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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 Make Teacher Observations (Almost) Stress-Free

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 12, 2022 13 min read
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(This is the second post in a five-part series. You can see Part One 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 contributors were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Joy Hamm, Carol Chanter, Ed.D., Cindy Garcia, Amy Tepper, and Patrick Flynn share their responses.

Observing Colleagues

Joy Hamm has taught 11 years in a variety of English-language settings, ranging from kindergarten to adult learners:

One idea for making teacher observations a learning opportunity rather than a stressful experience is asking teachers to sign up at least once a quarter on a whiteboard weekly/monthly calendar located in the school faculty room or via an online calendar. Teachers write their name and the strategy, technology tool, or innovative method under the day they will be modeling it in class. Example: Tuesday, Feb. 23-Carlos Santana, Resoomer Chrome Extension. Colleagues interested in learning new instructional techniques can visit the host teacher during their planning period on the specified day.

A whiteboard or online calendar also provides administrators the opportunity to celebrate teachers at their best. Often, quick daily walk-throughs or state-required observations miss the heart of a lesson. To encourage a teacher-leader mentality, administrators can incorporate the top monthly takeaways in a staff meeting or send schoolwide emails with new methods that actively engaged students or appropriately scaffolded instruction. Too often, there aren’t many opportunities to share freshly acquired pedagogical tools with one another, thus calendar sign-up slots encourage shared capacity, create a school culture of teacher leaders, and make new cross-curricular classroom strategies or technology tools readily available.

colleaguesinterested

Building Trust

Carol Chanter, Ed.D., has more than 35 years of experience in special education, general education, academic coaching, and school and district leadership. Over the past 12 years, Chanter has served as a vice president in various roles for Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Achieve3000 to help teachers and leaders adopt best practices for program implementation, coaching, literacy, high-leverage instructional practices, and school turnaround:

Actionable observations begin with a solid vision of what you hope to learn. As a former instructional coach and school administrator, I always wanted to learn three things from observing a lesson:

  • What standards were being taught and what were the intended learning outcomes?
  • What was the lesson structure; how did the lesson flow from beginning to end?
  • What evidence did I notice that showed if the students mastered the learning outcomes?

With these clear end goals in mind, we can approach our observation in a systematic way. But before we can truly have a productive lesson observation, we need to create a culture that values reflection and feedback. One way to do this is with frequent classroom walk-throughs.

As a principal, I tried to get into as many classrooms as possible every day, even if only for a minute or two. As I walked through, I noted positive aspects of the learning environment (engaged students, anchor charts, literacy-rich environment, use of academic language, etc.) and left a quick sticky note of affirmation and feedback on the teacher’s desk, on a bulletin board, or other learning station. These informal visits helped to reduce fear and anxiety about the administrator’s presence in the classroom and created a culture of trust. It also helped to ensure that when I did conduct a longer and more formal lesson observation that I was experiencing a typical instructional session.

Once we have built trust, we can prepare for a more formal lesson observation. In preparation, I want to make sure that I understand what standards are being taught and what the intended learning outcomes are. This can be done in several ways, such as having standard lesson-plan templates on the teacher’s desk that contain this information or asking the teacher to submit the lesson plan in advance. Alternatively, the standard and learning objectives can be displayed in the classroom on a chalkboard, chart paper, whiteboard, or slide. This step is essential if we are to gauge the effectiveness of the lesson in helping students achieve these outcomes.

Another important step in preparing for lesson observation is to make sure that I am clear on how the lesson will flow. Many formal lesson-observation checklists include lesson components, or you can establish an agreed-upon set for your school. My research has led me to look for evidence of effective lessons structured in this way:

  • Build background knowledge and introduce critical academic vocabulary.
  • Provide direct instruction focused on the learning outcomes.
  • Engage students in guided practice with checks for understanding (discussion, questioning, written responses, signals, etc.).
  • Provide feedback, redirect or reteach to bridge misconceptions or gaps in learning.
  • Engage students in independent practice with additional checks for understanding, which can be more formal (short quiz, written summary, homework assignment, project, etc.).

Now that I am prepared with an understanding of the learning objectives and lesson structure, I am ready for the observation. My primary goal is to look for evidence of students mastering the learning objectives. As I watch the lesson unfold, I want to become an active participant during the guided practice and independent practice portions. I want to walk the classroom, listen to student discussions, see what they are writing or creating, listen to their questions, and ask them questions about what they are learning and why. I take notes on the observable behaviors and verbal responses, written responses and other evidence of student learning. I may even take a photo of student work.

This collection of evidence sets me up for a collaborative and reflective post-observation conversation with the teacher that centers on student learning. When we anchor follow-up coaching conversations on evidence of student learning, we engage the teacher as a partner in co-constructing areas for improvement that result in higher levels of student achievement, which of course should be the ultimate goal of all lesson observations.

actionableobservationscarol

Teachers Need to ‘Feel Safe’

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 15 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

Classroom observations are a great way for teachers to learn from each other and administrators to understand the type of instruction that is being facilitated on the campus. Feedback can also be shared with the observed teachers as part of a coaching conversation, and observational data can be compiled to note campus trends.

