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, their students, and often I'll ask if they would mind if I visited one of their classes to get a sense of what their students are like. Occasionally, like this time, a teacher will invite me before I get a chance to ask.
"Yeah, you're welcome to drop in on my classes anytime," he said. "I'd say you could come by during 3rd or 4th period today, except I won't be teaching today."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, in 3rd and 4th periods today the kids are gonna be working on a project so, you know, I won't be teaching."
I asked him about the project his students would be working on, and he said the assignment was to create a tri-fold travel brochure for ancient Mesopotamia. Each student's brochure was to include things like a map, a list of major cities, information about the culture, government, and languages spoken, etc. I told him it sounded interesting and that I'd love to come by and see it.
When I stopped in later that day, the students were all working at their desks on the project. Most were using a program on their laptops to create digital brochures, though some were using paper and pencil. The students would stop every once in a while to google something or confer with a classmate. Everyone appeared to be engaged with the assignment and Mr. D circulated around the room, occasionally answering questions from students. He told me that he and another history teacher at the school had found the project online and made a few modifications to it for their classes.
I find it interesting that Mr. D described what he was doing in his classroom that day as "not really teaching," though I think I know what he meant. He meant that he wasn't standing at the front of the classroom addressing his students and personally directing everything that was going on; he wasn't the center of their attention; he didn't look like the Hollywood version of a great teacher; he wasn't performing. It wouldn't be hard to imagine someone looking into that classroom that day and deciding that in fact Mr. D wasn't really doing much at all, though his students were all working pretty hard.
I've had conversations with other teachers over the years in which they mention how uncomfortable they feel whenever someone else is in their classroom when they're "not really teaching." Like when their students are working on a collaborative group activity, or working on a project, or doing pretty much anything other than sitting and listening to the teacher lecture.
I find it disturbing that the very types of activities that are almost universally recognized, by teachers and non-teachers alike, as being exceptionally effective at helping students learn, also seem to make teachers feel uncomfortable. I suspect that one of the reasons Mr. D felt uncomfortable about inviting me to visit his classroom that day is because he thought I was interested in seeing what he was doing, and he knew that to a casual observer it would probably look like he wasn't really doing that much. Like maybe he wasn't doing his job. Like he wasn't really teaching.
I suspect that Mr. D is exactly right. I suspect that many people, including many principals and assistant principals, who are often responsible for evaluating a teacher's effectiveness in the classroom, would have visited that classroom that day and concluded that Mr. D wasn't really teaching. And that's a problem.