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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

Peer Observation: Get Out of the Land of Nice

By Peter DeWitt — May 18, 2014 3 min read
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Peer observation can have profound effects on the classroom environment. How? With a great peer observer, they can help teachers find ways to engage learners in new ways. A peer observer may help a teacher reflect on ways they use engage students, and help them acquire a new focus on their classroom practices.

Working with a peer, or critical friend, that teacher’s trust can help change the instructional practices in the classroom. A critical friend can see things going on with students that the teacher cannot see because they are busy working with other students.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. There are numerous reasons why. First and foremost, in this age of accountability (yes, I said it again...) teachers are less likely to be honest during the peer observation. Not the teacher being observed, but the teacher doing the observation.

The stakes are high. Even if a peer observer was honest in their observation, it is less likely to appear on anything formal. It may not go on anything informal if the document goes to the principal. Teachers do not want a “paper trail” if it might hint that they have something to improve upon.

The other issue is that peer observers may tend to spend more time providing praise and being nice, than offering any real feedback that could help instruction or maximize learning. In Rethinking Classroom Observations (Educational Leadership), Grimm, Kaufman and Doty refer to this as the “Land of Nice,” where teachers only provide praise that focuses on student engagement, and not on staying descriptive.

According to Grimm, Kaufman and Doty, “Through teacher-driven observation teachers engage peers in gathering and analyzing classroom data-data that speak to the unique context of their own classrooms.” That can be very powerful, if a collaborative culture in the school exists.

Fostering a Collaborative Culture

Knowing that teachers are dealing with a great deal of accountability needs to be entered into the equation when principals are trying to create or maintain an atmosphere where teachers can take risks. Teachers who feel supported in general, not just where peer observation is concerned, are more likely to be risk-takers and not rule followers when it comes to classroom instruction and student learning.

If authoritative school leaders are only concerned about outcomes that focus on high stakes achievement, then teachers will not be able to maximize the peer observation model. Why step outside of their comfort zones if they may get dinged in the long run?

Establishing and fostering a collaborative culture that focuses on teaching and learning is not easy to do but the benefits far outweigh the negative aspects. After so many years of increased accountability, it’s important for principals to help teachers see their way out of the boxes that we all feel we have been shoved into. That is not an easy task, but step-by-step, little by little, it can be accomplished.

Rethinking Classroom Observation

Grimm, Kaufman and Doty focus on being descriptive, which they believe will take the focus off preconceived notions before the peer observers ever entered into the room. They say,

It's quite powerful when a team stays descriptive throughout the post-observation debriefing. Rather than drawing a conclusion about student engagement, for instance, observers discuss exactly what they saw and heard in the classroom. The pool of data they share through descriptive evidence lays a richer foundation for discussion."

Using the descriptive model, it’s important for teachers to reflect on their classroom practices and the feedback provided by peer observers. In Classroom-Based Professional Learning (Educational Leadership), Carol Ann Tomlinson wrote,

What if a big part of most professional development was mentoring teachers in doing reflective teaching? What if we guided teachers in crafting questions about teaching and supported them in finding insights and trying out classroom changes? What if we all understood that energy for teaching derives from our own growth propelling the growth of our students, that teaching is learning and that real learning translates into action? And that the center of such learning has to be our classrooms."

Make it Work People!

We spend a lot of time in education talking about what professional learning should look like, and then we move on and do what we have always done. It’s so easy to do the same thing that was done the year before, and that includes peer observation. But too often, the peers are scared to provide honest feedback, and some teachers do not want to be a part of the process because they are afraid of the consequences.

For any of this to work, school leaders have to be supportive, and have to establish a culture of care. They need to keep in mind that professional growth is not about accountability. Professional growth is about keeping the growth mindset at the center of our learning.

There are a lot of positive benefits that can come out of peer observations, if the culture is right, as are the mindsets.

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Grimm, Emily Dolci, Trent Kaufman & Dave Doty (2014). Rethinking Classroom Observations. Educational Leadership. ASCD. May 2014.

Tomlinson, Carol Ann (2014). Classroom-Based Professional Learning. Educational Leadership. ASCD. May 2014.

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.