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

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