The Hows and Whys of Peer Mentoring

Our peer observations were organized in a simple fashion. Every week the person being observed informed the team of what to look for when visiting. Sometimes we wanted a certain child observed. Sometimes the focus was on a curriculum matter. Other times we wanted to address issues such as methods of class management.

During the week, the three observers would separately come to the observee’s classroom and take careful notes for 30 minutes. At the beginning of the following week, the team held a “debriefing” meeting and each observer recounted what they had seen. We rotated the process so that each team member was observed every month or so.

Scheduling was one of our first obstacles. We each looked carefully at our “specials” such as music, at our teaching assistant times and at lunch schedules to determine when it would be possible to leave the classroom. During a mid-winter team evaluation, we decided that 30 minutes was not enough time to observe. We solved this problem with two major adjustments: We increased our observations to 45 minutes and we chose a focus topic that the other teachers would watch for throughout the rest of the year.

Scheduling became a bit trickier but we carefully calculated ways to cover for one another. Sometimes we swapped teaching assistants, covered each others’ classes at recess, or ate our lunches during observations. The administration has been supportive, although all the work to organize and institutionalize the process has fallen on our team. Our union (we are members of the American Federation of Teachers) has not really been aware of the project.

Benefits of Peer Mentoring

The primary goal of the peer observation project is to rethink the way we do things and adapt to changing times, students, and circumstances. The benefits of observing went both ways. Not only did observed teachers get specific feedback but those doing the observing were exposed to an increased number of children of varying ages, learning styles, and academic, developmental, and emotional levels. All of us have benefited from seeing a variety of teaching methods and all have enhanced our “bag of tricks,” so to speak.

There have also been what one might call “hidden benefits.”

After a few months of observing each other, we recognized that we tended to over-prepare for the time we were observed. We wanted to impress each other and keep our “warts” hidden. As trust built, this need to appear perfect dissipated and we became more comfortable with letting down our defenses. This led to an unexpected development: Team members found that while teaching unobserved, they helped maintain their focus by pretending that someone was observing them.

Another interesting benefit was how our colleagues acted as a “reality check.” For example, one teacher said she felt as if she were always yelling at her students. The observers reported something very different. They saw a teacher who appeared to be patient and tolerant. Clearly, her own thoughts and frustration had shaded her view of her teaching. The team discussed this further and helped the teacher to focus on the reasons for her frustrations.

A third hidden benefit is that the children see their teachers practicing what they preach. We make it a point to be very open with the students about our observations and our team mentoring. In essence, we are modeling important lessons such as teamwork and learning through observation. These are the same skills we want our students to learn. Seeing their teachers struggle to improve and work with their peers is a powerful example.

New Challenges

We are now ending our second year of peer observation and mentoring. Our peer observation work has led us to look at many issues in a new light. How, for example, might we use our experience with peer mentoring to help effect reform throughout the school and district? How do we help other teachers question their teaching practices and place learning and self-reflection at the top of their priority list? Do we simply model what we believe the role of teachers should be or do we become assertive advocates of change?

Peer mentoring has also raised broader social and political issues. Poverty, child abuse, and other societal problems constantly surface and relate to the stresses that our children face. We constantly grapple with what to do with these understandings. Do we simply concentrate on our own little classroom or do we work more aggressively with parents, health practitioners, and government officials to take a holistic view of the needs of children? What role should we play in social change movements to improve the lives of our children out of the classroom?

As we reinvent and grow as learners and teachers, we find it increasingly difficult to ignore this most critical of questions. Are teachers passive observers of the world beyond our schools, or should we work to improve the overall lives of the children we serve? And how best do we do so?

— Marc Osten and Eric Gidseg

The authors wish to acknowledge the support of Joanna Hess, Adrienne Maley and Michelle Burk. Their participation in our collaborative work has enriched us both.