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Teaching Profession Opinion

18 Ways to Improve Teacher Observations

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 03, 2022 19 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can administrators (and even other teachers) best do observations of a lesson?

I think it’s safe to say that most teachers, including us veterans, get nervous when we’re being observed—either by administrators or by our colleagues.

This four-part series will explore what might be the best ways to observe educators in action so that it helps teachers, our students, and those who are doing the observing.

Today, Adeyemi Stembridge, Elvis Epps, Denita Harris, Jen Schwanke, and Ryan Huels offer their suggestions. All five of today’s contributors were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources for Doing Classroom Observations.

Providing ‘Informed Feedback’

Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He is the author of Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom: An Equity Framework for Pedagogy (2019):

An observation is an opportunity to provide informed feedback, either as a colleague or an evaluator, and for teachers to find insights and promising practices that can lead to clearer, more focused, tighter instruction. This is an essential practice in job-embedded professional development. I have four guidelines for how to best do observations:

  • Prebrief the observation.
  • Be engaged during the observation.
  • Stay for the full lesson.
  • Ask the observed teacher to ask you questions about their teaching.

Prebrief the observation.

To be an informed observer, it’s important to know what the teacher is intending to do in the lesson. Meet beforehand (preferably not the same day) and have the teacher explain what and how they are planning to teach. I think it’s fine to thought-partner in the prebrief because this shouldn’t be a “gotcha” situation.

Most importantly, what is being observed are the teacher’s planning habits and how well ideas in planning can be implemented into practice. Critically, though, it is possible to see a good lesson and not realize it without knowing beforehand the larger context of and the narrative arcs in the learning experience. To observe someone’s lesson without preknowledge of its design is to assess their teaching against an imagined perception of how you would have taught it. That misses the mark in terms of providing informed feedback.

Be engaged during the observation.

It’s so disrespectful to come into someone’s class and not be engaged. The observation space should be held in the highest regard possible. Don’t open your email. Stay off your phone. Engage with the learning. When appropriate, ask students questions. Talking to students is a great way to measure their thinking. Look for details that confirm students’ engagement. Take 10 minutes to really study a kiddo or two.

Immerse your whole self in the lesson so that you can experience it from the inside rather than as a detached, and often distracting, onlooker. And if the day’s circumstances do not make it possible for you to be engaged in the lesson—apologize and reschedule; the multitasking is such a bad look.

Stay for the full lesson.

I have taught lessons in which if you came into the room for the right 15 minutes, you would have legitimately thought you were witnessing an exceptionally gifted teaching talent. And on that same day, in the same classroom, with that same group of students, if you would have come into my room for the wrong 15 minutes—you would have strategized with another teacher or administrator about how to politely but firmly counsel me out of the profession. In order to provide informed feedback, you have to have seen the entire production: beginning, middle, and end. It is basically to play some sort of omniscient being to suggest that you can assess the total value of something while only seeing it partially.

Ask the observed teacher to ask you questions about their teaching.

Your debrief should be a conversation—with both parties asking questions of the other. I like to begin my feedback conversations by centering snapshots of engagement. When were students engaged? How did you know they were engaged? What were they doing? What were they saying? And, what was working for them in those engaging moments? The feedback can flow from there. How to reach those snapshots of engagement sooner? How to stretch them out longer?

There is a great deal of richness available in the discussion of snapshots of engagement. Practically speaking, I don’t always know why my students weren’t engaged (and these reasons can often be legitimately out of my control, and thus, less fruitful to learn from). But when my students are engaged, I can more frequently and accurately trace their engagement to my pedagogical choices. These are the insights that improve teaching practice in both the immediate and the long term. As an observer, you are much more likely to be supportive of the observed teacher when you elicit the questions and points of entry for the observed teacher that are more likely to build on their knowings.

