Most of the time when someone hears “peer observation” it is assumed that a faculty mentor or other knowledgeable teacher is going to sit in your classroom and observe your teaching with a mind to critique you. This is the most common form of peer observation and it definitely has its benefits. In fact, it would be important to have this sort of peer observation and evaluation done on regular basis if you want to improve your teaching.
What many people overlook, however, is the benefit of simply sitting in the classrooms of your fellow teachers and faculty and watching. Yes, you may learn something of their discipline but more importantly you will pick up on classroom dynamics that you are too busy to see in your own classroom. You may also notice a student that you have in your class enacting the same annoying behavior that you assumed he/she saved only for your class.
The wonderful thing about being able to sit back and observe someone teaching when you have no real ulterior motive is that you will learn how to become a better teacher. You will notice yourself being more aware of what you do in the classroom. Are my powerpoint slides that hard to read? Do I speak that softly too? Am I able to capture the students’ attention this well? Am I this boring?
Many of your colleagues within your discipline might feel uncomfortable with the idea of another faculty member sitting in their classroom as it has the potential to spread information about how you teach (as if the students don’t already do that). One of the best ways to improve your teaching is to listen to what the students say about faculty outside of your area. For example, how hard would it be to slip into a large lecture hall with other students to listen to the teachings of the best English teacher on campus? Or the worst? On a smaller campus, it would be professional courtesy to ask before you entered their classroom but I bet many older faculty would welcome the chance to be an example. Just make sure you don’t tell them whether their example is one you wish to emulate or avoid at all costs.
If you find a teacher that is willing to be observed, make sure you don’t just visit their classroom once. In order to get a real feel for their teaching style, and therefore be able to compare it to your own, you would need to visit their classroom a few times at different points in the semester. At the very beginning of the semester, some faculty want to maintain an air of authority that tends to fade over the course of the semester as the faculty and students get to know each other. Plus the reality is that everyone has bad days.
Another possibility is going to another school in your area. If you are a college professor, it might be good to visit a high school teacher in your area. The same is true for high school teachers who could visit a local college to get a feel for what their current students might someday encounter.