A funny thing happened a few months ago. I had arranged to take a new math teacher from one school to observe a math teacher at another school where I coach. I offered to drive her, and, unfortunately we arrived to the classroom about ten minutes into the lesson. We obviously drew attention to ourselves as we entered the room. What was strange was that one student kept looking over at me and talking to his friends. I’ll admit it. It made me a little self-conscious. Eventually, he passed a note to the teacher, who passed it to me.
Apparently, the student thought I resembled Daniel Craig of 007 fame. If only I was that cool. Although flattering, I realized that I had made some mistakes as an observer that altered the learning environment for both the teacher and the students.
Whether you are an administrator, instructional coach, teacher, or college student visiting a class, here are some strategies you can use as an observer (or secret agent!) to keep from disrupting the learning environment.
Show up before class begins.
That was the big problem with this incident. We all know that any time a visitor enters the doorway of a classroom, students are going to direct their attention to him or her, if only briefly. It’s better to be in the room before class starts. A bonus: as an observer, you will know better about what the lesson is about, especially if the teacher shares the learning targets and an agenda.
Greet students at the door.
Along with being there early, I suggest standing outside the door while students enter the room. This helps prepare them mentally and emotionally for a visitor being present. Smile and say hello at least. Engage in more conversation if you feel comfortable. Chat with the teacher as well, so students can see you as an ally to the teacher, rather than a detached, or worse, threatening presence in the room.
Ask the teacher to briefly introduce you early in the lesson.
Why? It has been my experience that many class environments will be influenced in one of two ways if I am not introduced. (1) They become exceptionally quiet, probably because they are not sure of why I’m there. (2) The become rowdy because they want to have my attention. A brief introduction usually heads off either of these outcomes.
If possible, ask the teacher to tell you what level of interaction with students is appropriate.
Personally, I like to ask students a few questions about their class activities and what they are learning. Some teachers want me to move around the room to write down what students are saying, so they can reflect on their learning. Others want me sit in the back of the room to see as much of the class as possible, so I can note how many students engage in certain behaviors. It is best to ask the teacher how you should interact with students before you visit. That way you can find out where his or her comfort level lies as well as what he or she believes is appropriate for the lesson’s activities.
If you cannot stay for the whole class period, find a a good time to slip out.
Look for a time to leave that will not draw attention to you. I often choose to leave during a transition in activities or when students are working independently on a task. That way, I can reduce the odds that my exit will become a distraction to the learning process.
Observing classes without altering the class environment can be tricky, but following some of these simple rules can reduce the incidences of drawing attention away from the lesson and towards which celebrity the observer may or may not look like.
PS: I don’t think I look anything like Daniel Craig, but many students say I look like actor Mark Pellegrino (or they say I look like Lucifer from Supernatural — which kind of weirds me out). I know him as Jacob from the television show Lost. And, I have to say, I really DO look like him.