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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

Leaders: Are Your Teacher Observations Active or Passive?

By Peter DeWitt — March 29, 2015 5 min read
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If you were ever a teacher, you remember the teacher observation process. Perhaps one was announced, which means you went through the goal setting process, had the observation that lasted around 45 minutes, and then met with the principal in their office to have the formal conversation after the observation.

Many times those observations resulted in receiving very little feedback.

Unannounced observations have become popular too. It’s not about the “gotcha” but about observing teachers and students in their natural elements. Principals walk in and stay for some length of time, and then the teacher receives an evaluation of what the principal saw. In best case scenarios teachers and principals meet to “discuss” the observation...in the principal’s office, but in the worst case scenarios teachers receive an observation form without a conversation.

Whether it was announced or unannounced, teachers are more relived to have it over.

The importance of teacher observations have increased a great deal over the years due to accountability measures. Unfortunately, just because observations are tied to point scales doesn’t mean they provide any more feedback to teachers. It is often seen as a process to get done...instead of a process to get done right.

And when I say “right” I do not mean a heavy handed, top-down observations that focus on weaknesses without acknowledging strengths, and I also do not mean observations that result in great praise even though the principal may not have been paying attention.

Are Your Observations Worthwhile?

Many times I have been in rooms with teachers who acknowledge that their observations haven’t resulted in new learning. The reasons span from the idea that the principal has never taught that particular subject so can’t provide any true insight (which is false by the way) to the principal is super busy and can’t possibly provide effective observations, which is sometimes due to nonsensical accountability measures or bad time management.

In schools there are two areas that are risk of being colossal wastes of time. One is the faculty meeting, which in many cases could have been summed up in an e-mail. The other is the observation process. Two areas that have been in schools for decades but haven’t changed for the good in many schools over those decades.

I understand that I may sound overly critical of the faculty meeting, but if the leader and teachers aren’t learning something through the process, then they are all wasting a very precious element that we always say we don’t have enough of...time. As more educators get on Twitter and engage in dialogue with other teachers, the more they see that some principals are trying to innovative (and I don’t just mean with technology), and the more they realize that their principal wants everyone else to change while they still go through the same processes in the same way. Innovation should be modeled from the top.

When it comes to teacher observations, there have historically been two types. One is passive and the other is active. We know what passive looks like. The teacher puts on all the pomp and circumstance while the principal sits in the back and takes notes for 45 minutes. When the alarm goes off in the principal’s head they get up and move on to another observation or back to their office.

If anything needs to change about school, it’s the way that leaders interact with teachers and vice versa. In each school there is so much potential for greatness, but the two roles end up passing like ships in the night instead of collaborating together and learning from one another. The old style of leading needs to be finished.

The more effective way to go through the observation process is by being an active observer. Principals need to approach teacher observations like an instructional coach (IC). Why? Because instructional coaches approach the process much differently than principals so. Instructional coaching expert Jim Knight, who I work with, says,

IC's partner with teachers to help them incorporate research-based instructional practices into their teaching. They are skilled communicators, or relationship builders, with a repertoire of excellent communication skills that enable them to empathize, listen, and build trusting relationships. IC's also encourage and support teachers' reflection about their classroom practices. Thus, they must be skilled at unpacking their collaborating teachers' professional goals so that they can help them create a plan for realizing those goals, all with a focus on improving instruction. (Coaching. p. 30. 2009)"

THAT is how principals should approach the process. Teachers should be able to learn what they do well, what needs some tweaking and what needs improving. The observation process should be structured like instructional coaches do it so that the focus is on providing effective feedback to bring learning forward.

Instructional coaches and teachers agree on a unified goal, and have conversations around what learning should look like. IC’s find resources, have conversations that don’t focus on evaluation, and are there to teach, coach and mentor teachers, but they also are learning through the process and get to stretch their own thinking as well.

Instructional coaching isn’t just about the teacher learning from the coach, it is also about the coach learning from the teacher, which is what the observation process should be for principals. We should approach every single observation as if they will provide us something to learn from, and not merely something to get through.

School Climate

Principals can’t change the process overnight. It takes a positive and inclusive school climate where risks are respected and not frowned upon. Providing effective feedback is something that needs to be discussed at faculty meetings so all stakeholders understand what it looks like, that sometimes it doesn’t feel good because it’s hard to hear, and that the point of feedback is to improve learning.

Too many of us have criticized our own principals for providing observations that resulted in too little learning and whole lot of pomp and circumstance. We need to be different, so that our teachers don’t get into a closed room and say they learn very little from our observation process.

Being an active observer and approaching observations like an instructional coach may help knock down some of those old walls that have stood too long between the roles we play in school. Approaching observations like an IC means that there is more to the process than two observations a year. It is about co-constructing an aspiration, understanding where student learning fits into that observation, and having multiple conversations throughout the year.

Things to Consider:

  • Have observation meetings in the teacher’s classroom and not the principal’s office.
  • What is your aspiration for the school? Do the teachers know it? Do the students? What about the parents?
  • Use the faculty meeting as a place to discuss observations, feedback, and put a focus on learning every time you meet with teachers.
  • You may know what feedback is...but are you applying it with teachers?
  • Before and after the observation are you asking questions or are you doing a majority of the talking?

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CC photo courtesy of Chris Hunkeler.

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.