As a former campus instructional coach and as a district instructional specialist, I have found the best observations have come from unannounced visits. These types of observations allow me to get a more accurate idea of what daily instruction really looks like. In my experience, unannounced classroom visits are best when they are conducted in 7-10 minute chunks. The teacher, administrator, or coach walk into the classroom with a specific goal for each chunk of instruction instead of trying to observe everything taking place in the classroom.

In order for these to be genuine and effective observations, there does need to be a respectful working relationship in which the teachers being observed feel safe and willing to participate in this process. Below are some examples of goals for classroom observations.

  • Examine the Environment & Classroom Materials: Take a look at the classroom walls. What are the students expected to learn? How are students expected to show what they are learning? What is valued in the classroom and by the teacher? What are the instructional strategies emphasized by the teacher? What scaffolds are in place to support student learning?
  • Observe the Teacher: How does the teacher interact with students? How does the teacher provide students with multiple entry points to a lesson task? What has the teacher prepared for the lessons, e.g. question, sentence frames, graphic organizers, recording sheets? What does the teacher do when students are not getting it? What does the teacher do when students already know it? What opportunities does the teacher put into place to prompt students to take ownership of their learning?
  • Observe the Students: What opportunities do students have to be active participants in the lesson? How do students share their current understanding of the topic or content? In what ways do students interact with the teacher and their peers?
  • Examine Lesson Tasks: Are the tasks aligned to the standards? Do tasks go beyond getting the answer correct and focus more on students’ thinking? Do tasks promote campus initiatives?
classroomobservationscindy

‘Observing for Equity’

Amy Tepper and Patrick Flynn are the authors of Feedback to Feed Forward and Learner-Focused Feedback, two comprehensive books to support teachers, coaches, and leaders in the work of supporting teachers through observation and feedback for growth:

Support for teachers through learner-focused feedback that feeds forward must ensure teachers develop an accurate understanding of how they are impacting engagement and learning every day. It must promote reflection and growth and result in attainable and actionable next steps built on strengths—all directly rooted in what is understood about what is happening for learners. To achieve this, regardless of the model of teaching and learning, those who support teachers—peers, coaches, and administrators—must build their capacity to observe and collect evidence to identify if learning is occurring, to what level, and why or why not.

Universal Observation Strategies

Observers must master three competencies:

1. Effective observation and evidence collection

2. Explicit analysis of impact through evidence

3. Development of high-quality feedback

In alignment to these, we identified six standards. Then in unpacking the standards, our own processes, and work with observers over the past eight years, we identified 21 core skills required of anyone who will support teachers through feedback.

tepper

To help observers master those skills, we created 50 strategies. This is complex work—because learning is complex!

  1. Build Clarity

Teams must build clarity and common understanding answering, “What is learning?” “How do students learn?” “What do we want for our learners?” along with, “What teaching leads to those outcomes?”
Districts’ instructional frameworks can become highly useful resources in these conversations and, when unpacked, become guides for evidence collection and tools for teacher self-reflection and growth, not only evaluation.

  1. Determine look-fors and evidence-collection strategies

Of our 50 strategies, three form the foundation:

View teaching and learning

Listen to teaching and learning

Interact with learners

Using these, teams can answer more specific questions related to goals for teaching and learning such as, “What does it look and sound like when a teacher is creating an environment where students will take risks? What would I hear from learners to know a safe, positive environment is being created?”

Observers can plan questions for learners, such as those about perception and experiences in the learning environment (e.g., “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?”).

Observing for Impact and Equity

If you are unsure about what causes students to take risks or not, it is hard to know what to look for or recognize how a teacher is impacting students. Observers must master the knowledge and skills to observe for equity, including understanding barriers to learning and how teachers might create them unknowingly (e.g., teacher has provided sentence stems or resources and models how to use them or neglects to use wait time).

We suggest observers utilize several other critical strategies for evidence collection and analysis of impact while integrating what is understood about trauma, SEL, and culturally responsive pedagogy such as:

Collect a balance of evidence with purpose.

Interact to determine prior learning.

Interact to determine relevance and context.

Adapt based on what students are doing/writing/using/not using.

Determine causes of outcomes.

Supporting Teachers in Distance Models

In some situations, we may face the challenges of supporting teachers at a distance or in hybrid models. Therefore, we must identify evidence-collection strategies from brick-and-mortar classrooms that are still effective and those that need to be adapted. For example, we can still determine how a teacher is creating a positive learning environment and identify if students are taking risks at a distance. Now, we may visit Google Classrooms and look at the organization and layout and read student responses to each other. We may jump into Zoom to listen to instruction and chat with students in breakouts (more suggestions).

We recognized that the move to distance learning occurs in phases. So we designed a framework—The 4 Stages of the Shift that can be used to guide observation, goal setting, and feedback in any model and can be aligned to your instructional framework.

Regardless of the model, comprehensive evidence collection focused on the end goal of identifying impact on learning remains a priority. Observers and those who support observers must commit to the learning and practice required to ensure teachers are supported to the highest level based on evidence of impact. The more frequently we can engage in visits and conversations focused on impact on learning, the greater our capacity to observe and analyze it!

observersmustmaster

Thanks to Joy, Carol, Cindy, Amy, and Patrick 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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