Professional Development Opinion

Response: Ways To Observe Teachers Without Demoralizing Them

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 07, 2013 11 min read
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Alex V. asked:

How can I help my school develop a culture of open practice where teachers are happy to be observed and look forward to observing and learning from each other, in a school where up until now observation has been used as a tool of evaluation and judgment from the administration without constructive feedback, thus demoralizing the teachers?

Based on the readers responses to this question, it certainly has hit a chord. I’ve included many of those comments in today’s post, along with guest responses from four educator/authors: Trent Kaufman and Emily Dolci Grimm; PJ Caposey, and Brian Nichols.

In addition, readers might be interested in a column I wrote on how we have used videotape at my school for professional development, Videotaping teachers the right way (not the Gates way).

Response From Trent Kaufman & Emily Dolci Grimm

As classroom teachers, Trent Kaufman and Emily Dolci Grimm developed a passion for translating classroom data into actionable instructional improvements. Trent is the founder and president of Education Direction, a school reform research and consultancy firm. Emily is the firm’s Director of School Transformation. They are the authors of The Transparent Teacher: Taking Charge of Your Classroom Instruction with Peer-Collected Classroom Data and Collaborative School Improvement: Eight Practices for District-School Partnerships to Transform Teaching and Learning:

Reposition the role of the observed teacher. Traditional observation models are oriented around the observer as learner--either an administrator learning about a teacher’s effectiveness or a colleague learning from a master teacher. There is value in an alternative: giving the observed teacher leadership of the process. We all have areas of our practice in which we would like to improve. What better opportunity to improve our practice than to invite peers into our classroom to observe the context in which we work--with our students and our content--and help us solve the problems we face? This approach repositions the role of the observed teacher, equipping her to lead and direct her own learning. When a teacher invites her colleagues into her own classroom to collect classroom data on her instruction with her students, it provides a meaningful opportunity for professional learning, building teachers’ excitement and participation in the work.

Focus the observation. Classrooms are dynamic environments, overflowing with observable data. Observations often result in the collection of a wealth of information on myriad aspects of classroom instruction. Yet, how do we then translate so many disparate data points into improved teaching? Identifying a focus for the observation enhances the value of classroom observation, as it equips a group of colleagues to focus their attention on a specific aspect of teaching and learning. Trying to increase the rigor in your classroom? Ask your observers to collect data on the types of questions you are asking students. Implementing the Common Core? Ask your observers to collect data on the implementation of a specific standard.

Examine the data. The existing patterns of conversations among colleagues can prevent observation from becoming a powerful tool for learning. “You did great!” or “That lesson was effective” may help us feel good, but do little to improve our teaching. When we instead focus our conversations on what we see and hear in classrooms--via the data the observers collect--we have a starting point for meaningful conversations on teaching and learning. A structured protocol--which allocates time for first sharing the data and then making sense of it and discussing its instructional implications--is an essential tool in this process.

Examine the relationship between teaching and student learning. Remember the objective: to better understand the relationship between teaching and student learning in order to make instructional improvements. Post-observations conversations are most fruitful when guided with this lens. Imagine the conversation that can result with data on a teacher’s wait time and students’ responses, data that can examine the intersection of teaching and learning. When a post-observation conversation focuses not on the teacher as an individual, but rather on the relationship between teaching and learning, teachers’ comfort grows.

When teachers are given the space to take charge of their learning through observations which examine a focus of relevance to them and observations are focused on the collection of data that examines the relationship between teaching and student learning, they becomes a process teachers value.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is the principal at Oregon High School in Oregon, Illinois. PJ is the author of Building A Culture Of Support: Strategies For School Leaders. and has guest blogged for sites such as ASCD, Edutopia. PJ’s efforts in education have been awarded with awards from the Illinois Principal’s Association and Illinois State Board of Education:

“Culture is not something that you manipulate easily. Attempts to grab it and twist it into a new shape never work because you can’t grab it. Culture changes only after you have successfully altered people’s actions, after the new behavior produces some group benefit for a period of time.”

-- John Kotter - Harvard Business Schools

Say it with me, “As a school leader I do not have the power or the control to dictate a change of school culture.” Articulating that thought is the first step to actually changing the culture within a school. It seems antithetical, but it is the earnest truth. In order to help facilitate change leaders must quit trying to control the change process - especially in terms of impacting the culture of a school.

Leaders facilitate culture change in a much different manner than by trying to dictate the modification. Leading cultural change is about gaining influence with the individuals within the building, providing purpose, and creating an environment safe for innovation, creativity, and even failure.

