Watching and Learning

Question: In The Power of Our Words and The First Six Weeks of School, you write about how important it is for teachers to get to know their students at the beginning of the year. One technique you recommend is observation. Why is this so important?

Paula: Observing children is one of the most powerful things a teacher can do at any time of year, but it’s uniquely important in the first weeks of school, when teachers and students are still new to each other. What teachers learn from watching children early in the year, even for fairly short periods, can guide them in creating classroom communities that truly include everyone.

Observing is also a key to building genuine, respectful relationships with students. Teachers who understand students’ interests, likes and dislikes, personalities, and approaches to learning can use that information to teach more effectively.

By watching students, teachers discover who has a hard time getting started, versus who starts off strong and then loses focus. They deepen their understanding of children who need help, whether with math or making friends. They notice children with strong social skills and other talents. Observant teachers apply what they’ve noticed by adjusting structures and expectations so all students have more positive experiences in school.

Q: How can teachers build time for observation into the day, especially during the early weeks of school when the days are so full?

Paula: I know it may seem hard to find time. One thing to remember is that although the beginning of the year is a time of focused teaching, it’s also a huge time of learning for teachers. I think teachers have to give themselves permission to stand back and watch sometimes. There’s this idea out there that a good teacher is one who’s always moving around. Believe me, teachers who occasionally stand still and watch their students will learn things they’d never learn otherwise!

I suggest starting right on the first day of school. One way is to greet the children at the door and then direct them to an activity they can complete independently, such as decorating nametags or completing an “all about me” survey. Once all the children have arrived, take a few minutes to step back and watch. There’s a lot to be learned from how each student handles that first task: who jumps in with confidence and enthusiasm, who watches for a while before getting started, which children already know each other—all sorts of information that can be used immediately to get your first day together off to a good start.

During a typical school day there are many times when teachers might observe. During the first few weeks, the best opportunities may be when the children are engaged in a highly structured activity that they can do independently, or when someone else is in charge, such as during lunch, recess, or specials. Later, any time when there’s a clearly established routine, such as arrival and dismissal times, transitions, or independent work periods, can be a chance for observing. The hardest part may be resisting the temptation to use such times to take care of other things, such as talking with individual students or prepping materials for the next lesson.

Q:  In The Power of Our Words, you write that observing students carefully is a key to effective teacher language. You say it’s especially important for reinforcing language, which is a way teachers tell children what they’re doing well. Why is that?

Paula: To be most effective, reinforcing language has to be specific and accurate, which requires watching closely to see what’s going well. Focused observation is a strategy teachers can use to get themselves into the habit of seeing more positives. If we practice looking for positive behavior deliberately at set-aside times, we’ll find that it becomes easier to see and comment on positives throughout the day.

I think this is an area where many of us need practice. We tend to talk a lot more about what’s going wrong than about what’s going right. It’s understandable—problems and places where there’s room for improvement are what grab our attention. The result, though, is that what students hear from us most often is criticism.

But if we watched more closely, we’d notice lots of positive behavior that we could comment on. It seems like the children who are getting the hang of things aren’t being noticed—or at least that’s how it must seem to them, since they aren’t getting teacher feedback about their progress. By setting aside small chunks of time to observe, and making this a time for noticing things that are going well, teachers can help ensure that their interactions with students include balanced amounts of positive reinforcement and constructive criticism.

Again, I recommend choosing times when students can do what’s expected without help. I’d tell the class what I’m going to do—“During this transition, I’m going to watch and admire how well you can clean up and get ready on your own.” Then afterwards, I’d share what I noticed: “I saw many people cooperating to get materials put away and tables cleared quickly. I saw you moving to the rug without rushing or bumping. I saw that the people who got here first waited patiently.”

Q:  In The Power of Our Words, you also talk about the importance of teachers being authentic in their interactions with children. Can you talk about how observing helps with that?

Paula: Stepping out of the spotlight to watch students gives teachers a chance to slow down and truly see them, so they can appreciate the children for who they really are. Teachers who know their students well enjoy them. If we enjoy and respect the children we teach, all our interactions with them—words, tone of voice, and body language—will be more natural, warm, and authentic.

Of course, interacting authentically with children involves more than just watching them. It also involves letting them know what we’re seeing. This can be as simple as having a short conversation, for instance, saying: “I saw you were using the colored pencils. Have you used colored pencils before? What do you like about them?” or “You sure know a lot about insects! How did you learn so much?” This lets the children know that their thoughts and opinions are interesting and worthy of attention. Such simple exchanges build understanding and respect and are a key to building strong teacher-student relationships.

Q:  Do you suggest that teachers always share what they’ve observed with students?

Paula: I don’t think it’s always necessary. During the first weeks of school, though, the words teachers say (and don’t say) are really important. It’s a time when children watch teachers especially closely. By treating all children as equally interesting and worthy of respect at the beginning of the year, teachers show by example that such esteem for all is expected from everyone in the class.

Some of the things teachers learn from observing might also be shared and discussed with colleagues or mentioned at fall parent conferences. I know some teachers who challenge themselves to notice one specific positive thing about each of their students each day or each week. They then share these noticings with students’ families.

However, especially if observing students is a new practice, I recommend also taking time just to observe, without any obligation to share. The key skill is watching carefully, so that’s the first thing to work on. I think it’s hard for teachers to let go of being center stage all the time and to allow ourselves to just be quiet and notice what’s happening with our students. It’s a challenge, but it’s also one of the most powerful tools we’ve got. It’s a way to discover amazing, interesting, positive aspects of students that we might’ve missed otherwise.

Paula Denton is the author of The Power of Our Words and Learning Through Academic Choice and the co-author, with Roxann Kriete, of The First Six Weeks of School.

Tags: Reinforcing Language