Observations don’t have to be painful. In fact, if you are providing feedback, teachers should welcome observations. Teaching is a practice that should be thoughtfully developed. Observations are part of any good job-embedded professional-development cycle. The schools that best serve our most vulnerable students are very often the schools where teachers and administrators spend a lot of quality time talking about teaching. This is too often an underutilized practice in the schools which may be most served by regular calibration of the tools and expectations for effective pedagogy.

itsodesrepectfulyemi

‘Task, Talk, and Text’

Elvis Epps is the principal of Lake Worth Community High School in the school district of Palm Beach, in West Palm Beach, Fla.:

Preparing a lesson for students is just one of many responsibilities teachers must do well. How does a teacher learn to prepare lessons for students? Strategically. Answering this question isn’t as simple as one might think. I like to start this discussion by identifying three critical components of a teacher’s lesson. They are Task, Talk, and Text.

Teachers should include and explain how they will address these in their lesson and how they will measure (evidence) a student’s understanding of this component after the lesson. The school administrator should know and be able to explain to teachers what they expect and hope to see when observing a lesson. Let’s take a closer look at the three components of a lesson.

Task. Standard-based instruction is the foundation for your lesson. Teachers should understand what it is they are expected to teach throughout the school year. Teaching the standards ensures that the teacher uses grade-level content relevant to the course they teach. In my school, teachers are expected to list the standard they are teaching on the board for all students to see.

I also ask them to write the goal(s) for the lesson, objectives, and expected outcome. Another expectation for using standards-based instruction is a formative and summative assessment. Teachers should include questions to measure a student’s understanding of the lesson. Questions are not the only method to assess what a student learned or can demonstrate. Student observation, project-based assignments, oral presentation, and digital media presentation are just a few strategies to measure a student’s level of understanding.

Talk. Preparing for the talk or discussion requires a clear understanding of questions and group norms that will drive those talks. What are the expected outcomes for this lesson? What will the students be able to do and explain after the unit? This process requires the teacher to talk less and students to talk (discuss and share) more. Teachers should be familiar with writing an essential question. Authors and speakers Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins wrote in the book, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding that teachers regularly pose questions to their students.

Still, the purpose and form of these questions can vary widely. These are questions that are not answerable with finality in a single lesson of a brief sentence—and that’s the point. They aim to stimulate thought, provoke inquiry, and spark more questions, including thoughtful student questions, not just pat answers.

Text. Administrators and teacher leaders should be mindful of the importance of print-rich materials and textbooks in the classroom. The direction and understanding of standards-based instruction come to life when students have materials to provide and enhance the lesson. When I observe a teacher during a lesson, I intentionally look for the materials they use with the students. I also scan the classroom to see what they have on their bulletin board, anchor charts, word wall, and technology devices. Observing how the lesson flows throughout the class is critical because it reveals the students’ learning styles and needs and the teacher’s instructional style.

I don’t know about you, but I do expect to see handouts during my observations. Technology has allowed educators to use tools such as Google Docs and Google Meet in place of paper and handouts. Please don’t think that paper is taboo in the classroom. The use of paper and handouts has its place. I expect my teachers to use technology as much as possible because our students will be required to use these skills in college.

Conclusion

Administrators have the duty and responsibility to help teachers develop a standards-based lesson relevant to the grade level and students in their school. The objective of helping teachers develop standards-based lessons is to help teachers grow as instructional leaders. Teachers appreciate when school administrators and teacher leaders take time to help them develop the skills for addressing and meeting the learning needs of their students. Teachers also want to know what and how they can get better at planning their lessons. Observations of a lesson are a partnership between the teacher and the school administrator.

I recommend that all school administrators wear their coaching hat when observing teachers and their lessons. Coaches see the potential and help individuals develop them. At this point in our history, teachers need an administrator who understands, supports, and builds them up when their lesson comes up short. Observations build trust between the teacher and the school administrator. The overall goal of lesson observations is to help the teacher develop relevant, rigorous information based on state standards.

