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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.

School & District Management Opinion

3 Reasons Why Your Observations May Be a Waste of Time

By Peter DeWitt — May 11, 2015 5 min read
A young white school boy sits with his Black teacher in a one to one reading session. He reads to her and is smiling clearly enjoying the book. The teacher is smiling too. In the background a diverse group of kids sit around a classroom table.
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As a principal, what did you learn from the last teacher observation you completed?

What did the teacher learn from you?

Observations have always been at risk of being something to get done...instead of something to get done right. For full disclosure, I’m not innocent in this situation. There were times when I looked at the long list of observations that I needed to complete for the year, on top of the thousand others tasks on the list, and I sometimes just wanted to get through it all unscathed.

I was part of the problem.

Adding point scales (required under new evaluation laws) to the formal observation process didn’t help either. It made the focus of the observations about the overall points the teachers would be awarded at the end, instead of the conversation between two professionals who have an expertise in education trying to learn something from one another.

It didn’t take me long to snap back into reality and come to the understanding that no matter how busy life can get, teacher observations are one of the most important parts of the job. Observations should be seen as exciting, and not something to get through. After all, it provides the school leader with the opportunity to:

  • Get into the classrooms
  • See students deep in the process of learning
  • Make connections with students that we may not have spoken to before
  • Watch a teacher masterfully engage students
  • Give a teacher insight into a blind spot (Scharmer) that they may have known about
  • Continually get the pulse of what is going on in classrooms around the school
  • Connect a teacher in one grade level with a teacher in another grade level who wants to become better at something like literacy centers, building student dialogue, questioning techniques or overall student engagement

Old Days

Teacher observations have always been known for their pomp and circumstance. As a teacher there were many times that I lost sleep the night before an observation because I didn’t know how it would go. What did the leader want to see? Would the students misbehave? What about THAT student who always acted out when another adult walked into the room? Would their behavior count against me? Would they be absent?

And then I woke up realizing no matter what happened, good or bad, the principal needed to see what the classroom environment was like, and perhaps provide insight into how I could engage the hard to engage students. Unfortunately, that insight wasn’t typically provided.

It’s sad to say that I did not learn a lot from most of the observations done on/to me, and I ended up exceeding expectations even though I was not ... exceeding expectations. The principal walked in, spent 45 minutes taking notes, the formal write-up came in my mailbox, and we both went on our merry way leaving the process long behind us.

I’m not faulting the principals because the role was different, but it did lead to the idea that principals owned the hallways and main office and teachers owned the classrooms. That is an unhealthy mindset, especially because it negatively affects students.

Changing Direction

Flowery lessons focusing on subject matter that the students already knew, and no signs of risk-taking anywhere in sight are part of observations still but many school leaders and teachers are trying their best to work toward a common goal, and learn something from one another. Instructional coaching expert Jim Knight, someone I work with, believes that principals and teachers should work in partnership with one another.

After all, if a principal has been out of the classroom teaching role for a number of years, observations (as well as walkthroughs done correctly) can be a way to stay connected to the classroom experience. Leaders and teachers should be working in partnership with each other and with students and parents. However, there are at least 3 reasons why teacher observations may be a total waste of time.

They are:

1. No New Learning - The teachers observed learn nothing new during the teacher observation process. And more sad than that is the fact that the teacher never expected to learn anything new from the process! What is the aspiration of the teacher and students? How are school leaders helping to achieve those aspirations?

2. Too Much Talk - The school leader talks more than they listen, and they only focus on the positive...and that positive is fairly surface level. In Improving Teaching One Conversation at a Time (Educational Leadership. 2015), Shelly Arneson writes,

Even if the administrator has only glowing things to say about a classroom lesson, the post-observation meeting is often one-sided, sounding like this: “I thought it was great. I liked the way you grouped the students. Any questions before you sign to acknowledge you received this?” Even if the teacher wanted to talk about the lesson, this type of introduction shuts the door.”

3. Surface Level - If you are familiar with the Danielson Framework, than you know that observation meetings should be “All about the conversation.” Unfortunately, too many leaders and teachers don’t dive down deep enough into the good, the bad and the ugly of the observation. Arneson sites “time constraints”, “fear of the unknown” and other reasons for this happening. This is even more complicated due to the relationship between leader and teacher, the overall school climate, and the respect for the observation process.

In the End

Observations are hard work, but we know that when done right they are worth the effort. There is nothing better than seeing student engagement in a creative space with a focus on learning. I have walked into some observations drained from the noise of the day and walked out of those observations inspired to learn from another one.

Principals and teachers should take Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching (IC) philosophy of the Partnership Approach into mind when approaching formal observations. The Partnership Approach focuses on a relationship between two professionals that are grounded in Equality, Choice, Voice, Reflection, Dialogue, Praxis, and Reciprocity.

Some questions to ponder:

  • What is the co-constructed goal they agree to before the principal ever walks into the classroom?
  • What are they doing to reach the goal?
  • Is the principal offering any resources before and after the observation was completed?
  • How will the principal and teacher know the goal was achieved?
  • Is the goal centered around real learning where students will become independent or does it focus on knowing facts?

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.