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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Leaders: Do Your Teachers Say This About Your Observations?

By Peter DeWitt — September 04, 2015 5 min read
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School has been in session for the last few weeks for most students around the U.S. Students in the East will begin after Labor Day Weekend. A new school year means many things. It is the benefit of our profession; we get to start new every year. New students, new grade levels to teach for some teachers, and chance to improve on leadership skills for principals and superintendents.

During the summer we usually make a promise that somehow this year will be different.

The summer, and first few days of the school year, bring professional development requirements for most teachers. One day, two days...or more spending time talking and learning about instructional practices. That new material is at risk of getting lost in the implementation dip...or the newer initiatives the school district has taken on.

This is not meant to seem negative. It’s meant to be a wake-up call or call to action. We promised ourselves that we would approach this year differently. Have we stuck to that promise? Or have the same issues resurfaced because we are piling too much on too soon without taking anything else off of our plates?

Focus Area

One area of focus that needs to be different is teacher observation. Leaders spend their summers talking about going deeper with learning and being the “Lead Learners” or “Learning Leaders” (Fullan) in their school. They possibly went through another round of evidence based observation trainings put on by their regional network, and now it’s time to put that learning into practice.

In a previous blog I wrote about why teacher observations may be a waste of time, I provided a link to a survey at the end. 230 teachers answered the survey over 2 days. The questions focused on whether teachers valued observations, and what they learned from those observations provided by their administrator.

When asked if the goals for the observation were co-constructed among leaders and teachers, 77% of the teachers responding answered “No” that they did not co-construct observations with their school leaders. When respondents were asked whether observations were beneficial to them as teachers, 9% of teachers who answered said “Yes” 44% said “No” and 46% said “Sometimes.”

The following quotations are from those teachers who answered “No” and “sometimes.” Teachers said:

  • My administrator does not know how to evaluate good or bad teaching and therefore there is no constructive feedback.
  • it is a hindrance in my confidence
  • The process is just a numbers game, if you can play it, you’re ok
  • I ask for my principal to “just walk in” so I can find out what I’m doing well and what I need to work on during a typical day. Many times the observation is scheduled and the post-observation is just me trying to defend how I’m reaching all of the Danielson points.
  • I feel I know more then the principal. This principal has not taught this level. I do not learn anything from the post observation conversation.
  • The evaluation tool is subjective and my data shows that my students have grown. My principal uses the evaluation tool as a means to break teachers. I have witnessed this process at my school over the past 3 years.
  • In the charter school where I worked previously we “Over observed” and they would find at least one thing I did wrong in each obs. In my new public school we are observed the state minimum. For the most part the conference is all lollipops and lullaby’s. What I used to hate about my old school I now miss here. Telling me I am doing great and keep up the good work does little to help me grow as an educator. It is great to be appreciated but I would prefer a happy medium that gives me something to take away and work for or towards. During one Observations this year my vice principal left her running thoughts she had recorded on her notes on the sheet that I saw. I LOVED it. Lots of good feedback but she also spoke about what she wished I had done. I have asked her to leave those notes on my observation forms from now on.
  • I like to know where I can improve my teaching.
  • NO-Because my administrator has already made up her mind before having a conversation with me as to what she will be looking at
  • The only times I am observed are my formal observations.

I realize this is a small sample, but there are many teachers who are not observed as often as they should be, and some observations are a moment in time; as opposed to a partnership between teachers and school leaders.

Observations have so much potential for school leaders and teachers. Sadly, when teachers were asked what they learned from observation, the following answers were provided:

  • I haven’t. There is such a “caughtya” attitude that absolutely nothing.
  • The best information I have learned regarding instruction has come form other teachers and peer administrators.
  • Nothing. The observation is done because it is a requirement. If you are on the observers good side, you are stellar. If you aren’t, the observation can be used to bury you. That’s the sad reality.
  • It is one-sided, usually , especially in my case the Admin. Has no experience with Special Needs students, planning for them, and how & why things are done! It’s dehumanizing, humiliating, and destructive! Nothing positive or constructive about that!!!!
  • Nothing
  • I have yet to discuss with my administrator anything at all concerning the observations. I presume the observations are merely checked off his list as items completed.
  • Suggestions on what classes or training I need for an specific problem in my class.

We always look at starting points. One question commonly asked is what is one thing we can do to get this all started? A suggestion would be to work hard to co-construct teacher observations with teachers. I know it sounds simple but due to time, workloads, and a crisis or two that may come the way of leaders, the observation process is sometimes lost to other things that may not be as important.

Focus on a goal with a teacher. Observe them and provide feedback on whether they met that goal. Provide a few resources that will help them better learn how to meet the goal. There are numerous resources on blogs, social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and in journals like Principal Magazine and Educational Leadership; all of which are archived by the organizations that publish them.

What would you do if you knew it was your teachers who provided the answers? Would you do anything different?

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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.