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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Profession Opinion

How to Create a Positive Atmosphere for Teacher Observations

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 18, 2022 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

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

In Part Two, Joy Hamm, Carol Chanter, Ed.D., Cindy Garcia, Amy Tepper, and Patrick Flynn shared their responses.

In Part Three, PJ Caposey, Abby Baker, Areli Schermerhorn, Ann Mausbach, and Bill August wrote about their experiences.

Today, Andrew Sharos, Julia Stearns Cloat, Sanée Bell, and Janice Wyatt-Ross wrap up this series.

Don’t Try to Chase Two Rabbits!

Andrew Sharos is the author of Finding Lifelines, The New Teacher and Mentor Novel and All 4s and 5s, A Guide to Teaching and Leading Advanced Placement Programs. He is an administrator in Chicago and a former history teacher:

One of the most powerful professional-development tools is observing other teachers and exposing ourselves to someone else’s craft. Teaching is a profession; watching other teachers helps us more than theory, research, and professional development combined.

At the same time, having other people watch us teach can also be a powerful exercise. Unfortunately, in today’s educational climate, there is too much at stake with formal evaluations for many teachers to see them as an opportunity for growth. Here are three ways in which administrators can create a more positive atmosphere around observations.

  1. Observations have to be conversational. During a pre- or post-conference, the observer should merely ask questions for the teacher to answer. The level of a teacher’s reflection often matches their willingness to grow and absorb the feedback. Evaluation is all about attitude, and most observers are looking for their staff to show a degree of coachability. However, in order to encourage those qualities, observers have to set the tone in a nonthreatening way. Listening more than speaking and listening to “understand” instead of listening to “reply” are powerful tools that help us create a positive vibe to the conversation.
  2. Observers should focus on a teacher’s strengths and not their weaknesses. Obviously, the goal of observations is to help a teacher grow. But we should start from a strengths-based approach instead of always focusing on the negatives. Each teacher has unique talents and skills that sets them apart from others. Much like we try to focus on our students’ strengths, observers can capitalize on the opportunity to build a teacher’s confidence. This is our opportunity to value teachers for the great work they do. Ninety percent of our evaluations will be easy because of how talented our teachers are!
  3. We have to focus on one or two things for improvement. When I unsuccessfully mentored a student-teacher early in my career, I overwhelmed them with many different areas for improvement. If you try to chase two rabbits, you won’t catch either one! But if we focus on one thing for an observation, teachers can absorb the tangible feedback and have a greater commitment to its purpose.

Observing Colleagues

Julia Stearns Cloat has spent the past 25 years working in unit school districts in roles related to literacy, MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support), professional learning, and curriculum development. She currently works as the executive director of curriculum and instruction in Freeport, Ill., and as an adjunct professor at Northern Illinois University. Julia has co-authored her first book, Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Reading Practices: A Leveling System for Authentic Spanish Instruction, which will come out in next year:

In my experience as an instructional coach and administrator, one observing others teach is one of the most powerful embedded professional learning experiences that teachers can have. Over the years, I have tried many different ways to structure the experiences of teachers observing each other and have found some to be extremely successful and others to have limited success.

Here are a few of the structures that I have tried over the years. I am including one fairly common structure that I have not found to be effective in practice as a way to provide an example of what may not work as well and as a point of comparison to the other two, more effective structures. .

Collaboration Boards: Teachers are creative and innovative people who do wonderful things in their classrooms every day, and often, the only other professionals that get to observe their craft are administrators and instructional coaches. As a result, instructional coaches will often get very excited about connecting teachers in ways that promote collaboration and observation. While talking to a teacher about what she is doing or trying to accomplish, I have often found myself saying, “You should check out this other teacher’s lessons. She is doing something similar.” So it is understandable that coaches and administrators would want an efficient system of connecting teachers in ways that promote observation. With a collaboration chart, teachers are encouraged to post something that they are doing and think others might want to observe. The chart includes the details of lesson or activity and invites other teachers to observe. Another great idea, but it doesn’t work as well in practice for two reasons.

  1. Teachers often do not like to draw attention to themselves—regardless of how amazing their lessons are. Many are hesitant to add their lesson to the board; perhaps they see it as a type of bragging.
  2. Just like with the open-door idea, teachers are busy people and may not take the time to observe others in their classroom.

Job-Alike Observations: A more effective structure for teacher observations are job-alike observations. The purpose is to observe someone else who does the same job, often in a different building. Aside from the commitment from the district to provide sub coverage, this structure takes minimal effort. The person who wants to do the observation simply fills out a short form to indicate the details, including what they hope to take away from the experience.

Structured and facilitated observations: To me the most effective type of teacher observation is a structured and facilitated observation. I have found it to be effective to begin with a prebrief to provide context to what is going to be observed and to set the purpose and goals of the observation. I find that rarely is more than 15 minutes in one classroom needed. Much more than that seems to get diminishing returns. In this structure, teachers cycle through multiple classrooms.