Gain Influence: If your doctor tells you to quit eating peanuts or you will have a severe reaction and may end in the hospital you will most likely listen. You may not like your doctor personally, but you trust that she is knowledgeable and has your best interest in mind with the guidance they provide. Those two pieces provide the minimum level of relationship necessary to influence change as a school leader. Teacher must have confidence in that the idea is well-informed and that the leader has their best interest in mind. When it comes to initiating a culture where observation and critique are part of professional growth and not only part of a mandated evaluation system - those two relational elements are necessary.

Provide Purpose: If a teacher has only been observed as part of the evaluation process - you know the process that determines whether they are employed or not - a sudden increase in observations is going to be met with fear. Leaders must realize that this may have nothing to do with them. It is the process - it is the change that causes this reaction. Communicating ‘The Why’ is always important in leadership - but to change the culture of your school to one that welcomes frequent and ongoing evaluation with frank feedback it is absolutely vital. Communicating that the change is about supporting individual professional growth and tying that back to the vision and mission of a district provides a sense of stability and collective ownership of the change.

Provide a safe-environment: Growth cannot occur without change. Change cannot occur without trying something new. If there is a fear of retribution, innovation and creativity will be stifled. An environment that welcomes and encourages risk-taking and innovation will lead to a culture that is accepting of open where teachers are happy to be observed. Small things like asking teachers to invite administrators in for ‘new’ lessons where observation will not be used as part of formal evaluation or spotlighting the ‘innovative lesson of the month’ will go a long way toward promoting a culture that values feedback and views observation as a stimulus to growth rather than an agent of judgment.

Response From Brian Nichols

Brian Nichols (@bjnichols) is Executive Director of School Leadership at Newport News Public Schools, in Newport News, Va., a Google Certified Teacher, a Doctoral Student, and ASCD’s 2010 Outstanding Young Educator Award recipient:

The key to changing the existing culture of observations is to move from an event led by one person, into a process for continuous improvement led by all. Teachers see observations as evaluative because that has been their prior experience. An effective way to change that mindset is to change the practices of a principal. Visibility, combined with feedback that fosters growth, will begin to create the culture of open practice. Leader visibility is key; it’s been linked to overall organizational effectiveness, innovation, and student achievement.

Consider the following five questions related to visibility:

1. How would people know what you value?
2. How does your calendar reflect what you find is important?
3. Where are you the most visible?
4. Where are you the least visible?
5. Does this match your stated priorities, key initiatives, data points, etc.?

These questions will get you started but visibility alone is not enough to change your observation culture--you need to make effective use of feedback. Feedback that fosters growth should be timely, descriptive, and non-judgmental. Many leaders make the mistake of trying to fix instruction instead of spending time on what is working well in classrooms.

We have an opportunity to flip observation and feedback practices using technology. An iPad, flip cam, or even Smartphone can capture segments of classroom instruction, and teachers and administrators can watch, ask questions, and develop next steps together. This is in stark contrast to the existing model where feedback sessions are monologues instead of dialogues. Further, video segments identified as best practices can be put together as a catalogue for all teachers to refer to.

People rise and fall to the level of expectations. A leader’s expectations become much clearer when they break out of one-way conversations, often in an email, after the fact - and jump into an on-going discussion, enhanced with video reference points. Visibility, feedback, and collaborative conversations about teaching and learning will go a long way in developing a culture of open practice.

Responses From Readers

Tom Krawczewicz:

We had a very successful experience by implementing an observation program recently. Each department member was asked to observe someone else in the department and notes things that they learned FROM observing their colleague.

Later we met as a department and shared what we learned with everyone. It was a very positive experience and we not only took something away from the actual observation but we also learned something about each of the other people in our department via the comments of the observers.

John Wiedrick:

Our school has had success with Tom’s suggestion in regards to sharing what you learned. Two other strategies that have proved useful are:

Increase the frequency of administration visits. Our administration communicated that the reason they visit classrooms is to see all the great ideas that are happening and then they just starting dropping in daily. They framed their philosophy around Douglas Reeve’s quote “we are going on a treasure hunt, not a witch hunt”. The second piece of advice is to communicate personally with the teacher all the great things you saw while in the classroom. Once teachers see your visits as positive and growth oriented they are more willing to welcome you into the classroom.

Jim Smith:

Creating a culture of trust for evaluations takes time. We have taken this to a new level in my school by placing a camera with audio in all classrooms. I now have teachers signing up for observations via my computer. Gives us a more accurate account of a true classroom.

I’ve used Storify to collect many of the tweets that were sent in response to this question:

Thanks to Trent, Emily, PJ, Brian and to many readers for contributing their responses, .

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