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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

Observation: Can We Stop The One And Done?

By Peter DeWitt — August 25, 2016 6 min read
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Why not? Why not change the way we go through the teacher observation process by focusing more on long-term goals that focus on learning, rather than the usual pomp and circumstance where the right questions are asked to only the students who can answer them because we fear that if we don’t look perfect there will be repercussions?

Of course, this means the school climate has to foster collaboration where observations don’t always result in repercussions.

If we tell students that they should have a growth mindset and that learning is messy, why do the adults in the school have a fixed mindset when it comes to having better teacher observations? Why don’t we practice what we preach with our students?

Teacher observation is one of those structures that has existed for a long time between leader and teacher. At the beginning of the year the leader devises their observation schedule which will be a mixture of formally announced observations and those that have to be unannounced. And then they work to complete their list of observations.

Many teachers get very nervous when the topic of teacher observation comes up. It’s nerve-racking to be observed, rated and know that all of that information goes into a “file.” It doesn’t help that there have been times that teacher observations are done to a teacher and not with a teacher. Shouldn’t we involve them in the process? After all, they do have advanced degrees and many years of experience and expertise.

Other times teacher observations have been a waste of time, which I have written about before (3 Reasons Your Teacher Observations Are a Waste of Time). They’ve been a waste of time because they are typically a 1 and done and the teacher leaves without gaining any really new knowledge...nor does the principal walk away with any.

Surface to Deep
Teacher observation should be replaced with collaborative cycles that may be short term because the teacher reaches a goal, or long term because they have taken on a goal that is a bit more complicated. Either way, we should stop looking at observations as 1 and done and focus on the idea that they should be one long conversation that focuses on learning.

We know that observations have been more surface level in the past, and if we want to be viewed as professionals than our actions should probably match that of professionals. We should always live up to the reputation we want for ourselves, and I believe teachers and leaders should be viewed as experts in their field who always focus on learning. Our present system of observations doesn’t help further that cause.

If we have to do it every year, wouldn’t it be better if both parties, and ultimately the children, benefit from the process?

As a Visible Learning trainer working with John Hattie, we often get asked to work with teachers and leaders on impact cycles, where they focus on reliable student data that they have collected (and mutually agreed upon), and then they take that data and create a goal. After they establish a goal they decide their learning needs and go through a 3 month process of helping to improve some practice in their classroom (it’s a little more complicated that it sounds). It ends with deep learning.

As an instructional coaching trainer for Jim Knight, we will work through an instructional coaching improvement cycle where an instructional coach and teacher work together on a goal (teacher created or co-constructed), and they both do their equal parts in learning and showing improvement on the goal. Knight uses some great language when going through the cycle. He asks that coaches and teachers understand their “current reality” before diving into a goal.

In Russ Quaglia and Lisa Lande’s teacher voice work, they found that a majority of the thousands of teachers they surveyed in their Teacher Voice Report don’t believe that their school leaders know their goal, which means that everyone in the school building may or may not have a goal, and no one is talking about whether they do or not.

Whether we are talking about Hattie, who has shown that goal setting has an effect size of .51, Knight or Quaglia and Lande, we need to realize that we should tweak our present system of observation so that everyone is focusing on learning, and we walk the talk of collaboration that we tout to our students so often.

How is it done?
In Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press) I dive deeply into the collaborative observation cycle, but let’s look at the basics here. Typically, at the beginning of the year the school principal meets with teachers. If they don’t, they should. However, lets go on the premise that leaders take time to meet with all of their teachers and go through the goal setting process...or that they at least have a pre-observation meeting with teachers before they go into the observation process.

The teacher creates a goal around their current reality...or the leader and teacher co-construct a goal around the teacher’s current reality. If we are going to go through the motions of pre-conference conversations, lets focus on authentic engagement in the process rather than compliant engagement.

For example, maybe the teacher wants to focus on student engagement. One of the greatest questions I’ve heard Knight ask during coaching sessions is, “If you could paint a picture of student engagement, what would that look like?” At least then, both parties have a common understanding. In Visible Learning, we call that establishing success criteria around a goal. Bottom line: have an authentic two-way (dialogue not monologue) conversation about a goal and what success looks like.

Perhaps the leader then sees a great blog on the topic discussed with the teacher. Maybe they read it in Education Week, Educational Leadership (ASCD) or Principal Magazine (NAESP) and they send it to the teacher. Twofold result: The teacher gains more information and the principal puts themselves in the position of being a collaborative leader.

Next is when the leader goes into the classroom to observe, and only provides feedback around the goal. They have pre-established success criteria together, and we know that feedback only sticks when it focuses on the goal. The leader provides that feedback on paper for the teacher to read before the post conference, and then they have dialogue around it during the post conference.

One more step! The last step is the hardest. I write that because the leader needs to keep the dialogue going, which means they need to drop by the classroom and talk with the teacher about the ongoing goal. They need to meet with the teacher to see the growth they have made around the goal, and they have to enter into the classroom on a frequent and manageable basis to work with the teacher. This is all about ongoing dialogue.

In the End
Clearly, in some ways this is an easy process because it revolves around a structure we already have in place so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In other cases it’s complicated because it means leaders have to work in collaboration with all of their teachers and keep the dialogue going over a longer period of time than they normally do in our present evaluative system.

However, I feel like if a leader goes through this process with teachers over a year, it will become more of a habit as they get used to it. And I do think we need to re-establish ourselves as learners, practioners and professionals. Many people have had that stripped from them since the increase of accountability and mandates, and we should get that back now. Isn’t it time?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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.