Professional Development Opinion

Leaders, Don’t Assume, Stay Curious

By Starr Sackstein — February 07, 2019 5 min read
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The classroom is buzzing with learning, and the teacher is amid the children, working with a group. I signal to the teacher from the door, laptop in hand, “Is this a good time for an informal observation?”

“Come on in,” the teacher says.

“Where should I sit? I want to be out of the way, so I don’t disrupt.”

“Anywhere is fine.”

The teacher returns to the real work, and I settle in.

For the remainder of the lesson, I observe actively, scripting as much as I can down to the minute so that when we sit down to have the post-observation, we are on the same page.

Additionally, when the lesson is over, I send the script to the teacher with some questions that really allow the teacher to know where my head is and also provides some lead reflection time before our conversation.

Last year I didn’t do any of this, and often, I found myself caught off-guard in the conversations and so did they. In order to make more out of the post-observation conversations, to make them more meaningful, I began to use this new method, which has been much better.

In the past, I’d also do a preliminary write-up after the lesson, thinking this better prepared me for the conversation, but ultimately, it really just solidified what I believed I had seen.

With much reflection, I have flipped the process. Walking into each informal observation, I’m there to see the best in the teacher with whom I am spending the time. Although this hasn’t changed, my approach to writing it up and providing feedback has.

Here’s how it goes:

  1. Since informal observations are unplanned and unscheduled, I review a teacher’s schedule and the last observation(s) they have had. I review the times that the other observer(s) went and try not to duplicate the time and/or class. Blocking time is also important because I have to make sure there is time for a post-observation within a week of the time of the observation, so it has to be strategically planned.
  2. I review the other written observations for specific area observed and feedback provided. I do this because I want to be able to praise teachers if I notice that they are using the strategies and/or suggestions given in the past. This helps to show the admin team is all on the same page as well.
  3. I show up to the teacher’s classroom a little before I’m going to observe with my laptop to get situated and ensure that it’s a good time. If it isn’t a good time, I will reschedule. Trying to keep the mood light, I’m always friendly, smiling at them to put them at ease. It is not easy for a teacher to be observed, especially teachers who can be anxious. “Just do what you do,” I tell them. “I don’t need a show. I’m here to help.” And I mean it.
  4. First, I note my surroundings, the learning target, the look of the room. Depending on the age of the students and the building I am in, I notice different things. Younger students are more curious about me than the older ones. The high school students are used to seeing adults observe their teachers and know that we aren’t there to intrude in any way.
  5. I script the whole lesson, noting the time and specific words as much as possible, as well as student responses and actions. If I have questions, I keep the email I plan to send open in another tab and I write the question as I go so I don’t forget.
  6. At the end of the lesson, I thank the teacher for sharing their class with me, cut and paste the script as well as my top 3-5 wonderings about the lesson. Since visible learning is a big initiative in our district, I make sure to address whether or not the students “got it” and how they know. Other than that, my wonderings come in the form of questions directly derived from what I saw.
  7. As I construct the email to the teacher, I ask them to read the script and reflect on the questions as that will be the center of our discussion. I also encourage them to bring their own questions, concerns, student work, and/or support materials that can add to our conversation.
  8. Rather than write the observation up at this point, I always wait until after the post-observation. This helps me stay curious and not make any decisions about what I saw. It also allows me to reflect further.
  9. In the post-observation, I also ask them if they reviewed the script and their thoughts about my questions. At this point, I stop talking. It is important to let the teacher do the talking. Occasionally, I will ask for more clarity and/or ask them to say more about something they noticed and then at the end, I share my ideas.
  10. The last step is writing up the observation using all of the data I have from the observation and the post-observation, as well as any notes the teacher brought in support of their lesson. It is essential to do this as soon as possible and not just because it is required by a contract. We all know that feedback is most effective when it arrives in a timely fashion and is specific to what has happened. Regardless of the rating, teachers get specific feedback and evidence for each descriptor, and if questions and/or resources were needed, those are addressed in the write-up as well.
  11. Within 48 hours, I send the written-up observation, always inviting a continued conversation. “Please read the observation and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

Too often, administrators are rushed in this process, and in an effort to be efficient, we try to get things done out of order. At least I did. It is important when we are doing this that we don’t unintentionally assume the worst about our learners, adult or student, and give them every opportunity to share what they know and can do. If there was something glaring in the lesson, rather than jump to a conclusion, ask a question. Wonder and have a conversation instead of assuming and write in isolation.

Since this process is flawed, to begin with, we have to make the most of what it is whether we evaluate or not. Learners need to grow, and that is our job to help them do that.

How can you be intentional about staying curious when helping learners through a learning experience? Please share

*Photo made with Pablo.com

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