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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Profession Opinion

Throw Out the Protocol for Teacher Observations. Use Common Sense Instead

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 15, 2022 15 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One hereand Part Two 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.

Today, PJ Caposey, Abby Baker, Areli Schermerhorn, Ann Mausbach, and Bill August write about their experiences.

Go ‘Narrow’

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the nationally recognized Meridian CUSD 223 school district in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

A great observation results in a conversation that creates a positive change in teacher performance. It is that simple.

The complexity of the situation comes from two facts we often overlook in this discussion. First, it is difficult to grow under stress. Observations are frequently part of the evaluation process and therefore are quite stressful for our teachers. Second, most evaluators have been trained to enter the classroom and collect data. When this process is done as seen in training, the data collected often reads like a screenplay. While this makes sense on a number of levels, I believe there are some downsides. By strictly adhering to this technique, most observers tend to not be able to see the forest for the trees and miss many teachable moments focusing on protocol over common-sense practice.

Thus, the below advice is intended to present an alternative, and in my opinion, better way forward. The process to arrive at my suggestions is simple. Given that the mark of a great observation is the eventual change of teacher behavior, we can backward engineer the key components that make observations successful.


In the three most popular frameworks (Danielson, Marzano, Marshall) used to guide observation/evaluation, there are so many areas to consider it becomes nearly impossible to focus during an observation. The most productive observations are narrow in scope. From personal experience, for informal observations in my district, we tend to focus on only Danielson Domain 3, Component C, and this has led to far superior conversations compared with observations done without a clear focus. Additionally, we have narrowed our overall focus to fewer components, and this has decreased stress and increased overall engagement.


If you are unable to tell if students know what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they are expected to demonstrate mastery of the lesson, it is impossible to understand if the lesson is effective. The only way you can know the answer to these questions is by engaging in conversation with multiple students at an appropriate time.

Do not worry. If you are thinking you should not interrupt a lecture to ask these questions, you are correct. However, if you are doing any type of extended observation, the entirety of the observation should not be a lecture.


For an observation to carry true meaning, it should result in some type of debrief between the teacher and observer. This, of course, would ideally be a face-to-face conversation. If the goal is to improve teacher performance, then an observation should result in a reflective conversation of substance.

The typical practice in our district is to have the teacher self-assess their performance on the singular component of the Danielson rubric focusing on the critical attributes. This focus and self-reflection is used as the backbone of the conversation. These conversations are not long. They can be five minutes or less; but if we are serious about growing our teachers, they deserve enough of our time to have a face-to-face conversation.


I feel that the opportunity to watch instruction and provide feedback is the most systematic approach that schools have to improvement. The quality of a school simply cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. As such, feedback provided from an observation should be consistently aligned with the vision, values, and initiatives of the school. The observation should not place “one more thing on the plate” of teachers and should instead reinforce previously stated expectations and help to tie together all that the school is attempting to accomplish.

I say this unabashedly. I love the observation and feedback process. I fear that the attempt to overregulate the process has led to this becoming an exercise of accountability instead of growth. I hope that these simple tips can help to shift the pendulum back and this process can realize its awesome potential.


‘Ditch the Laptop’

Abby Baker is former ELA teacher and is currently serving as a school leader in Philadelphia.

Formal and informal observations have the potential to be vehicles for teachers’ growth as professionals. Therefore, it is important that administrators conduct observations in ways that are not threatening to teachers. Observations should not be seen as a “gotcha” for teachers; instead, administrators, instructional coaches, and teachers should work together in order for the betterment of students.

