The Substitute Teacher Guide to Classroom Observation (page 3)
Look, listen, and learn—very good advice for even the most seasoned substitute teacher, and a crucial guideline for those of you who are just starting out. Someone once said that half of success is showing up. I contend that the other half is just paying attention. Observation is another way of saying the same thing.
How Can I Get the Most out of my Subbing Experience?
Every day you walk into a classroom—look, listen, and learn. By applying the powers of observation, you’ll walk away from your subbing experience with ideas that you can reuse in other classrooms and with other students. I recommend that you keep a spiral notebook in your bag of tricks. When you observe a good idea, write it down.
And don’t confine yourself to observing only full-time classroom teachers. You can learn many tricks of the trade by observing other experienced subs.
You might argue that you don’t have time to observe other teachers because you have a classroom of students to teach. That’s true! So do the next best thing—ask questions. If you’re a new sub, don’t be afraid to ask more experienced full-time teachers and subs for ideas. If an idea works, it can become part of your repertoire. And if it doesn’t work out for you, it’s only one day and you’ll know not to repeat it again.
What Can I Learn by Observing Students?
You’ll be amazed at how much you can learn from students. As I mentioned in the Helpers chapter, students provide a wealth of knowledge about how things are done in the school and in the classroom. Ask students what methods are used to line up or to get students’ attention. You will see which ones are effective and work with your individual personality.
In addition, students can often provide you with excellent ideas for “filler” activities and games. In fact, most of the classroom games that I use were taught to me by students. I was sure to ask them what they like to do when there is some extra time. Students love to teach a sub something new. Why not allow them to feel as if they are helping you?
Let’s say you have fifteen minutes to fill before the students go to lunch. Here’s how the interaction with your class might proceed:
“Let’s do something special before we go to lunch,” you say with enthusiasm.
“Yeah!” respond at least a few of the children. Hands go up immediately with suggestions while other children shout out ideas.
Maintain control. “I think we’ll play a game. Which short games are your favorites? And please, people, no shouting out ideas. Raise your hands.”
“I think we should play Higher/Lower,” says a girl with curly hair.
Another hand goes up, and you nod to acknowledge a freckle-faced boy. “I think we should play the Unique Game.”
“Okay,” you say, “let’s play the Unique Game, and don’t worry, next time we’ll play Higher/Lower.”
Once the choice is made, have the student who suggested the game explain the rules to you and the class.
What are the Observable Characteristics of a Good Teacher?
I currently work at Florida Atlantic University where I supervise student teachers. My job is to observe student teachers as they present lessons in a real classroom and provide them with constructive feedback.
I can recall the very first observation I ever conducted. The teacher was a young woman, Pilar Mendez, who had a slight accent. In the first few moments of observation, I became concerned that her accent might hurt her ability to communicate, but as I observed her, I realized that my initial concern was groundless.
Pilar had what I call “the gift.” She was a natural teacher— excellent instincts, a calm and loving style, and subtle, yet effective, classroom control.
As I observed, Pilar presented a math lesson on the fact family for the numbers 6, 7, and 13. She drew a house on the board and wrote the related numbers in the attic of the house.
“Class, I am going to tell you a story about a very special family,” she said. “The numbers 6, 7, and 13 are all members of this special family, and they all live in the attic of this house. They want to go into the rooms on the first and second floors, but they want to be in each room together.”
Pilar then represented the facts for each “room.”
“Now you are going to make your own house with different fact families. You will make number sentences, too. Be sure not to leave out any member of the family when writing the number sentences,” she warned the students.
Pilar used the family metaphor beautifully and made the math lesson real for the students. She told an engaging story for each fact family. She brought the lesson alive and turned a potentially dry lesson into something the children enjoyed.
The students were attentive and involved. When she asked questions to check for understanding, she praised them with gusto, always using their names and thanking them for listening. In short, she had the students eating out of her hand.
Now that I have been observing student teachers for many years, I have noticed some interesting patterns. I can tell whether a teacher will be successful in the first five minutes of the lesson. There are certain qualities that good teachers possess, and I feel that many of us are born with those qualities. If you are lucky, you are one of those people. If not, you can learn to be effective by watching good teachers and practicing good teaching skills.
What Qualities do I Need to be Effective in the Classroom?
To be honest, “the gift” cannot be learned. You have it, or you don’t. You should try to observe excellent teachers and look for the following characteristics. You can be a wonderful teacher if you try hard to develop these qualities:
- You must be confident. Even if you’re not . . . you have to fake it!
- You must present yourself as a person who is in control.
- You must present a kind and caring aura.
- Your voice must have inflection, vary your volume for effect.
- You must have good “people skills.” A good sub is able to assess the emotional needs of each student and then act to meet those needs.
- You must be organized. Arrive early so that you can look through the material and understand your subject matter.
- You must be flexible, reacting to unexpected situations without becoming flustered.
- You must always maintain your sense of humor.
Remember that part of teaching is acting! It may be that in your personal life you don’t exude confidence, your normal speaking voice is monotone, and your bedroom closet is somewhat disorganized. When you teach, however, you have to act the part, and that means you must project a confident demeanor, a singsong voice, and an organized approach. If you do enough acting, you may actually acquire these traits in everything you do.
If you want to be a better substitute teacher, recognize the power of observation—look, listen, and learn. As a sub, you are in a unique position to observe good teachers and other experienced subs. The following guidelines will help you as you observe:
- Observe the layout and organization of every classroom you enter. Use a notebook to record good ideas.
- Try to visually observe a good teacher or an experienced sub. Note the techniques that are used to present content, manage the class, and interact with students.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Observe your students. They can teach you much about the classroom, and more important, they provide instant feedback about techniques that work and those that don’t.
- Learn how to develop the qualities that every effective teacher has. You may not have the natural gift for teaching, but you can develop the skills that are needed.
A good substitute teacher keeps his or her eyes and ears open. You’re a teacher, but to get better, you must be an observer, too.
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