Teachers tend to have strong opinions about observations. Some veteran teachers may not even flinch at the idea of a formal observation, but rookie teachers—and especially first-year teachers—often feel a sense of panic and anxiety over these required classroom intrusions.
While every job comes with some form of performance review, there is just something more nerve-wracking about the process as an educator. Perhaps it’s because teaching is so personal and performative; receiving criticism hits closer to home for the writer, artist, and therapist than for the accountant or computer programmer.
Teaching involves creativity, passion, and quite often a bit of dramatic flair and improvisation, not to mention the amount of relationship building needed to create a safe and productive environment. The classroom itself becomes an extension of the teacher, reflecting their personality and becoming their second home for nine months of the year, and ideally becomes like a second home to their students as well.
Thus, when being watched and judged on such a personal endeavor, teachers are bound to have feelings of anxiety and fear of judgment that goes beyond that of a typical “performance review.”
Over the years, I have certainly had my fair share of observations, but my most positive observation came during my first year of teaching. In fact, that first observation was the best and most significant feedback of my entire career.
Mr. Burns was a seasoned professional in the later stages of his career and advancing toward retirement. I was a nontraditional-route teacher with a provisional license who had very little confidence and was struggling through the first year of teaching. I felt very isolated, having discovered like many first-year teachers that nothing can fully prepare you for having a classroom of your own.
When the day came for my first formal observation, I was terrified. My mind was racing with thoughts about where I could work if they decided I wasn’t good enough; maybe I could be a manager at Chick-fil-A?
I remember my heart pounding out of my chest as I nervously awaited Mr. Burns’ arrival. And suddenly, perhaps having spent years making stealthy entrances, he just appeared. Tucked into the back of my class, avoiding eye contact, he quietly set up shop to perform his observation.
I was doing an introduction to Shakespeare with freshmen prior to reading “Romeo and Juliet,” and we were playing a warm-up game called Shakespeare or Rap Lyric? to create some buy-in and interest. I don’t even recall what the next part of the lesson was or what happened after that, but I do know that my voice was so shaky throughout the observation that I could barely focus on what I was saying.
My voice was so shaky throughout the observation that I could barely focus on what I was saying.
I also recall that just as stealthily as he had entered, Mr. Burns vanished. He was like an observation poltergeist: floating in and out of classrooms, invoking fear at just the thought of him.
Heading into the meeting about my observation later that day, I expected to hear all the ways I could do better. As a first-year teacher, I fully anticipated nothing but gentle criticism, and I was trying to think of all the ways I could nod, smile, and graciously accept the fact that my teaching skills were subpar.
But Mr. Burns, who I had only ever witnessed as quiet and professional, was … excited. I will always remember that his first word at our meeting was an emphatic, “Wow!”
He piled on the praise, showing a level of enthusiasm for me as an educator that was greater than my own confidence. He made me feel like a rock star teacher. It was the best thing he ever could have done—for me and for my students.
Now, I’m sure I wasn’t deserving of such great praise, and when I look back at what I did my first year of teaching, I cringe. But Mr. Burns gave me the encouragement and boost I had been lacking, and I swear it carried me until the end of that first year. He understood that my growth as a teacher would come with experience and time.
He knew that what I really needed—more than professional development, more than goal setting and professional standards—was someone to cheer me on. In the world of teaching, there is rarely anyone cheering on the sidelines, so getting a verbal “wow!” instead of a “meets expectations” box checked can make all the difference in the world.
So, administrators, while your teacher observations may be just one more thing on a never-ending to-do list, take the time to provide some enthusiastic praise. Be a little over the top with the positives. Your words carry more weight than you think, and you might just provide the boost your teachers need to get through a really tough year, whether it’s their first or 15th.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as The Secret Ingredient to Meaningful Teacher Observations