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Peer Observation and the Novice Teacher: What You See Is What You Get

Safari copy.pngWhile on safari with NEAF Global Fellows in South Africa, our guide suddenly stopped the truck and jumped out. There on the edge of the dirt road, unnoticed by any of us, he identified an impression left earlier by a zebra. Amazed, we listened intently as our guide explained the zebra's intentions while rolling in the dirt and indicated the tracks leading to and from the area.

Our guide's university background and years of experience afforded us much more than a simple view of animals in the refuge that day; he taught us about their social behaviors, instincts, and movement patterns. While the views on safari were spectacular, it was our guide's expertise that deepened our appreciation of South Africa's animals.

What Do Novice Teachers Learn from Unguided Observations?

Novice teachers are often on safari in classrooms hoping to spy best practices and learn from veteran colleagues. Unfortunately, the limitations of these observations are compounded when teachers observe solo. All too often, well-meaning administrators suggest new teachers watch more experienced teachers to see mastery in action. But new teachers, with their lack of experience and pedagogical understanding, are not always able to identify nuances of effective teaching and then successfully implement new strategies. On a solo safari, what new teachers see is literally what they get.

Guided Observations as Collaborative Reflective Practice

The routine of sending novice teachers on unguided observations should be considered malpractice. In a profession requiring certification, collaborative attempts at reflective practice are an essential part of induction. In fact, job-embedded learning opportunities such as guided observations offer benefits to both the novice and veteran.

As both teachers consider the instructional approaches during a live lesson or video, they engage in shared perspectives, critical thinking, and analysis of practice. Follow-up feedback on new instructional attempts allows further improvement of practice by both teachers.

In a study by NNSTOY, master teachers who guide new colleagues were found to experience greater self-efficacy in their teacher leadership roles. This, in turn, has a positive effect on retention (Remijan, 2014), and can also encourage a rich culture of observation in the school.

Instructional coaches and mentors often describe a new teacher's lack of experience by saying, "They don't know what they don't know." Why then would we expect a new teacher to identify best practices with an untrained eye? In the same way we champion the effects of personalized learning for students, our efforts to personalize observations will increase the learning and skill development of our newest teachers.

Without the guidance of a master teacher, what a new teacher sees may literally be all he or she gets.

Allison Riddle is the 2014 Utah Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She is the Elementary Mentor Supervisor for Davis District in Northern Utah.

Photo Credit: Allison Riddle

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