Tom Daccord, EdTechTeacherOne of my first activities as an Outstanding Educator in Residence with the Academy of Singapore Teachers was to observe elementary school students using netbooks in a “hands-on” digital storytelling activity. At the front of the classroom stood a twenty-something teacher, only six months into her profession. At the back of the room were twenty observers –- yes, 20 –- led by the principal of the school and including department heads, curriculum leaders, and several Singapore Ministry of Education representatives. As I watched this young teacher work in front of this large group, I thought about how I had never been observed by a total of 20 educators in my entire 15-year teaching career. Yet, despite the size of the group, and the potentially intimidating presence of the principal and Ministry of Education admins, this energetic young teacher showed no noticeable signs of nervousness, or that this was some unusual event.

Because it wasn’t. Foreign visitor aside, regular classroom visits by colleagues, and formal discussions of pedagogical practices, are the norm in the Singaporean system. In each Singaporean school, classroom visits and pedagogical analyses are often led by the principal of the school, who — in each and every case — has been a classroom teacher. As such, this gravitas earns them almost immediate respect and recognition from their faculty in pedagogical matters. It’s telling that Singaporean teachers will refer to the principal of their school as their institution’s “instructional leader.” It’s an apropos title that denotes the primary responsibility of the head of any Singaporean school.

Yet, even more striking than this large congregation of observers, was the conversation that ensued afterwards. All of the observers, as well as a few additional participants, gathered in a room immediately after the class to discuss it. The principal gave a brief opening evaluation of the lesson and then asked us to critique it point-by-point. (We had all been provided a copy of the lesson beforehand.) And critique it we did: the teacher’s stated instructional goals, her preparation, her instructional strategies, her pacing, her interactions with the students, her technology guidance, her wrap up, and other facets of her lesson. While we were impressed with this young teacher’s poise and skill, we identified many areas for improvement. Furthermore, the educators in attendance were quite pointed in their criticisms of the teacher’s performance, while always measured and objective in tone. Finally, as the “special guest” of the day, it also became clear that they expected me to critique her lesson in detail.

And then, the teacher showed up. Whoa. If this were an American school I’d be hesitant to critique a colleagues’ work out of fear that they would take the criticism personally. I’d be concerned that it might damage our working and personal relationship and create an awkward situation for years to come. I’d likely be obtuse in leveling any criticism at the teacher’s practices and instead spend most of the time lavishing praise on the teacher’s pedagogical strengths. Actually, this is what I sometimes did when I served on my former school’s teacher evaluation committee. Each time I had to deliver a 45-minute face-to-face performance evaluation, I’d be nervous in anticipation of how the teacher might respond to the constructive criticism. I’d take out as many sharp edges as I could and hope that I wouldn’t offend my colleague. But, here in this Singapore classroom, the air was totally different. This teacher – younger than my eldest stepdaughter – did not look particularly anxious when facing me. Since the other observers were not retreating from the criticism they leveled before she arrived, I also told her what I honestly thought of the lesson. I extended deserved praise, but I also delivered pointed constructive criticism. At the end, she was appreciative.

Could we in the United States create school cultures where instructing colleagues on how they might improve is not a rare and emotion-laden event, but rather an accepted and valued mechanism in the development of desirable professional practice?

2 Comments

  1. the_seadreamer Says

    Hi! I’m a teacher from Turkey and there are some common points with the system in Singapore about teaching training and observing teachers. When I was at university before we were graduated, we had been through such a lot of teaching sessions, observations and lesson presentations. We were observed by our directors and peers many times, later we were graduated as being teachers. Additionally, we had to take an exam in order to start teaching in a public school and in this exam the score is not important. You have to be among best 1000-2000 teachers in order to work in the state schools. The exam takers are increasing every year, as far as I know this year the number is 250000-300000. So it is too difficult to be a teacher in Turkey and the best exam scorers and best ones become teachers. After being a teacher in a state school, you are become a teaching assistant for a year and start to have lessons but you have some counsellors for one year who have right to observe you without informing you. After this first year, if you are proficient enough, you become a teacher. As a conclusion this is a difficult process not an easy one and we are always observed by our principals. Unfortunately these principals are not as good as we are.

    • Tom Daccord Says

      Thanks so much for your insights. From your comment it appears that Turkey, like Singapore, has a comprehensive system for developing teaching competence — as opposed to the American way of under-preparing teachers. In this country we offer many “alternate” paths to becoming a teacher and until teaching becomes a true profession with a comprehensive system of continual improvement our schools will suffer.

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