Teaching Profession Opinion

All About Teacher Observations: How to Get Them Right

Teachers, principals, and leadership coaches offer a decade’s worth of insight
By Mary Hendrie — April 01, 2024 5 min read
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More than a decade after being recognized as the Arkansas 2007 teacher of the year, Justin Minkel still found himself flustered when his principal slipped into the back row of class. “When my principal walks in with her laptop or a clipboard and pen, I’m instantly afflicted by a crippling self-doubt I haven’t felt since junior high,” the teacher wrote in a 2018 Opinion essay. “I scan the room with the alert panic a gazelle must feel when scanning the savannah for predators.”

Five years later, his jitters over observations—and his four tips for “surviving” them—continue to hit home for classroom teachers.

Earlier this school year, when the essay was reshared on Facebook, teachers flocked to the comments to affirm that teacher observations remain a perennial concern. In a lively conversation of 280 comments, readers volunteered their own success stories of the observation process working well and commiserated over their shared frustrations.

“I personally don’t mind them,” wrote Facebook commenter Lacey Peters, “because I am a self criticizer and usually the admin is saying much more positive things about my teaching even when I think the lesson went horribly!”

“I don’t have feelings of self-doubt,” another commenter, Rebecca Salomonsson, wrote, “I have feelings of resentment that someone is in my room actively taking notes on me. What other profession does this to its professionals? My husband is an engineer. He is trusted to do his job.”

In many commenters’ impressions of being observed, the deciding variable seemed to be how much they trusted the administrators observing them. How to build a bridge of support rather than judgment between teacher and principal has long been a source of inquiry for educators writing in Edweek’s Opinion pages.

In her 2022 essay “The Most Important Thing Principals Can Do in a Teacher Observation,” English teacher Kelly Scott charts the lasting impact of a single moment of encouragement in her first year of teaching. That memorable observation started with just one word: “Wow!”

“He knew that what I really needed—more than professional development, more than goal setting and professional standards—was someone to cheer me on,” she recalled of her administrator’s enthusiastic feedback during that vulnerable first observation.

Leading with enthusiasm isn’t the only advice teachers have to offer the observers coming into their classrooms. Two years ago, when teacher blogger Larry Ferlazzo asked his peers for best practices when administrators (or other teachers) observe their lessons, 19 contributors shared their own ideas. His four-part series on the topic rounded up a slew of their actionable guidance and emotional reflections:

It’s not just teachers with a stake in the observation process; administrators have had their say as well.

Last year, Atlanta Assistant Principal NaTasha Woodey-Wideman explained that not every professional learning effort has the same goal—but they all reflect a leader’s instructional values.

In “How You Deliver Professional Learning Says a Lot About You,” she urged principals to be intentional about the goals of a specific professional learning effort and then use teacher observations in service of those goals: “If the focus of a session is to provide teachers with tools for formative assessment, the lens of subsequent teacher observations should be formative assessment. After a session on building a strong classroom culture, walk-throughs should focus on culture.”

Soon after, Woodley-Wideman joined principal-turned-leadership-coach Opinion blogger Peter DeWitt for a live online discussion to consider how educator professional learning can move beyond the “sit and get” model.

In the discussion, her guidance began with a reminder that professional learning efforts should put an emphasis on the learning: “We tend to forget that teachers are also learners.”

She concluded her advice by flipping that formulation for school leaders. “Never forget you are a teacher,” she reminded building leaders. “Your classroom is that entire building.” (You can watch the full discussion on-demand for free here.)

Nearly a decade before their conversation, DeWitt was already beating the drum for principal introspection, asking readers: “Leaders: Are Your Teacher Observations Active or Passive?

He cautioned against a box-checking approach to teacher observations, noting, “It is often seen as a process to get done ... instead of a process to get done right.” Principals need to structure the process less like distant evaluators and more like instructional coaches, DeWitt proposed.

That’s a call to action that has been echoed by other educators since, including in David Edelman’s “Teacher Evaluation That Goes Beyond Check Boxes.” The most helpful post-observation feedback from his years in the classroom, he wrote in the 2016 Opinion essay, came from an informal collaboration with a fellow teacher who engaged deeply with his instructional practice rather than merely handing out a rating.

In the not-so-distant future, some of those moments of professional coaching may not just come from fellow teachers—or even fellow humans. Drawing on their work designing a natural-language-processing tool to provide teachers immediate feedback after a lesson, researchers Jing Liu, Dora Demszky, and Heather C. Hill invited readers to “imagine a world where we could harness the power of AI to provide teachers with automated, valuable feedback.”

That world shouldn’t come at the expense of interpersonal relationships in schools but rather work in service of building even stronger ones, they argued in “AI Can Make Education More Personal (Yes, Really)” this past summer.

Whether tech-assisted or otherwise, one thing remains true: There’s no ignoring the emotional vulnerability of the teachers being observed.

After all, to return to Justin Minkel’s appraisal of the observation process, the stakes can feel high. “It’s not just our professional competence that’s wrapped up in an observation,” he reminded readers, “but a sense of our worth as human beings.”

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