Over lunch recently, the daughter of a good friend, who also happens to be a relatively new Kindergarten teacher, expressed to me that she was feeling frustrated. She felt that she wasn’t reaching her students at the level that she aspired to and didn’t quite know what to do about it.
Having just listened to George Couros discussing, “Would you want to be a student in your own classroom?”, I talked with her a bit about his question and suggested that perhaps looking at the issue differently might give her insight into something simple she might not be readily seeing. Somewhat missing my intended point, she jumped on her own version of this idea and immediately sent a message to a few colleagues to ask if they would spend time in her classroom and offer feedback as outsiders looking in. I said nothing further and simply asked if she would follow up with me in a few days and let me know how it went.
Yesterday, I heard from Cheryl again. She had gone through her self-imposed, self-assessment exercise. While valuable, she still wasn’t feeling that she had really identified the source of the issue. I listened, and then suggested perhaps her peers weren’t the sets of eyes that she should be considering. I was intentionally plural, but she still wasn’t hearing me and this whole story ends with me sitting in the “observation chair” in her classroom for two hours earlier this afternoon.
Cheryl was excited to show me her classroom which she called “progressive”. The room was set up as learning center-based, and the children had freedom to choose which activities they would work on, within a predetermined set of criteria for the day (I couldn’t wait to share with my fellow Montessorians that apparently “freedom within limits” is now considered progressive).
I settled in and for the next two hours watched a young, talented, very eager young woman, setting herself up for complete burnout within the next five years. She spent the entire time that I was there moving from student to student, interacting with each of them in their chosen activity. Once she had successfully engaged with all twenty children, she rinsed and repeated the process.
As I was mulling over the conversation that I would later have with her about what I observed, I watched one little boy, Charlie, setting up a large puzzle-like activity on the floor which involved placing various 3-D geometric shapes into their corresponding negative spaces. At several points Cheryl passed through the area where Charlie was setting up, and at one point she stopped to address a nearby student, which left her now standing directly in Charlie’s work space.
Charlie looked up from his work and politely asked, “Ms. Sanders, could you please move?” Not hearing him at first, Charlie piped up and with greater volume asked again, “MS. SANDERS, can you please move?”
Hearing his second request, she quickly shuffled a bit to the right, Charlie went back to work, and Cheryl went back to being helicopter-teacher.
Later over a cup of tea, I asked Cheryl to reflect on my visit and how she felt about herself and her students during the time I was in the classroom. This time she explained in much greater detail that she simply didn’t feel like she had sufficient time to really connect with each student during each activity and that she was feeling quite challenged about how to accurately assess them for report cards, which was causing her to stress over parent-teacher conferences, which was causing her to lose sleep trying to find a better strategy, which was leaving her tired each morning and not feeling like she was bringing her best self to her children.
Wow. I tried talking with her about the difference between observation of student progress and what I had witnessed her doing, which was basically over-teaching everything, but it still seemed that my words weren’t connecting.
Taking a different approach, I asked Cheryl if she recalled what Charlie had said to her earlier. She did not. I reminded her of the activity that he was working on at the time, and then asked again if she remembered what he had said. This time she recalled that he had asked her to please move so he could lay out his activity. Great, we’ll come back to that.
Moving right along, we discussed the 3-D geometric shapes activity, and that I had noticed that this and many of the other activities in her classroom were self-correcting, so when Charlie got to the end of the activity he would be able to see for himself whether or not he had executed it correctly because either all of the pieces would fit, or something would be out of place. She did not have to teach him this. All she had to do was show him, one time, how to retrace his steps. I further explained that by simply adding a control of error to any activity, she could remove herself from continually micromanaging every step of every process for every student.
Cheryl thought this was the most innovative and wonderful advice she had ever heard (or invented in 1896, thank you again Maria) and began making a list of all of the different ways she could modify the activities in her classroom to add control of error and relieve some of the burden so that she could spend more time actually observing her children. Wonderful!
At the very end of our dialogue she thanked me repeatedly for my insight and then, looking a little puzzled, finally asked why I had wanted to know if she recalled Charlie’s words. I smiled and told her it was because she was thanking the wrong person. I hadn’t taught her anything today. All this wisdom had actually come from Charlie, and getting back to the original question, “Would you want to be a student in your own classroom?”, when something like this comes up for her as a professional, she needs to first look to her students for the answer.
Even more puzzled now, Cheryl said, “I am not following. All Charlie did was ask me to move.”
“Yes, and what he was really telling you dear, was to get out of his way.”