While there probably isn’t an ideal way to please every teacher in one’s building, administrators can (and should) take steps to ensure they are providing succinct and helpful feedback for all staff. A few tips include:

  • Ask how teachers prefer to receive feedback. A mentor once asked me how I like to receive feedback, which I had never really thought of prior to his question. Many teachers are used to receiving feedback the way the administrator or coach likes giving it, which does not work for all staff. While administrators may have a preferred way of giving feedback, it’s good to know how staff wish to receive it so that it can be better received.
  • Put observations on teachers’ calendars. No one likes surprises, so a quick calendar invite will often ease a teacher’s worries. If administrators want to conduct pop-ins, a short email to staff letting them know they may receive a visit that day will quell teachers’ stress levels.
  • Don’t underestimate pre- and post-observation meetings. When conducting formal observations, it’s important to have discussions with teachers. This encourages teachers to be reflective in their practice, but it also allows administrators to learn the planning behind the teachers’ lessons.
  • Interact with the students during the lesson. Sitting in the back corner of the classroom typing away on a laptop isn’t the best way to gather important information about the lesson. Engage with students and teachers as an active member of the class. You will glean quite a bit from being a part of the action, which will inform post-observation data and conversation.
  • Ditch the laptop - you will be more engaged without it. A notebook and a pen are sufficient tools for writing notes.

While there is no magic formula for administrators when conducting teacher observations, it’s always humbling when administrators and teachers have a common understanding that observations lead to growth for teachers, which in turn, benefits students.


Doing ‘With’ Teachers & Not ‘to’ Them

Areli Schermerhorn has supported the development of teachers, students, and their families in the Syracuse City school district for nearly 30 years. Currently, she is the independent evaluator for the English as a new language (ENL) and bilingual teachers in the district and a Unit 1 director for the Syracuse Teachers Association:

Books and an array of articles have been written in an effort to answer the question, How can we best do observations of a lesson? Some of my favorite books include Evaluating ALL Teachers of English Learners and Students with Disabilities: Supporting Great Teaching by Ayanna Cooper, Diane Staehr-Fenner, and Peter Kozik, and Feedback Feed Forward by Amy Tepper and Patrick Flynn. Promoting Success for Teachers of English Leaners - Tool Aligned with the Danielson Framework for Teaching April 2019 is another excellent resource. As an independent evaluator for the Syracuse City school district, an urban district in upstate New York, I have had the honor of observing and evaluating hundreds of teachers in diverse classrooms, concentrating my efforts in the areas of bilingual and English as a new language education. Additionally, I am an American Federation of Teachers national trainer on English-learners. When I first began my training with the AFT, the following quote really grabbed my attention:

“Everyone seems to think that all you need to do to be a good teacher is to love to teach. But no one thinks that all you need to do to be a good surgeon is to love to cut.” — Adam Urbanski, AFT vice president

Teachers are smart. They understand the importance of professional performance reviews and quality, research-based feedback that can help them advance their practice. I believe that it is important, maybe even essential, to have content knowledge and knowledge of specific pedagogy to do your best work as an observer and evaluator. One of the challenges of being an ENL peer observer is making sure that I am aware of the language-proficiency levels represented in the classroom and that I can analyze the data based on that knowledge. This is a challenge because even though I may be observing a class of just entering and emerging students (beginning levels), I may not always have the information to determine the levels of student engagement properly.

For example, I may go up to an entering student and ask him a question about what he is learning, and the student may not answer or just shrug his shoulders. The student may be in his “silent period” or may just not have the language to formulate an oral response. Typically, this information would surface during the post-conference, and that is why it is important to be open and flexible about the analysis of evidence. Reframing teacher evaluation from a process that is done to teachers to a process that is done with teachers begins with a commitment to collaboration among professionals and the promotion of reflection utilizing unbiased data gathered by well-trained and knowledgeable evaluators.

The current pandemic may have put a hold on many teacher-performance evaluations. It is, however, a critical time for teachers to be receiving quality feedback. Teacher leaders need to identify what strategies can move teachers forward in their thinking and practice to create action steps that are logical, attainable, and realistic for both teacher and student in a changing school environment.


Focus & Feedback

Ann Mausbach is an associate professor of educational leadership at Creighton University. She served as a central-office leader for more than 20 years and is the author of multiple books on school leadership. Find Ann on twitter @amausbach or annmausbach.com

Can you imagine a football team that goes out and plays the game and that’s it? There are no plays, no review of the game plan—the team is simply put on the field and told to play. Ridiculous, right? However, this is exactly what we do in schools when we don’t utilize observations in meaningful ways. Observations are at the heart of the game of leading teaching and learning. Just as winning teams know their plays and use game film to refine execution, schools must treat observations in the same way. We do this by knowing the plan (focus) and utilizing what we see in classrooms to help refine practice (feedback).

