Becoming Invisible In My Classroom

student_ipad_school - 204Becoming Invisible In My Classroom

by Jane Healey, Increasingly Invisible Teacher

“She doesn’t do anything. She gets paid to babysit us while we do all the work.”

I overheard the middle school students in the orthodontist’s office describing their teacher who “flipped” the classroom, and they were quite salty.

“She walks around watching us, and she won’t even answer our questions. She just says, “Where do you think you might find that information? It’s stupid.”

So I’m useless. Fabulous.

I’ve always thought a good teacher is like a good referee in sports: they are at their best when people don’t even notice them. In other words, if I’m doing my job well, students are learning without seeing me teach, hearing me teaching or even knowing I am teaching. If they are learning, I’m doing my job.

Beyond students, many parents and critics, especially those worried about accountability, don’t see the teaching and wonder what their taxes are paying for. They remember teachers standing in the front of the room, talking, writing on the board, pointing at sentence parts, repeating the multiplication tables, etc.

They learned in classrooms with desks in rows, worksheets, and right answers. They believe in the traditional image of a teacher. So in a contemporary educational world, what constitutes teaching? What do classroom teachers get paid to do?

In an innovative classroom, observers might see a teacher wandering around from student to student answering questions about writing a paragraph. Or, they might watch a teacher leaning over students’ shoulders pointing at the “About us” button on websites to check credibility. Or, they might catch the scene of a teacher kneeling next to a table guiding a group trying to solve a math problem about a pyramid made of pennies.

What they won’t see are the hours of prep work finding a “problem that matters”, creating LibGuides for safe web crawls, and setting up the Question Formula Technique for students to create essay questions. They also won’t see the hours of assessments based on rubrics the teacher coached students to develop.

In contemporary classrooms, students are working to publish their own books, annotate readings, perform background research, design sets for a play, create book covers, and gather primary documents for an exhibition. The teachers invested time setting up the activities with the appropriate parameters and materials, all the while assessing more about student performance than ever.

The teacher isn’t at the front of the room talking, because the teacher is everywhere, interacting with individual students, working at their level with their skills, and challenging them to keep pushing and expanding the boundaries of their knowledge. The teacher is always in motion, adjusting to each student’s or each group’s needs.

As one of my favorite mentors said, “We build the sandbox, and they play in it.” I have to build the sandbox, orchestrate, and connect students with networks and resources, making hundreds of adjustments on the fly.

So I’m not exactly useless, just less visible, my voice and ideas and coaching in different places than they were before. 

Image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad; Becoming Invisible In My Classroom Through The Flipped Classroom


  • I am new to teaching in a Tech College, and the eventual goal for us is to have flipped classrooms. I already use a lot of the techniques, but also have to use diverse teaching methods so all students are reached. I do believe that students feel like we should be delivering information to them on a silver platter so they can just regurgitate. But as adults, they also know that there is a critical thinking piece that they need to know and internalize. Very nice article. Hopefully those parents who object will go back to school someday and experience the flipped classroom for themselves!

    • Good luck with your first year. It’s the hardest. Keep foisting the bulk of what needs to get done on the students; they actually like it as they get into it. This site and others have great resources about Project Based Learning, though it tends to be called Problem-based when dealing with college kids. Several universities share their curriculum online, and it differentiates for abilities based on the roles students play in the group. Have fun!

  • I think this is great…except we have students who can’t do the basics. We still have to read, write and do math. Students have lost so many skills and work on projects. We need a balance and we simply aren’t getting it. I know teenagers who can’t tell time unless the clock is digital, who can’t read script and can’t figure out how much they will pay at the register when an item is on sale. I was at a fast food restaurant when the register broke and the cashier was befuddled as to how much change I should get. The loss of language is measurable. Teenagers communicate with fewer and fewer words. They are often unable to express their ideas beyond basic thoughts.

    • I often fall victim to the same frustration you express above, but then I remember that parents thought Elvis was dangerous. Sorry to use humor and I mean no offense, but I do believe that we spend a great deal of time and energy upset with what this generation can’t do. I try really hard to fight that with the idea of basic human nature–curiosity and the desire to answer questions. My one caveat: with large class sizes, as a recent post on this site said, innovative teaching is extremely difficult. Good luck with the grind.

  • This is awesome. I love it when someone walks into my classroom and I can see them confused but they can’t see me. I’m kneeling by a student instructing on something. They look around. Students barely notice them. But then, when it’s observation time, it all goes out the window because the observation is based on the old model. Teaching is hard.

    • Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with the “official observation” version of my classroom. (See my previous post about being called “useless” by some kids.) Immediately after my first evaluation, the visitor only said one thing: You sure tolerate more chaos that I would. Luckily, the kids’ work showed earnestness and effort, so I wasn’t canned. But, I will say that it took awhile for the administration and colleagues to trust my methods. I’m still at it.

      • I visited a friend of mine last summer who works in advertising. It was eye opening. First, I’d love my classroom to look like their offices: open, colorful, personal, lively. Second, the workers were doing what tradition schools don’t do. There were small groups gathered in different nooks of the office. They had big tables and massive white boards. They were working on projects. No one was sitting in rows facing one person. I’ve been striving to transfer that into my classroom.

        As for tolerance, if the kids are learning and they are being respectful, I see that as a win.

        • What a great description. I want a class like that, too. In another career path of mine, I worked at Pixar managing the story process (makes sense if you think about it for a moment; just like a classroom). That corporate experience completely informs my teaching, speaking, writing and most of all, relationships with colleagues and families. I, too, strive for that investment of creative energies, and I get tingly when I watch kids learn with each other. I just read my class assessments, and one made me laugh out loud: I learned that I can laugh while I learn something. Now on to the ones that call me a babysitter!

  • Great post. This is the approach a growing number of us at my school are working hard to achieve. Having one to one iPads is making all sorts of things possible in this regard, I have to say as kids can both help themselves to information on demand as well as find ways to articulate their understanding. Many teachers feel threatened by this as if teacher-led learning cannot be improved upon. My last three formal lesson observations have all highlighted the independence shown by my students..the same students who are being spoonfed by some other teachers.
    Any good observer will notice that student learning, collaboration and differentiation are so much easier to achieve when the teacher moves away from the whiteboard..
    Keep up the great work and sharing your reflections! Happy New year.

    • The differentiation piece is key for me. I enjoy working one-on-one with students, especially while they are writing. Research tells us that for many tasks like the writing process, they learn best when we deal with them directly and not address the whole group. I feel I can assess strength and weaknesses early when they work independently. It’s almost counterintuitive, and perhaps this is what feels wrong to many traditional teachers; the independent model seems inefficient based on the surface-level chaos. But the less-centralized model really helps that large group of students in the middle of the skill spectrum who normally receive zero attention in an orderly room. The system is effective.

  • I love your approach. Do you recognize these quotes?
    • “The teacher’s mission has for its aim something constant and exact, bearing in mind the words, “He must grow while I diminish.””
    • “It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel her presence too much, so that she my always be ready to supply the desired help, but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.”
    • “We must, therefore, quit our roles as jailers and instead take care to prepare an environment in which we do as little as possible to exhaust the child with our surveillance and instruction.”
    Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

    • Yes. I often say that we have known the best type of teaching for a long time. I like Dewey, too. But if we can’t make that teaching exist widespread, then we need to focus on the obstacles. One that I see is the traditional idea of teacher. Another is the goal of public/free education. Is the goal for students to learn as best they can? Or are we producing “workers” or civic voters? That’s the stuff I like to grapple with.

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