Why You Should Observe Your Students More

[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.

Here’s why.

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.

Also, if you haven’t done so already, please join us. Click here and begin receiving classroom management articles like this one in your email box every week.

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12 Responses to Why You Should Observe Your Students More

  1. Freya Shipley December 15, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    Thanks for your excellent blog! I’m enjoying it so much! I’m training to be a Montessori teacher, and the observation you describe is a central tenet of Maria Montessori’s technique. She said, “Unnecessary help is a hindrance.” It can be hard to stand back and let students struggle–even fail, temporarily. But it’s the only way to shift the impetus to learning into *them*, and away from the teacher.

    • Michael Linsin December 15, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

      Thanks for sharing, Freya! I wasn’t aware of that.


  2. Regla Maria Diaz December 15, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

    Dear Michael,
    I really love your article! I agree on any and all points stated. I have to tell you that even encourage my students to be observers, too, for it will help them be the “best survivors” in this career called life. I am very grateful to have found your blog! I am teaching 1st graders now. Thank you and happy days!

    • Michael Linsin December 15, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

      Thanks Regla! I’m glad you found us. 🙂


  3. joseph December 16, 2012 at 6:29 am #

    “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.”

    In previous and subsequent paragraphs, your pronoun ‘they’ refers to teachers. In this quoted paragraph, the same isn’t true.

    As long as administrators make checklists where constantly moving among seats looking busy etc etc are items required for job maintenance and tenure, teachers will continue to act in those ways.

    What you’re proposing is superior but nuanced, and I hope these observations are being read by administrators as well as teachers and that those administrators start changing those checklists–or recognizing the truth that teaching practice is an art and a process that changes over time.

    Otherwise other teachers–and I’ve known a few including myself–will get supervisors saying we’re standing in the corner doing nothing and we should be sailing around the desks checking with every student and talking to them. One is visible and easy to see; the other, again, is complex and nuanced and more of a challenge to recognize.

    • Michael Linsin December 16, 2012 at 8:13 am #

      Hi Joseph,

      The switch was a literary device, and a definite choice on my part. As for your second point, I think you’re right. That is, until you (or they) build a reputation for effective teaching and thus are given more leeway in this regard. When students are indeed focused and on task, and you have spot-on classroom management, I have yet to meet a principal who didn’t understand or be able to see this nuance (although I’m sure, like you mentioned, they exist).


  4. Ms. M December 16, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    I LOVE your articles! I think they are “right on the head” each week. As a veteran teacher with over 22 years in the profession, I find that the little reminders really resonate with me. One thing I would love for you to do…can you place a different image on your posts other than the book? The reason I ask is I like to PIN your articles to my Pinterest board but they all LOOK the same..with the image of the book. Something to think about…..
    I look forward to many more excellent articles!

    • Michael Linsin December 16, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

      Hi Ms. M,

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the articles! And thanks for the info on the article image, but very few of the articles have images. And the ones that do are all different. The image of the book is on the sidebar only and shouldn’t be connected to the article. I don’t know enough about Pinterest to advise on how to get rid of it.


  5. Lucero December 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    I was shocked to know about the news, I have an Asperger student too. I’ve learn to observe students thanks to you through previous posts. Thanks to your advice I have avoid many accidents too. This student tries to hurt his classmates, his reason is that he doesn’t like them. His father doesn’t like Asperger word and his mother says his reason to hurt is fault of her son’s classmates. Time-outs have worked good, he says he hates them but he can control himself and obey. He is 14, he’s being part of a 3rd grade group. He likes bringing needles, pointed scissors or yoyos to school, I’ve talked with her mother about avoiding accidents… it seems they don’t care. I really would appreciate your opinion.

    • Michael Linsin December 16, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

      Hi Lucero,

      I don’t have the experience or training with a student like yours, nor the history or observation of this particular student, to offer a thoughtful, reliable, or responsible opinion.


  6. Carolyn February 16, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

    what do you do when the student has his(her) hand up beacuse they din’t understand what the teacher was saying ,but snapps at the students telling them to put their hands down and that is why they should of been listening. What can be done or better yet how can this be corrected? Are the teachers not to help a student is they don’t understand the material which is presented to them? And during the observation time shouldn’t the teacher being able to see which student is having a problem with comprehension of the material presented and either talk to the student and or bring it to the parents attention?

    • Michael Linsin February 17, 2013 at 9:43 am #

      Hi Carolyn,

      I’m not sure I understand your question. Are you asking what the teacher should do?