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Teacher Observations Don't Have to Be So Stressful. Here's a Better Model

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As teachers, we are constantly looking for ways to improve our practice. Pouring over Pinterest, scouring Teachers Pay Teachers, finding professional development to help us understand a topic better. In New York, where I teach, we have master’s degrees in our profession and hone our skills daily in one of the most challenging school districts in the country.

Yet, if you ask almost any teacher nationwide how they feel about observations, you can hear the slight edge of nerves in even the most seasoned educator’s voice.

Why? Why would a highly qualified professional who can explain a math problem in three different ways while simultaneously assessing children, diffusing arguments, and applying a Band-Aid to a child’s arm be scared of anything?

While there are many reasons for the stress and anxiety that go along with having a supervisor sit in on your class, one major cause is uncertainty. In New York City, there are as many styles of observation as there are principals in the schools. While everyone is being held to the same rubric, which is based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, there is really no oversight on how observations are being performed.

This means that in one school you can be observed by three different administrators, each with a different take on how to do an observation. One may come in and just watch, another may jump in and start coaching during your lesson, and another still may start looking around your desk as you teach.

The feedback that is given is varied as well. Some supervisors will focus on the negative, others will ask for your input, some will give useful suggestions, and others may become defensive if you ask any sort of question. Observations are used as a punishment in certain schools for not attending an “optional” lunch PD, or for speaking up about a concern. Administrators may also say that they want to see a certain curriculum or teaching style being used when they come observe, even if it may not be the best practice for a teacher or the students in that class.

This isn’t a problem specific to my city. Teachers across the country feel the strain of administrators using observations as they see fit. When observations are used as a punishment, they don’t help educators grow. When superintendents or principals use observations to push an agenda, teachers’ professional identities are diminished. Teachers want to be respected and valued for the knowledge they have worked hard to cultivate. But in many evaluation systems, teachers are the subject of a rating rather than a participant in the process of improvement.

Training All Staff Together

In New York City, we now have a chance to change the chaos that is our current observation system. The state education department and the United Federation of Teachers just agreed on a new contract that, I believe, will address many of these problems.

The new contract requires teachers and administrators to go through joint training on what an effective observation actually looks like. Both are to receive the same set of clear standards detailing how observations should be performed, what expectations each side should have, and how decisions inside this process should be made.

Training staff and administrators together is essential to make sure that all parties involved are on the same page. Everyone should hear the same thing at the same time and be able to ask clarifying questions together. Our goal as educators and union members is to ensure this joint training is meaningful.

If done well, this kind of transparent communication system could change the path of professional growth in our schools and serve as a model for districts across the country.

What would an ideal situation look like? Based on my experience and the struggles of fellow educators, I am hoping the city and the union consider some of the following steps:

1) First, principals should be observers only, documenting what they see happening. It serves them and the teacher best to find an unobstructed place to quietly observe the lesson as it takes place. This way they can see the full flow of the lesson the teacher has planned, how students are managed, and responses to challenges as they arise.

When an administrator jumps in or distracts during an evaluation, they interrupt the work of the teacher and students. They project their own ideas and choices on the class rather than watch the work of the teacher in charge. If an administrator feels the need to coach a teacher, that should be brought up in the feedback session and scheduled at a non-evaluative time.

2) Evaluative observations also shouldn’t be used as a means of rolling out or testing new instructional initiatives, as this may cause teachers to be rated in a teaching model they are not yet comfortable with. Time should be allowed for teachers to grow in new methods before they are given ratings on them.

3) Feedback needs an important shift as well. As it stands, in most situations observations are a system where teachers are watched, rated, and then informed of how they did. There is no teacher input involved in the procedure. If teachers are able to have a seat at the table and a voice in the process, it would feel less like a grade, and more like a professional collaboration between colleagues. We know that students learn and grow better through collaborative work and self-evaluation, so why are we not using that philosophy with our teachers?

After an observation, an administrator and teacher should be able to have a discussion about how the lesson went. Each of them should have a chance to list the positives and identify areas for growth. Principals and teachers should both be able to ask clarifying questions and suggest ideas for how improvements should be made. The comments and ideas of both should be included in the evaluation results. More growth will be achieved if we turn observations into a conversation between colleagues and give teachers a true chance to contribute when it comes to their own professional practice.

Hopefully, a careful review of the evaluation process will lead to a powerful set of standards and meaningful training that will bring much needed change to a broken system. A change in New York City could set a model for other school districts around the country, where teachers are desperate to be given the respect and voice they deserve in their own growth.

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