I prefer to have the observations occur in all classrooms of a given team. Doing so promotes a culture with the mindset that we all have something to learn from one another. After the full rotation of observations has occurred, the team gathers for a debrief to review what they saw, what they will apply in their own classroom.


‘Authentic Observation’

Sanée Bell, Ed.D., is a middle school principal, author, and speaker who resides in Houston. Sanée shares her thoughts on leadership on her blog saneebell.com and via Twitter @SaneeBell:

Prior to conducting an observation, it is important to understand the purpose of the observation. Specifically, what are you observing? Is it teaching or is it learning? Is it both? What will be the outcome of the information you are gathering during the observation? Will the observation be used to provide feedback on goals established by the teacher being observed? Or will it be used to assess the level of learning that is occurring in the classroom? If the observer is a teacher, how should they plan to use the data that is gathered to improve their practice?

Setting the stage for the observation helps to focus the observer and the person being observed. The ultimate outcome for all involved in the observation process is learning.

Whether the observation is formal or informal, it is important for the person being observed to have an understanding of what will be looked for during the observation. Furthermore, the follow-up after the observation is the most important part of the cycle. Sharing what was learned from the observation by engaging in two-way conversation about the data gathered is critical. Giving the person who was observed time to share their thoughts about the lesson prior to the observer sharing the data they gathered allows the person who was observed the opportunity to be reflective about the process. It is through this reflection that the person observed begins to identify strengths of the lesson and opportunities for refinement. It is also through this process that the person observed can begin to open themselves up for additional information that will validate, affirm, or generate new ideas for further discovery.

During an observation, it is important to use a protocol to help gather information. Being intentional about the focus of the observation helps both the observer and the person being observed learn from the process. Observation should be approached as a learning tool. Authentic observation requires active engagement of all parties.

Asking questions and reflecting on practice in order to improve and help others grow should be at the forefront of all observation cycles. In order for observations to be used as a tool for learning, growth, and refinement, all parties involved in the process must be part of stating the intended purpose and outcome before engaging in the activity. Learning from others is a hallmark of the observation process.


‘The Stress Can Be Lessened’

Janice Wyatt-Ross has a bachelor’s in special education from the University of Central Arkansas, a master’s in special education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and a doctorate in urban educational leadership from the University of Cincinnati. She is now the program director for the Success Academy of the Fayette County public schools in Kentucky:

Classroom observations are a source of stress for the teacher being observed and the administrator observing. Too often, observations are exercises used to catch teachers not performing at their best. Administrators have their district-supplied checklists. Students are bribed or threatened to be on their best behavior. Teachers are nervously “tap dancing” or putting on their best “dog and pony shows.”

If I’m being honest, I confess, I am not a fan of district-supplied checklists. Yes, there are elements that I expect to see being implemented in the classroom, but I know that every classroom is different. The dynamics of various classrooms will be different. The checklist is not a one-size-fits-all tool; however, it is a mandate, and I must comply. In many cases, what I observe in a five- to 10-minute snapshot will require the teacher to provide the context and for me to not read too much into what I saw or didn’t see during the time I was in class. I am still growing in my instructional-leadership style and, more specifically, how I would like teachers to feel at ease with my presence in their classrooms.

My preference is to spend time in classrooms not formally observing. I achieve this goal by taking my laptop to the classroom. While in the classroom, I sit at a desk, table, or chair and check my email or create reports or whatever task that needs to be completed. Students like having me in class because they interact with me by asking questions or showing me their work products. They see me working alongside them. I get to the teacher questions during instruction that the students were too embarrassed to ask. I can see if the Success Criteria are posted, if the objectives or learning targets are articulated, and if the students know what it takes for them to be successful in the classroom for that day or time period.

For me, the most productive observations are when the teacher and I have agreed upon what aspect of their teaching I will focus on while in the classroom. Prior to the observation, I will ask the teacher to identify if I should focus on things such as student/teacher interactions, higher-order questioning, student engagement, classroom procedures, pacing, etc. A productive observation is established well before “go time.” Conversations with teachers that carefully explain the vision and expectations should begin during the interview phase and most certainly day one of the school year and all throughout the year. Just as we expect teachers to fully explain what students need to know and be able to do, I as an evaluating administrator should give teachers that same deference.

The same instructional strategies teachers implement for students should be implemented from an administrative standpoint. Administrators should have a relationship with teachers, teachers should know the vision and expectations of the administration, and teachers deserve and expect informative feedback. As I said before, I am still growing in my observation style and with being consistent with the depth of feedback that I give teachers.

Classroom observations are a source of stress; however, the stress can be lessened with productive communication, a clearly articulated vision, clearly articulated expectations for the classroom experience to be created for students, and informative feedback.


Thanks to Andrew, Julia, Sanée, and Janice 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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