to catch. Every episode followed pretty much the […]

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How to de-escalate a tense classroom situation

October 30, 2015
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For any of you who may have been wondering, in the wake of a recent classroom incident in South Carolina, exactly how that incident could have been handled better by the adults involved, let me offer a thought or two. We had a no cell phones policy at the high school where I taught previously, […]

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You’re gonna have to get over yourself

October 19, 2015

One of the best stories I've heard in a long time is from a podcast called Risk, which I started listening to a few months ago. Fair warning, a lot of their stories are pretty raw, including some with graphic sexuality and stories of abuse, but this one is just a great story from a woman […]

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Teaching math is harder than it looks

October 10, 2015
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Last week I had the opportunity to visit a 7th grade math class in an alternative school. Lots of school districts have at least one school like this, in which all the students are there because they've had some sort of difficulty at their "regular" school. Often the kids have been suspended for behavioral reasons, […]

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What does good teaching look like?

September 27, 2015
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I had just met a history teacher, Mr. D, in the teacher's lounge. He had stopped by the microwave during his planning period and we were engaged in the kind of casual chit-chat that I often engage in with teachers in my role as a new instructional coach at their school. I'll ask about their school, their classes, […]

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Game of Thrones teaches us about Essential Questions

June 18, 2015
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In one of the many articles analyzing Season 5 of Game of Thrones, Washington Post writer Alyssa Rosenberg provides us with 4 great examples of what educators often refer to as "essential questions." Rosenberg's questions are: Can you roll back religious fundamentalism? Is there any force, be it a long winter or the threat of ice zombies, that can make […]

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Interactions with teens; low-key often works best

June 6, 2015
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"Mr. Bledsoe, do you have any tissues?" Seems like a fairly ordinary question, right? It wasn't. Up until a few months ago, the area right outside my classroom was blissfully deserted before school. There were several kids who hung out down the hall outside other teachers' classrooms, but nobody gathered outside mine and I was […]

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My new book, “Flip Your Classroom, Then Flip It Again”

January 31, 2015
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It's true, I just wrote a book so for all of you who have been clamoring for it (hi Mom!), here you go. It's called Flip Your Classroom, Then Flip It Again: How to Implement One Simple Tweak to Radically Improve Your Teaching (And Your Life) . You can get it as an ebook from Amazon, or […]

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Your teen doesn’t know how to use Google, and she can’t spell “diabetes”

January 29, 2015
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Two encounters with students from the past week: A few days ago I gave my classes a take-home quiz that involved answering questions about my class website. I told them that they could pick up some extra-credit points on their next test if, instead of submitting their typed quiz answers via email, they created a […]

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