Teacher Talk: Making Time for Observation
You may be getting ready to return to your classroom with a whole list of teacher resolutions in your mind. Maybe you're planning to take more time for yourself this year. Maybe you're hoping to take time to offer more advanced lessons. Maybe you're determined to take time to finish those materials you've been working on. Where to begin?
Teaching is a demanding practice, and most teachers feel pulled in more directions than they can count at any given moment. There are so many things to do: maintain the environment, wash the materials, observe the children, clean back to the the corners on the shelves, observe the children, sharpen pencils, observe the children, cut paper, observe the children, prepare your parent reports, observe the children, talk with administrators, observe the children, mentor your assistant, observe the children. Observe the children. Observe the children. Observe the children.
See what I did there? Too often, although we know that all the work of our teaching should be informed by objective, systematic observations of the children we serve, our attention is so scattered by other responsibilities that we don't make time to observe. Unless we are observing first, the rest of the work is just a best-guess. We'll invite children to lessons because we like the lesson, or because it's nearby, or because it's "next" in a sequence we learned in training, but we won't know for sure whether it's the right day or the right time in development or the right challenge for that particular child. Unless we are observing first, the scientific prepared environment is just another prepackaged curriculum masquerading as a child-centered classroom.
When you observe regularly, the lessons you offer are more likely to be the right ones for the children you offer them to. When you observe regularly, the materials you design are more likely to be the right ones for the environment you're preparing. When you observe regularly, you'll find you have more time, because you won't have spent as much of it spinning your wheels.
Because observation doesn't feel urgent, it too often gets pushed to the bottom of the list of "things to do today." It may consist of memory-based notes at the end of the day after the children have gone home, or presumptions we've made about what materials we think are appropriate for a child of three years and nine months, or only take precedence when we're finishing up our reports for parents on their children's development. But if we don't prioritize observation before all the other have-tos of the day, we lose the essence of Montessori. All of the qualities of the Montessori classroom, the carefully designed materials, the prepared environment, the individualized lessons, depend first on observing the actual children in the classroom.
We can't create an environment responsive to the children unless we understand the children we are creating it for. Remember Montessori's advice, "Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment." All of our busy-ness outside of the classroom, indeed, all of our busy-ness inside of the classroom, is only as useful as the degree to which is matches the observed needs of the children we serve.
As you move into this new year, take the time to organize your time. Make a list of the things you need to do each day and each week, and schedule them, allowing both for reasonable amounts of time to accomplish your goals and flexibility to know that some things can be adjusted if need be. Be certain to schedule the time when you will observe, each day, every day. Be certain to name beforehand what the purpose of your observation is. If you're observing to see what Practical Life materials are still attractive to the children and which ones need to be updated, that may take a different kind of observation than if you're observing to document the expressive language of a child whose interest in the nomenclature cards has wavered. And, finally, be certain to schedule time to analyze what you've seen. It's not enough to write down your notes while you're observing: you need to make the time to make sense of those notes. How does what you've seen help to inform your teaching choices? Because, at the end of the day, even at the end of a really tiring day, we know as Montessorians that the choices we make must reflect the observed development of the child. If you can't explain why the lesson you've offered is the right one for that child, at that moment in time and development, it's not the right lesson. Even if it's the next one in your sequence. Even if you really love the lesson.
As you're committing to all sorts of teaching resolutions this year, make sure regular, systemic and objective observation is at the top of the list. Prioritize observation, even on the days when you're pulled in other directions, and you'll find yourself better prepared to know which way to go.