Lastly, a great lesson with the students means little if the teacher doesn’t receive feedback from the school administrator promptly. Discuss what you saw and heard. Open your discussion with the teacher by asking them how they felt the lesson went. You can lead by sharing your “I noticed” or “I wondered” statements. Allow the teacher to reflect on their lesson by asking key reflective questions. Helping educators grow and develop as teachers is the overall aim of our job as the principal. Take your time to listen to what the teacher says during the meeting. Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about them.

helpingeducatorsepps

Preparing Before Entering the Classroom

Denita Harris is a curriculum coordinator for the MSD of Wayne Township, in Indianapolis. She has over 20 years of experience as a teacher, assistant principal, and district-level administrator. Harris is the recipient of the 2019 INTESOL (Indiana Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Best of the Best in K-12 Education and the 2017 and 2020 African American Excellence in Education Award. Find her on Twitter @HarrisLeads:

For maximum results of a classroom observation conducted by an administrator or teacher, the observer must spend a significant amount of time gauging what the intended learning outcomes are for students before they even step inside the classroom.

Administrators and teachers can best engage in classroom observations by being present with the teacher and students in all facets of the lesson. Being present does not begin the day of the observation, it begins with the planning stage. The observers should know ahead of time what the teacher expects the students to know and be able to do by the end of the lesson. The lesson plan should include how the teacher will engage and formatively assess students. Upon completion of the plan, the observer and the teacher should schedule a pre-observation conference.

If we were to use the medical model as an analogy for the pre-observation process, prior to any surgery, a patient and his/her doctor spend significant time together in what is called a pre-operative assessment, which in education would be a discussion about the teacher’s lesson plan. During the pre-operative assessment, the doctor openly discusses all of the conditions relative to the surgery. These conditions include what the patient can expect on the day of surgery, what happens during surgery, possible complications, and patient recovery. The doctor’s goal is to provide the patient with a detailed overview of the process. The patient then has an opportunity to ask any clarifying questions.

The pre-observation conference has a very similar format with the teacher as the lead communicator, very much as the doctor who informs his/her patients of what should be expected on the day of surgery. The patient then is in the position of the observer, who engages the teacher about the lesson before he or she arrives in the classroom.

Remaining with the medical model, patients never arrive at the specific time of their scheduled surgery. Instead, patients arrive in plenty of time to get situated. In addition, they are expected to remain in the medical facility until the completion of their surgery. Secondary administrators and teacher observers should arrive before class begins, and elementary administrators and teacher observers should arrive either before class, during a transition to a different content area, or as students return to class from special area classes. When observers arrive to class right before a lesson is taught, the observer is able to witness not only the lesson but the classroom climate in its entirety.

Observers should take time to see what the walls communicate to students from outside the classroom doors to every bulletin board in the classroom. As students enter the room or transition between content areas, observers should pay close attention to how the teacher interacts with students and how students interact with one another. The best way to observe a classroom lesson is take notice of the complete environment and every person who is present.

The best observations allow for the observer and students to engage with one another about the learning. Sometimes just asking students about what they are learning provides the observer with insight into whether the teacher is meeting his or her learning objectives for the class. In addition, the observer should be mobile. He or she needs to be able to hear what students are saying to one another, as well as looking over students’ shoulders to see what type of work is being produced. The best observations require observers to be out of their seats in order to see and hear how students are processing and learning information; however, it is imperative for the observers to find a time that is appropriate and least disruptive to the lesson.

After the lesson, the observer and the teacher should schedule a time to discuss what worked well and where there might be areas of improvement. As the doctor is the one who takes the lead in the discussion after the surgery, so should the teacher, as he or she reflects on the pre-observation conference, the execution of the lesson, and now the post-observation conference with the observer.

thebestobservationsharris

‘Use the Time to Build Trust’

Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school levels for 20 years. She is the author of the book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD:

Much has been written about how to best observe a lesson, both in an evaluative sense and in a I-want-to-learn-something-from-this sense. Write a strong narrative. Leave Post-It notes. Give timely feedback. Plan ahead. Drop in frequently. Build relationships. Have a system. Ultimately, administrators and teachers need to find their own rhythm and system for managing observations and making them mutually worthwhile. I don’t do observations like my colleagues; neither do my colleagues do them like me. Case in point: I taught my assistant principal my approach to observations—philosophy, management, style, process—and she adopted a version for herself that is, actually, quite different from mine.

And that’s fantastic. The best leaders find comfort and success in accepting who they are and leading as such.

