Published Online: May 14, 2013

Open Your Classroom Door to 'Be Better'

It's May. It's spring in Colorado. My 6th graders are starting to sound, smell, and act like ... 7th graders. Sunshine and storms trade places depending on the day, so outdoor recess is not a given. Energy is high and motivation is a struggle. Summer is just around the corner and weeks, days, and hours away. Many instructional hours away.

And yet, it's been a great week in room 214. A rich week of learning. Why?

I wasn't flying solo—I had backup. Every day, but especially in May, students need their teachers' A-game. I've noticed that I'm more willing to take risks, try new things, and reflect "in the moment" with a colleague in the room alongside me.

On Tuesday, Joe Dillon, the instructional coordinator for educational technology in Aurora Public Schools, supported me in my classroom. We talked through the lesson, he observed my class, and he interacted and conferred with kids. Following the lesson, he provided me with meaningful feedback around leveraging digital tools to increase student ownership.

On Thursday, Lori Nazareno, teacher-in-residence with the Center for Teaching Quality, visited my classroom. She helped me monitor the "double bubble" Socratic circle as kids engaged in text-based discourse—face-to-face in the inner circle and on Edmodo in the outer circle. This was the first time I'd tried this twist on the Socratic circle with this group of students. Having two adults monitor the live discussion and push the online discourse to deeper levels was invaluable.

Neither visitor is my evaluator. But I respect them both highly as accomplished educators who know their stuff and "get" adolescents. Their mere presence in my classroom makes me a better teacher.

The great poet Maya Angelou says, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, be better." I've adopted this as my new teaching mantra.

Seeing Things Anew

Becoming better teachers is easier than we sometimes think. At the beginning of the school year, I wrote about doing the work alongside students as a way to vet the quality of our tasks, prompts, and assignments. Letting others into our classrooms is another way to get better. Just opening our doors, wide and often, can help us see our students and practices with new eyes.

How can we do this?

• Start small. Invite a colleague in during their planning period and reciprocate by visiting their classroom during yours. Bonus points if you share students and can see them in action in another content area.

• Get bigger. Host a "Bring the Community to School Day" as a way to "flip" the "Bring Your Child to Work Day" annual event. Create several "visit" days throughout the school year as a way to showcase student work and strengthen community partnerships. Invite parents, school board members, and other district and community leaders. Great teaching and learning deserve an audience.

• Leverage tools. Be your own coach by videotaping frequently and sharing clips with colleagues you trust, your evaluator(s), your students, and others. Watch the footage yourself to see your classroom from an outsider's perspective. Follow teacherpreneur Ryan Kinser's approach to "blowing the doors off your classroom" by starting your own VLC (video learning community).

Opening our doors, videotaping instruction, and sharing our practice can be scary. Classrooms are unpredictable places and interruptions are inevitable. Even the most well-planned lesson rarely goes exactly as planned. I was reminded of this when I had to reschedule my colleague's visit multiple times due to testing windows that invaded our protected learning space. Be persistent and take the plunge. It's worth it.

If you haven't done so already, consider going through the National Board-certification submission process, which includes videotaping and reflecting on your practice. Engaging in the certification process has helped me identify the professional-learning experiences that have made me a better teacher. (Hint: Transformative experiences rarely happen in "traditional" professional-learning structures like staff meetings, conferences, or workshops.)

Videotaping instruction and hosting visitors motivates me to reflect on why I do what I do, and how I can do it better. What would happen if we taught as if every lesson was being videotaped for an external audience or being observed by someone whose opinion we valued? Collective improvement.

If you want to get even better—starting today—open your classroom door and let the camera roll.

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