The Classroom In the Upper School

Paul Wieman, Upper School Principal

Each year, one of the highlights of my job is to visit classes and reflect upon what I see during my visits.  The structure is quite simple:  I enter unannounced, I sit in the class for 10-15 minutes, observe what there is to see, and then slip away.  Clearly, I am not a fly on the wall; I am the principal, and I just can’t enter a room and not be noticed, so I am as aware as anybody that my presence has an impact on the classroom dynamic that day. Still, for the most part, I get to see what is going on.  Just one side note:  faculty do have the opportunity to ask me to schedule ahead of time, and faculty can also ask that I remain for an entire 40 minute period. While I am thoroughly willing to do this (and do in fact do this for all faculty new to RCDS), for the most part our teachers prefer that I pop in unannounced, thereby making the observation experience as genuine as possible.
And here is what I see…GREAT teaching.  And I am also excited to report that I do NOT mean great teaching in the sense that the teacher is standing in front of the room delivering a lecture. More often than not, a teacher is overseeing an active class of partners engaged in discussion, or teams at a white board working through a problem set, or students in a lab discussing results that don’t quite fit in with the task at hand.
What is exciting about RCDS is that when I enter a classroom, I see all students engaged, all attentive, all participating in some way or another.  True, when the principal enters, the spines straighten a bit, but I see lots of classes by walking past open doors, or popping in to hand a teacher a note, and even in these casual glimpses, students are attentive, teachers are engaged, all are involved. That in itself is a wonderful display of great teaching and the respect our students have for the classroom.
I am also not observing just teachers.  Here is an exchange I heard recently over a math problem in a senior-level math class:
            “…but we’ll end up with huge numbers”
            “Actually, now that I think about it, is that a problem?”
            “Don’t know.”
            “Let’s see if it works; it’s worth a shot.”
            “OK, let’s see what we get, and if we don’t like it, we’ll figure something else out”
            “Either way, we will learn something by trying.”
When I listen to that exchange (which sounds a bit saccharin in writing, but it actually happened), I credit not only the students but also the teacher for setting up an environment where such an exchange can happen.  The second line, where the student challenges the idea that huge numbers may not be a problem, is where the intellectual growth is happening, and that single sentence expands both students’ thinking more than any teacher standing in front of the room can do.
Another wonderful quality about visiting classes is that I am not just seeing the ten minutes in front of me, but rather I am watching the product of a quarter’s worth of excellent teaching, learning, classroom management, and more.  Really, I am watching the totality of two months of teaching, not just ten minutes of what is happening.  And through this lens, I can watch the balance of rigor and nurture that we strive to accomplish here. 
We build buildings and buy supplies, we take standardized tests, we do our homework and hand in our papers and lab reports, and while all this is important and is the stuff of learning, what really counts in the end are the relationships that teachers establish with their students.  To spend a couple of hours going around and seeing these relationships in action in 8 to 10 classes over a period of a couple of days is to emerge from the Pinkham Building invigorated about the work we do here each and every day.