In this post, Caitlin Moss (Fellow ’10, Georgetown University) describes some of the invaluable lessons that she has learned from local teachers at her school and from her Teach For China teammates. This process of ongoing feedback and improvement is crucial to Fellows’ efforts to become even more effective teachers.
Here at Manghuai Middle School, we have an open door policy about observing classes. Pretty much any teacher can go observe any other teacher’s class at any time. At first, I was somewhat intimidated by this policy. As a first time teacher, it seemed pretty scary that I would have other, more experienced teachers scrutinizing my every move. Never mind that I had been formally observed by my (American) Program Manager during Summer Institute–I was pretty freaked out by the idea of local teachers watching me. “What if my Chinese doesn’t make sense? What if they hate my teaching style? What if they wonder why the heck I’m here and would rather that I just go back to America?” These doubts all ran through my head like a broken record. And thankfully, none of them turned out to be true.
When Lu Laoshi 老师, my mentor teacher, started observing me during the first week of school, I got earfuls and earfuls of advice. A lot of it was actually really helpful, but sometimes the packaging it came in was not always my favorite. I didn’t particularly enjoy being told what I could be doing differently immediately after class, in front of all of my students. Thankfully, things have changed for the better. When Lu Laoshi comes to observe my classes now, we usually have a quick debrief afterwards in the teacher’s lounge, which is a much better way of interacting (at least in my opinion!). She is still extremely direct with her advice, but most days, I’m glad that she is giving me her honest opinion.
During the first few weeks of school, I was still trying to get used to my class, and wasn’t able to make the time to observe other teachers’ classes. But I soon realized that it is a two-way street with Lu laoshi, and that observation should be a priority of mine. Given that during our school’s opening ceremony, she was one of a handful of teachers to receive a hongbao 红包, or a bonus, for getting some of the highest test scores in the school, it was very obvious that she could be a great resource for me. So, I have started popping in to the back of Lu laoshi’s classes whenever I can find time. By watching Lu Laoshi, I have learned her methods for giving her students quality opportunities to practice new material and then to demonstrate mastery to her. She has a great way of having students practice writing new vocabulary individually, and then assigning a word to each student to write on the blackboard. Occasionally, I’ve also picked up good explanations of some really tough grammar points from her class. After class, she always asks me if I have any advice for her, and sometimes I help her with the pronunciation of tricky words like “dictionary.” As far as collaboration goes, I think we’re on the right track now.
I have also listened to a number of my co-fellow Karman’s classes. From Karman, I have learned so much about how to take a lot of the tools given to us during training and modify them to better suit the rural Chinese context. For example, we have a 5 – step lesson plan framework that is designed to fit within a 45-minute class. It goes something like this:
2. Introduction to New Material
3. Guided Practice
4. Independent Practice
At first, I was sticking rather closely to this structure and tried to use it in almost every lesson. However, 45 minutes is often not enough time for students to master a tough grammar concept or completely memorize 15 new vocabulary words. Karman’s method of stretching out the 5 – step lesson plan over the course of a day (over two or three class periods) has worked much better in my classroom. If students have more chances to practice new content, they do MUCH better on their dictations, exit tickets, and other mini-assessments. Now, I grade fewer, but usually better quality assessments that inform me about students’ level of mastery for our material each day.
Observing both Karman and Lu laoshi has been immensely helpful to me. One of the most difficult things about being a brand new teacher is that the learning cycle keeps going and going and going. It’s a LOT of hard work. I plan classes, execute them, and in doing so, experiment with new ideas, ALL the time. I get feedback on all of this on a class-by-class basis. Even if no one observes my class, I can tell, based on how my students are doing, what worked and what didn’t. Observation definitely helps to speed up that learning process. Sometimes it can be hard to watch yourself fail. But the thing is, I know that I fail in at least one minor way (and often a more major one…) every single day. Since I already have that awareness, having someone else point out my weaknesses to me is that much less painful. And sometimes it helps me focus my energy on the more pressing problems that I must resolve sooner rather than later. It gives me priorities and a direction for my growth as a teacher.