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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

What Are the ‘Big 4' in Teaching and Learning Observations?

By Peter DeWitt — August 02, 2015 5 min read
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First and foremost, teacher observations should be based on a co-constructed goal. Anything else doesn’t make sense. If principals and teachers aren’t talking about a common goal before an observation...what is the point of the observation?

Great school leaders are the ones that go into an observation to find ways to help teachers improve (no matter how great those teachers may be), and also learn from the teacher as well. Entering into an observation with an active mindset looking to learn something new is the best way to put a positive spin on observations. Like a great coaching mindset, observations should focus on learning and be about improvement...for both parties. Not just making the teaching and learning better, but also making the instructional leader better.

Unfortunately, I hear horror stories from teachers who have not been observed in more than a year. How can that be? I know, and have worked with many, many school leaders who take teacher observations very seriously. However, my eyes have been opened to principals who do not complete the observations they are required to do. Why is that?

  • Is it that principals don’t think they have anything new to offer?
  • Do they have too many teachers to observe?
  • What else are they doing that takes their time away from observing?

I have to admit that I never realized how much this happens until I began writing this blog and working with different schools. The principals I worked with in my leadership years observed frequently, and we talked about what we needed to look for in the classroom, and we involved teachers in those discussions.

It seems that some administrators look at being a principal as a rite of passage. They seem to feel entitled to the position based on how many years they spent as an assistant principal. We need more of the principals we see on Twitter who are engaging with their teachers in a multitude of ways.

Time, Time, Time...See What You’ve Done to Me?

Clearly, principals are usually quick to point out that they have too many observations to complete and they do not always require a pre-observation conversation. The unfortunate side of that coin is that it gives both the teacher and principal very little to look for when doing the observation.

I had a reader comment recently that I spewed venom about leaders. It is not my intention to spew any venom at leaders and I’m sorry if people take it that way. I was a principal for 8 years and loved being a principal. I respect the position. The reality is that leadership is so vitally important, and it is not a rite of passage, nor should it be based on entitlement. John Hattie, someone I work with, has research o show that instructional leadership has a .42 effect size, which is over the hinge point of .40. As principals we should strive to be instructional leaders.

Recently, I was rereading Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction by Jim Knight. For full disclosure, I work with Jim and I train instructional coaches as well as leaders on the instructional coaching philosophy. When rereading Instructional Coaching I came upon what Knight calls the Big 4. The big 4 are “behavior, content, instruction and formative assessment.”

Behavior - Is the classroom an environment conducive to learning. Learning should not be solely about behavior, but behavior is necessary for good learning to take place. Are the students engaged? Or are they having sidebars that the teacher doesn’t see because they are more concerned about delivering a lesson that the seeing what the students understand?

Content - Does the teacher understand the content. This does not mean they need to be a content specialist. According to Hattie, content specialty has a low effect size, because just because a teacher understands the content doesn’t mean they can deliver it in a way to students that they understand. Understanding the content means that teachers have a grasp on the content so they can deliver it in a way that is engaging and challenging for students.

Instruction - Is the teacher using a variety of instructional techniques to engage all learners? Or do they look to change the child instead of change the child’s learning environment? Watching great instruction to me is like watching a really great sporting event. There is drama, excitement and leaves us sitting at the edge of our seat wondering what will come next.

Formative Assessment - Do the teacher and students know when the students are reaching mastery. For a really great blog on the topic of formative assessment, read this guest blog by formative assessment expert Shirley Clarke.

The Big 4 are called Big for a reason. They are much more complex than the few sentences that I dedicated to their definition, but they are a focal point for leaders and teachers. Instead of going into the observation with blinders on, the Big 4 can be used as the center of the discussion.

So, if leaders are really pressed for time every day, and they do not have the requirement to meet with teachers to do pre-conference conversations (which is unfortunate), perhaps they can do one of the following using the Big 4.

Faculty Meetings - Flip a faculty meeting to discuss the Big 4 and what they would look like in the classroom. Spend multiple meetings looking at the Big 4. Clearly, this takes time, especially if principals have never flipped meetings before. For more information on flipped faculty meetings click here or here. Use a Teacher Channel video during a faculty meeting and focus on one of the Big 4. Have teachers write down what they see and share out.

  • Do you all have similar thoughts?
  • Or is everyone on a different page?
  • If they are on different pages, are their common themes that come through?

PLC/ Grade Level Meetings - Join each PLC or grade level meeting to go over the Big 4. Have a conversation about what the Big 4 looks like, which means getting teacher input on all of those.

Teacher observations are hard, especially when they are tied to point scales and mandates. But the reality is that they are one of the most important events that take place between a principal and a teacher. So many great conversations about learning can come out of those observations. Make sure they are not a waste of time.

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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.