[Note: I want to express my deepest sympathies to the students, teachers, and families at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My thoughts and prayers are with you.]
Most teachers don’t observe their students enough.
Because they’re too busy meeting with them. They’re too busy leaning down to help. They’re too busy scurrying from student to student talking them through every this and every that.
They assume that if you don’t look like you’re working hard, if you’re not in some way interacting with students, moving about the room, or reminding your class about something, then you must not be very effective.
You must not be very good.
But the truth is, going overboard in helping students doesn’t make you a good teacher. In fact, it’s a sign of trouble. It’s associated with ineffective classroom management, academically immature students, plodding progress, and a chaotic room environment.
And although you may spend some of your time engaged in the activities above, the more you can balance it with quiet, focused observation of your students—while they work independently—the more effective you’ll be.
Your students will misbehave less.
Most misbehavior happens when your back is turned, when you’re talking, or when you’re otherwise busy and distracted with other things. But by observing more, your students will be less inclined to misbehave and more devoted to their responsibilities.
When your central task during independent work time is to observe, rather than moving from one student to the next reteaching what you taught to the entire class minutes earlier, you’ll find that few will misbehave so directly and blatantly in front of you.
Your students will become tenaciously independent.
If you’re in the habit of helping students immediately following lessons, then you’re training them to be dependant on you. You’re training them to expect one-on-one reteaching, thus giving them little incentive to pay attention during the initial lesson.
If, on the other hand, you allow your students to noodle the challenges placed before them without your interference, you empower them. You empower them to listen intently, ask smart and relevant questions, and then attack their assigned tasks with confidence.
You’ll notice fewer hands in the air, fewer students in real need of assistance, and fewer students falling behind. In other words, by observing more and helping less, your students will become tenaciously independent—even bristling at your suggestions to help.
Your students will accomplish more.
Immediate, focused, and independent practice of whatever you teach your students is critical to their success and associated with better learning and faster progress. But you have to get out of their way. You have to step back and allow them learn.
The results can be remarkable. Their stamina, concentration, and ability to retain information will improve. They’ll be able to apply themselves for increasing amounts of time. And you’ll find yourself zooming through the curriculum.
You’ll know more about your students.
When you make the transition from incessant helping to more observation, you’ll find yourself learning and acquiring so much more information about your students—quite naturally.
You’ll have an intimate understanding of where they are and where they need to go. Your lessons will become tighter, more efficient, and more finely tailored to their needs. And you’ll know precisely how much guided practice to provide before handing over the keys.
What Observation Looks Like
Observation is one of the secrets of good teaching. But it isn’t sitting at your desk, idling by, glancing about your room as your students struggle after an uninspired lesson.
It’s much more than that.
Observation entails an undivided focus on your students—always standing and typically at a distance that allows you to watch your entire class.
It also requires you to provide sharp, vibrant lessons, spot-on directions, and a prove-it-to-me checking for understanding before releasing them to their work. Otherwise, you won’t be free to observe.
And your students won’t be free of you and the shackles of too much help.
Independent work means not dependent on you. And frequent periods of it—silent, focused, and uninterrupted—isn’t too much to ask of any group of students.
They really can do it.
An entire class, lost in their work, unaware of the heater clicking on, the scratch and tap of pencils and keyboards, or the brilliant morning sun peeking through the trees outside . . .
And you, watching them work, contented but vigilant, knowing that minute by minute and hour by hour they’re improving, maturing, and becoming better, more independent students.
It’s what good teaching looks like.
Note: We’ll be taking next week off to spend Christmas with family, but will be back on December 29th with our annual Best Of Smart Classroom Management.
We wish you a safe and loving holiday season.
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