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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Classroom Observations Are Not About Compliance

By Peter DeWitt — August 05, 2013 4 min read
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“The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.” Todd Whitaker

As much as Todd Whitaker was talking about teachers, I’m sure he’ll agree that the same can be said about school administrators. I enjoy reading about systems change, and try to abide by servant leadership every day, but Todd has always been a game changer for me. Long ago when I began to read his books he provided me with the hope and inspiration that what I do as a school leader matters. His words cut to the heart of most issues. Todd gives feedback and it doesn’t involve a point scale.

Getting ready for the school year, that seems to be quickly approaching, I have been reading a lot about evidence-based observations. If you’re a teacher, and maybe even a principal, you’re probably sick and tired of hearing about evidence-based observations. That’s most likely because it is accompanied by some state-mandated training.

The problem is that evidence based-observations are really important. Not because of the state-mandated point scales that come with them, but because of the fact that they can inspire important conversations between principals and teachers.

I know that school leaders are supposed to be seen as the master teachers walking into classroom observations, but I strongly disagree with that philosophy. The excitement about observations is not just what the students and teachers can learn from the principal (if they’re effective), but what the principal can learn from the students and teachers.

Observations and Conversations
In the usual observation format teachers and principals meet in the pre-conference and discuss the upcoming lesson and the objectives. The principal may ask the teacher what they would like the principal to see during the lesson but that’s where the scripted part of the process needs to stop. Unfortunately, most leaders walk in with the expectation of seeing the discussed objectives and miss out, or choose not to see, the other important elements. They’re worried about getting the observation done so they can move on to the next one.

Observations should be seen as teachable moments for all stakeholders in the process. I often walk in with my iPad and take notes, but I stop note-taking and walk around and ask the students questions. Sometimes, if the students are engaged in a lesson without the teacher standing over them, I ask the teacher some clarification questions, which goes back to Whitaker’s original quotation.

The best thing about being a principal is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a principal is that it matters every day. Every conversation. Every interaction. Every minute of our days provides us with the opportunity to serve our students and teachers, but it also affords us the opportunity to learn from our students and teachers. If we expect our teachers to be life-long learners, we better have the same expectations for ourselves.

And that is where I have an issue with accountability. Actually, let me rephrase that...it’s where I have an issue with the accountability.

Compliance Practices
Any teacher or principal worth their weight in salt doesn’t have an issue with accountability. Those individuals have been holding themselves accountable since before they began their careers. What most educators have an issue with is the accountability created by state education leaders.

Yes, they all stand and give their poetic, and sometimes engaging, speeches where they recite the words of such great works as Invictus by William Ernest Henley. They may even say that all of this accountability is not about compliance, but their actions speak louder than the most poetic and well-spoken words.

When we, as school leaders, sit across from our teachers and engage in conversations about instructional practices we have the opportunity to walk away inspired. Some of the best conversations I have had with teachers moved me to research information that would help them extend the learning in the classroom. Those conversations with staff and administrative colleagues have pushed me to stretch my own thinking.

What cheapens the process is when we have to end those conversations by telling them how many points they received. Our best teachers don’t need to be provided with points. They need to be provided with effective feedback and they need to know that they can even teach their school leader a thing or two. Points is a pathetic attempt at compliance. Points tell people that we have power over them.

Even with the difficult conversations, which we have always done without point scales, they are meant to get the best out of teachers who need help, and now points only make them feel worthless. My job as a school leader isn’t supposed to be about making someone feel worthless; it’s supposed to be about inspiring them to do better, and I don’t do that with points. I do that with words and actions.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
What I would appreciate, more now than ever, is for state education leaders, and those at the federal level, to have the decency to admit that as much as they may say all of this accountability (which they joke about in speeches) is not about solid instructional practices and creating relationships. These mandates and accountability are about compliance.

We can hear inspirational speeches every day, but as soon as the conversation leads back to points, we have your number. True change doesn’t need points.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.