One “assignment” in the Teaching Scholars program is to conduct a formative peer observation with a Teaching Scholar colleague. My initial reaction to this process was one of insecurity, i.e., questioning my own teaching style and concern over selecting the “right” class session to be observed. I was determined to select a class session with significant theoretical content, with an obvious beginning and end to allow for a complete assessment, and a session that was presented primarily by me (versus the students). That plan put me in a quandary. I have very interactive classes that include student presentations and lots of small and large group participation activities. I often view my instructor role as that of facilitator versus lecturer. Furthermore, most of the topics in my practice courses carry over several class sessions. Thankfully, my peer observer reminded me that she was to observe the teaching and learning process, not critique my teaching style. Any class session would do as the goal of the reciprocal peer observation process is to generate ideas and deepen our understanding of teaching and learning as it occurs in the classroom.
My second reaction to this process came during our pre-observation consultation. What was the goal of the class session she was going to observe? What issues did I face with that particular session? What feedback would I like from her? I have asked myself those questions with whole courses or whole units within a course. But, I had rarely given so much thought to one class session. The simple asking and answering of those questions helped me determine how to structure the class session. I knew, more clearly after our discussion, what was most important for the students to take away from the day’s topic.
My Teaching Scholar partner and I chose the same day to visit one another’s classroom. We started the day with me visiting her 8:00 am class. When I was in this observer role, I found myself watching the students more than the instructor. While not necessarily indicative of learning, body language, facial expressions, and the conversations from small group activities can be good indicators of student engagement. Since that observation, I have given considerable thought to the role of student engagement in the midst of learning. Do I place an inordinate emphasis on students’ reactions at the sacrifice of their learning? Or, does one enhance the other? I am still pondering those questions.
The roles switched at 12:30 when I became the observed. I won’t deny the presence of a few butterflies. At the onset of the class session, two students presented summaries of two different readings. One made errors. The other was ill-prepared. I had to navigate both situations, balancing student dignity with correct information, while being observed by a peer. I carried on with the session agenda hoping to generate meaningful class discussion and interactive small group work. During our post-observation consultation, my peer observer commented on the same positives and negatives that I identified in my own critique of the class session. This alignment of our two assessments was affirming in and of itself.
In summary, a strengths-based approach to the peer observation process can be a very helpful process. At a minimum, this assignment was a reminder of how often we ask this of students: Individual and group presentations in front of one’s peers with the ultimate goal of receiving feedback (often in the form of a grade.) We should not forget the emotional weight of such an assignment for some students. From a professional development perspective, the pre-observation consultation was the most meaningful for me. I had to stop and think, carefully, about what I wanted the students to learn from the session being observed. This deep thinking clarified the structure of that class session both in content and activities. Going forward, I plan to incorporate a similar internal consultation for each of my class sessions (or topics).
Assistant Professor, Social Work