Here are a few things I think should be universal, though, a sort of pinky-promise we should make to ourselves and the teachers we evaluate:

Leave judgment at the door. I’ve observed many teachers who don’t teach like I would. When I was first responsible for observing and evaluating, I struggled with this. I’d thought I’d been a pretty awesome teacher, so I thought pretty awesome teachers should teach like I had. That changed quickly when I realized there are phenomenal teachers out there who structure their instruction, classrooms, and teaching protocols in ways completely different from how I had. I embrace this, now, and work hard to go into every observation with a judgment-free approach. I often think of one of my very favorite quotes: “Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t make them wrong.”

Use the time to build trust. I don’t do “drop in” observations until I’m certain a teacher knows and trusts me. When they are new hires, or if I’m just new to them, I give them ample time to prepare before any sort of observation. Why? Because then they know I’m there as a support, not as a punitive sword-swinger. I have no desire to bring a teacher down, so why would I act like I do?

Err on the side of compassion. Not long ago, I slipped in a classroom for a brief informal walk-through. The teacher was in the corner in an apparent debate with a student we all knew to be extremely challenging. The rest of the students were in an apparent free-for-all, not focused on work or any visible learning objectives. Some students were loud, obnoxious, and involved in an endless game of touch-poke-giggle-touch. Other students, the “quieter” ones, were bent over computers or books, seemingly just trying to get through. The teacher never looked up; she had no idea I was there. At a loss, I ducked out of the room.

I could have blasted her. I could have picked out 50 things wrong with that moment in time. Something held me back, though; something told me it would cause irreparable harm for her and for our relationship. So after school, I went to her room. “Hey, girl. How are you doing?”

“Fine?”

“I stopped in today,” I said.

She was surprised. “I didn’t see you.”

“It was right after lunch. 1:15 or so, You were in the corner? Talking to Kevin?”

My heart sank as she began to cry.

She was struggling. The behaviors of one or two students were ruling the room. She was exhausted from fighting a lingering cough. Her teammate had been out sick for almost a week, so her students had spent half their days with multiple substitutes. At home, one of her children was showing signs of oppositional-defiant disorder, and her partner was in a furious denial about the whole thing. “I’m not doing anything well,” she sniveled.

M’girl needed help, not criticism. Instead of jumping out with a gleeful, “Gotcha!” and busting her for being weak, I asked what I could do to help.

When we observe teachers, we have a responsibility to avoid the fracture of a teacher’s confidence, process, and rhythm. We also have a responsibility to keep an eye on making the school a place students can thrive. If we can do both those things, at the same time, we’ve done some pretty great work.

erronthesidejen

Peer Observations

Ryan Huels is currently an assistant principal at Oregon Elementary School in Oregon, Ill., after an extended tenure as an early-elementary classroom teacher. Ryan is an advocate for creating a more student-focused learning environment centered around the principles of positive relationships, restorative practices, and family engagement:

I have found more value as an administrator observing other teachers by first asking in a pre-conference what types of feedback or areas of support a teacher would like me to focus on prior to coming in. This increases their engagement in the evaluation process by making it more meaningful to them.

Another valuable tool our district has used is video self-evaluations done by staff. Not only does it make staff more familiar/comfortable with the evaluation tool, but it makes for a more meaningful conversation instead of a one-sided dialogue. Video self-evaluation allows staff to gain a greater understanding of what is taking place in their classroom and allows them to reflect on their practice in a more meaningful way.

Accompanying an evaluation with the opportunity for staff to observe peers who excel in areas of growth has also proved to be a powerful tool to make the process more meaningful. Oftentimes, the best professional development is a teacher within our building, so pairing staff up for peer observations allows teachers to take away specific strategies that work and the opportunity to have follow-up conversations with colleagues about ways to constantly improve their practice.

By shifting the focus of an evaluation to an opportunity to grow teachers in their practice and away from the “gotcha!” mentality, we can do more to uplift our staff and do greater things for the kids we serve.

peerobservationsryan

Thanks to Adeyemi, Elvis, Denita, Jen, and Ryan for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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