Seeing things anew: being a tourist in our own classroom

The more often we see the things around us - even the beautiful and wonderful things - the more they become invisible to us. That is why we often take for granted the beauty of this world: the flowers, the trees, the birds, the clouds - even those we love. Because we see things so often, we see them less and less.  Joseph B. Wirthlin

This is a more personal, reflective post than I usually write on this blog…but hey, blogging should be a bit personal. Right? So here goes…

Over the last six weeks or so, I have spent a lot of time working and living away from home. For some of that time I have been fortunate to have my family with me but, regardless, my work has taken me to extraordinary places far and wide. It’s been a while since I have had the full weekend at home so, this evening - after beautiful, warm, blue pre-summer Melbourne day – I took myself out into my back garden of over 20 years and I…looked up and out.   I noticed our native frangipani in full bloom, I watched our golden retriever get teased by our bossy chooks and I listened to the delicious, summery call of the rainbow lorikeets as they flew overhead. I watched dusk settle over my suburban back garden, poured a second cup of tea and felt – gratitude.

photoMany international readers of this blog know all too well what it feels like to see your home in a new light and to experience the gift of appreciation that comes when you spend time away from a place so familiar to you it has become somewhat invisible and unnoticed.  I left full-time classroom teaching years ago - when I moved into teacher education and then into consulting. I have never stopped thinking of myself as a teacher (it’s what I always write in the section asking for ‘occupation’ on official forms), but I guess I spend more time ‘teaching teachers’ nowadays. Same, same – but different. Working with children – and being in a primary school classroom is my natural habitat but one that I often leave for extended periods.  Over the last 12 months, however, I have found myself working more and more alongside teachers and children in their classrooms as part of our own inquiries into what it means to be ‘an inquiry teacher’. I have always with children as part of my PL approach - but the preparedness of teachers to invite me in to their classsrooms and for us to work together has definitely grown over time.

This past week alone, I have participated in a five year old’s elaborate personal inquiry into how to be a ‘café worker’; listened in awe as ten year olds shared their theories of light and shadow with me as we inquired into science; figured out –with the help of some 7 year olds – how life in rural Victoria might be the same and different to life in the city at the same time as investigating the skills of researching through video; inquired into the thinking skills of summarising, comparing and contrasting with 6 year olds; watched as another group of 6 year olds organised questions into google-able and ‘better to ask someone’ questions….I could go on. It’s been a big week of teaching and learning with children and their teachers – I feel deliriously drenched in inquiry!!

So – what’s all of that got to do with the lorikeets in my back yard?

When I am given the great privilege to work with teachers and their children – I get, in part, to return to what I regard as my ‘natural habitat’ – the classroom. And see it anew. I experience the kind of perspective afforded to the traveller returning home. I notice the things that we can all, so easily take for granted. So at the risk of sounding a bit ‘cheesy’, I want to acknowledge what it is I have been noticing and savouring about this privileged, sacred job we do as teachers:

  •  That, for the most part, children are a joy to be with. When we open OUR hearts to them – they return that connection in spades.
  • That participating in the growth of a child’s understanding, seeing an idea take flight, seeing a child ‘get it’ is SUCH a privilege and so exciting. Sometimes I can’t believe I get to witness that!
  • Teaching is without doubt one of the most fascinating, intriguing jobs one can have. Sure – you can make it tedious by choosing to do the same thing year in, year out but as an inquiry teacher you never know what the day – even the lesson – will bring. There are not many jobs I can think of that afford you that kind of creative experience.
  • That teaching is FUN. Few lessons go by for me where I have not cause to smile or share a genuine laugh with children - the positive energy that a good lesson can bring to your own wellbeing cannot be taken for granted
  • That teaching means learning. Lately, I have been asking kids to remember to ask me ‘Kath – what did you learn today?’ at the end of my time with them. They always remember. And I love that moment. I never struggle to think of something I have learned or now understand a little more deeply. What other job allows you to regularly discover and re-discover so much about the way the world works across such a broad pallet of disciplines?

This is merely a small sample of the many gifts that teaching brings. Gifts that can so easily become unseen – inevitably masked by familiarity. Opportunities to see our work anew are vital – for maintaining perspective, positivity and a growth mindset.

It’s not just me that benefits from seeing and feeling my work in a fresh light whenever I return to a classroom. I have lost track of the number of teachers who have said to me things like: “I just loved being able to watch and listen to my kids from a new perspective – I am seeing them differently and noticing things I fail to noticed when I am teaching.” Even teachers who routinely share a classroom space (team teaching/flexible learning spaces) often reflect on the missed opportunities they have to more closely observe their students.