Focus - Before setting foot inside a classroom, observers need to have a clear purpose for the visit. Far too often, this is a missing piece and is why many observations are rendered meaningless. The primary purpose of observations should be to help teachers find the most effective way to improve student learning (Bambrick-Santoyo, 2010). This requires school leaders to leave the checklists and complicated rubrics at the door and instead arm themselves with a clear set of “look fors” collaboratively developed by staff around the practices being learned in professional-development settings (both large group and PLCs). Look-fors are clear statements that describe an observable teaching or learning behavior, strategy, outcome, product, or procedures (Mooney & Mausbach, 2008). Look-fors bridge the gap between learning and implementation because they help teachers understand the target.

Save the complicated forms for the summative evaluation and focus efforts on looking at instruction formatively, meaning frequently and with a specific purpose. For example, if the building has identified using formative assessments aligned to learning targets and success criteria as their improvement strategy, then that is what observers should be looking for when in classrooms. The purpose isn’t to judge teachers but to support them in their efforts to use practices effectively. This can only occur when both the observed and observer are clear about what the practice looks like and sounds like when in use.

Feedback - Feedback is the fertilizer of professional learning. It is what helps nurture and accelerate growth. One of the reasons to limit using complicated rubrics and checklists is because they are evaluative in nature and tend to reduce feedback to judgments. Rather than focusing on how weak or strong a teacher or practice may be or coming up with a percentage of students engaged, feedback needs to be designed so it can be acted upon. Effective feedback helps promote self-awareness and serves as that voice in a person’s head that has them constantly thinking and reflecting on how to improve performance.

Consider the difference:


Observing classrooms is a critical practice to helping achieve improved outcomes for all our students in our schools. Having a focus and providing meaningful feedback will help to ensure that this practice results in a winning game plan.

Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2012). Leverage leadership: A practical guide to building exceptional schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mooney N. J. & Mausbach, A. T. (2008). Align the Design: A blueprint for school improvement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


‘Think Like a Coach’

Bill August is the principal of Big Spring High School in Newville, Pa.

Being in classrooms and watching teachers teach is really the only way to know what is going on in your school and about the only thing that leads to any sustainable changes or improvements. Whether you are in the classroom for a formal observation or doing a 10-minute learning walk, this time is crucial to both student learning and your culture. Here are a few things to consider to get the most out of your observations:

  • Enter Curious, Exit More Curious:

Effective teaching is about making the right instructional choices before, during, and after a lesson. Being curious about what and why a teacher or student is doing something specific during a lesson can lead to the ability to ask reflective open-ended questions. Asking a student why they are doing something can be the easiest way to tell how engaged they are in what is going on and how coherent the instruction has been. Getting teachers to really think about why they are having kids do things and why they either designed a lesson a certain way or modified something in the moment is powerful. Coming into a room with an open mind about what you are seeing and a genuine desire to know why things are happening not only helps to coach teachers, it grows your knowledge as well.

  • Think Like a Coach:

Anyone that has been an educator for any length of time knows that the default setting for this profession is one of isolation. The “seventy independent contractors who share a parking lot” adage is all too often a reality that reinforces a culture of closed doors and competition over collaboration. Learning walks and observations can be a game changer for professional isolation if conducted with the mindset of a coach. Coaches look at players’ performance with the intent of making them better at something they love to do. Coaches focus on skills and give feedback that is timely and specific. Great coaches communicate about what a player is doing right, as much as what needs to be improved. Coaches don’t try and address everything a player needs to do; they focus on one or two at a time. Most importantly, coaches take time to talk about what a player’s strengths are. The best observations and learning walks do all of this as well.

  • Leave a Next Step

The best observations end with a next step that invites a continuing conversation and another visit.


Thanks to PJ, Abby, Areli, Ann, and Bill 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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