This Morning at School

Students at Copperfield International School, Verbier, Switzerland

7.00 a.m., Thursday morning, on the train, making my way to school. 

In my role supporting professional learning, I’ve promised the faculty to visit classes today and to write about all the good teaching and learning. I’ve promised them anonymity. Is that even possible in a school that has several classes of just a few students?

Out my window, the Swiss mountains are backlit by the rising sun. Poles and signs flash by. Not too much time left to get ready.

“Only positive comments?” asks one faculty member, a little incredulous. “I want good feedback, I want to know what I’m doing wrong.”

Fair enough, I think. Some might like critical feedback. But it’s early in the academic year, this is a new school with new faculty, we’re still learning to trust each other. My immediate goal is creating a culture of continuous improvement. For this school year and many to follow. Not too hasty, I think. Let’s establish first what we are doing well.

I decide to put all of my morning observations, from eight classes, into one consolidated class. As if everything I saw happened in one classroom, with one group of students. I include only the moments of wonder, learning, skillful teaching, and kindness.

Before class begins I tell a joke, to signal I’m not a threat. I’m just there, I’m no big deal. The students groan and roll their eyes. We’re ready to go.

The teacher begins. They sit close together, teacher and students, in a circle, no large teacher desk separating the teacher from the students. There is no need. Some of the materials are projected, but more often than not there are papers and books and pencil cases on the table, right there, accessible. Some materials are on the walls, with QR codes to quickly find more information.

The tone is conversational. I notice, as I sit with the teacher and students, that there are no behavior issues to manage. Student engagement is high. When students are involved and interested, there are far fewer negative interactions to manage. The few instances of misbehavior are minor, the teacher refocuses the students on the content, the pace of the lesson moves along.

Teaching and learning are shared. By this I mean the classroom culture allows the students enough agency to actively participate in both the management and the content of the class. A boy passes the teacher a white board eraser when it’s needed, another moves papers out of the way to make space. A girl redirects the conversation to check her understanding. They are playing a role, they are shaping the experience with the teacher. They are not passive vessels, waiting to be filled. They are helpful and curious.

The students read with animation, negotiating meaning with the teacher, in several different accents, in several different languages. Pronunciation in English isn’t standardardized, this is World English. Both teachers and students take liberties unknown to them with grammar and vocabulary. No matter, communication itself demands convergence in order to understand each other. When other languages are spoken, no one says “English, please.” The unnecessary insecurity of multilingualism is absent.

The students are working, the teacher is working alongside them. Nowhere is there a long lecture. Conversations dominate. Students read with animation, negotiating meaning with the teacher and each other. The teacher restates harder vocabulary words with synonyms, gives time for students to describe words they might know, but aren’t quite sure of.

“Practice leads to mastery,” says the teacher. “You gotta work through this. Keep thinking.” 

Skills are integrated this morning. Students listen and talk about what they’ve read and written. And what they’ve read and written centers on a theme, a central idea, a question. They are given a degree of student choice, affording them voice, affording them choice.

Two students are restless. They rock back and forth in their chairs, balance alternatively on the front and back legs of their chairs. The teacher notices, but says nothing. It doesn’t seem to be a distraction, why make it an issue? Both of them are participating, asking questions. One of them turns to me and asks me to participate in class. I do. Why not? Just then an administrator lets himself in the room, takes a seat. He offers to participate in the lesson, too. His presence is comfortable, everyone is familiar with him. 

The teacher continues to expand, to ask for more, affirming what the student says, and when the time is right, asking for more. The students are stretched a little further, they do a bit more reflection than they would do alone. They are gently pulled in and out of their comfort zone to exercise their thinking. 

I smile as I watch the teacher continue to adopt a collaborative stance with the students. The teacher is playing alongside them. Coach yes, but player, too. It reminds me of summer camp training long ago, for me as a young counselor. “Play with,” they told us every summer. “Stand shoulder to shoulder.” I loved summer camp. “Join the game, don’t just watch the game. You are less effective from the sidelines.” The teacher didn’t go to my summer camp, nor maybe any camp at all, but has gotten the same training somewhere.

The teacher finishes the lesson before the class is officially over. For five minutes there’s a discussion about how it is at the university, how learning is different, how hard it must be to write a long paper, how tempting it might be to give up. 

Don’t give up. “Practice leads to mastery, you gotta work through this. Keep thinking.” 

By lunchtime I’ve finished taking notes, I’ve written the piece I set out to write. I set my plate down at an empty table and lower myself onto the bench. Some students at the neighboring table ask me to sit with them. I hesitate, wondering if they are serious. “Come and sit with us,” they repeat. I stand up to join them.

“But no bad jokes,” one of them adds.

Paul is presenting on uplifting professional development experiences with Professor Jennifer Carlson, Hamline University, at ECIS in November 2022. See the TIE blog Low Stakes, Easy Entry, Effective PD for more about uplift.

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