Of course, I am well aware that the work I do sits in a very different context to that of someone in the same environment day in day out – my focus is purely on that moment of teaching and learning for the children and teachers in that space. I am not thinking about the meeting with a difficult parent after school, the reports I have to start writing or the meeting I have to prepare for! I acknowledge the rarefied opportunity I am given – but I think it is one we can seek to replicate more often in our day to day work as classroom teachers. This can happen by teaching eachother’s classes, visiting other schools or spending time in specialist classes to watch our students from a different vantage point or simply by giving ourselves permission to slow down and reflect.

The best inquiry teachers I know are those who have a strong, inquiring disposition themselves. They approach their teaching with curiosity and wonder. They see themselves as learners and assume that the day will bring THEM new discoveries as well as their students. Inquiry is so often about seeing something anew – experiencing fresh thinking, fresh perspectives, evolving skills – a continuous process of ‘becoming.’

When we see something often, the danger is, we see it less. Perhaps we need to be occasional tourists in our own classrooms, or momentary strangers in our own schools – to remind us of what we have.

How do you foster a culture of gratitude and positivity in your staff/team/classroom?

How do you keep your own perspective fresh?

What helps you step back and notice?

Just wondering....

Planning for inquiry – an opportunity for growth and inspiration.

It’s mid-year planning season in many Australian schools. Each term, around this time, I  find myself more often working with small teams of teachers around a planning table rather than in a classroom or at a podium. I admit, it’s one of my favourite things to do. I love the creative energy that inquiry planning demands of us. I love the challenge of connecting the children’s questions and interests with the resources we have, the curriculum and the teacher’s bigger picture view of where he/she wants to taker her students. I also love the fact that, in the schools I am fortunate enough to work in, teachers are prepared to have real conversations about the concepts the children will be exploring. We take time to ask ourselves what WE understand…over the last week I have had fascinating conversations about the nature of 'work', the true meaning of sustainability, what the term ‘states of matter’ REALLY means and why it's even worth learning about, the derivation of the word ‘commemorate’ , the relationship between force and energy, the complexities of the idea of a ‘balanced’ diet…I could go on! Looking back over the week, I am struck not only by the sheer diversity of ideas teachers grapple with as they plan but the increasing need for us to be strong inquirers ourselves. When we slow down our planning conversations and resist the urge to simply generate activities – we begin to ask questions and see our own confusions, uncertainties and gaps in our understandings.   Here’s where the collaborative element of planning is so important. Taking time to toss ideas around, to challenge each other, to clarify to draw on our own experience not only enriches the conversation but provides a much more stable basis upon which to identify the key conceptual understandings for students. While I appreciate the intended message of the phrase ‘learning alongside the student’ in an inquiry classroom, I am also acutely aware of the way a teacher’s lack of clarity can lead to poor questioning and missed opportunities for deeper thinking.   Taking time to talk through our own ways of seeing the ‘big picture’ of any inquiry journey is such a valuable component of the conversation around the planning table – and SO much richer than simply listing a bunch of achievement standards from a curriculum.


Collaborative planning for inquiry has become increasingly responsive and representative of the needs and interests of various groups and individuals. While teams still plan some similar strategies and experiences, the days of ‘cookie cutter’ units are over. When a team is clear about the bigger picture – there is greater flexibility in how different classes/students will travel towards it. One of my stand out moments for a really delightful week of planning was a conversation I had with the early years teachers at Roberts McCubbin Primary School here in Melbourne. Like many of the schools I work with, teachers at this level are encouraged to be on the look at for moments that lend themselves to authentic and powerful investigations. As we evaluated the inquiry work done over the term, one teacher in the team, Anita Siggins,  had us all mesmerized by her sharing of the unexpected inquiry that unfolded when she brought in a perfectly sculpted, abandoned birds’ nest to show her children. This provocation opened up such rich learning for her fascinated students who have continued the most stunning investigation in their quest to find out what bird made it and how. As she shared her stories, photos, student questions, responses and documentation with us – her genuine delight in the experience was infectious and inspiring. I know we all went away from that meeting reminded of the power of a spontaneous, genuine inquiry.

I have said before on this blog, that I believe collaborative planning to be a valuable form of professional learning.   In a worthwhile planning meeting we not only share but we inspire, challenge and question each other. And what results is far more than what goes ‘on the planner’ or ‘in the minutes’ – we grow ourselves as inquirers.

How inspiring are your planning meetings?  Just wondering...