One of the time-honored practices of school leaders is to visit classrooms and conduct teacher observations. These visits are intended to provide teachers with constructive feedback about their performance and help them enhance their professional practice. They also help principals keep tabs on instruction and evaluate teacher performance. While the goals behind teacher observations are laudable, the process sometimes does not follow the script and can even lead to frustration and resentment for both parties.
For teachers, observations can oftentimes be disruptive. Even when notified previously, the presence of one or more administrators can interrupt the flow of class and be unnerving. Many worry about what is going through the mind of their supervisor and fret over the post-observation feedback that they will receive — if they get any at all.
Many principals struggle with the process as well. When should they observe and how often? How much time should they be spending in the classroom? Do they need to notify the teacher ahead of time? What will they be looking for? When and how should they offer feedback? How can they use this experience to promote teacher growth and evaluation?
I experienced these issues firsthand, as a teacher and then as a principal. As a teacher, I knew what it was like to be visited often, as well as to go an entire year without an administrator walking in. I remember the highs of positive feedback and the lows of feeling that the principal really did not know what I was doing in class or how successful I was in my classroom. My years in administration allowed me to conduct many affirming, growth-oriented conversations with teachers. I also had too many talks with teachers that seemed awkward at times, or made me feel that I had not done enough to set the right tone.
The following represents a short list of suggestions for principals that I believe can make classroom visits and observations productive, constructive and positive for all parties.
- Clarify intentions. Let teachers know what it is that you seek to achieve when you visit. What are you looking for, in terms of instruction, engagement and classroom management? What does good teaching look like to you? More importantly, let teachers know that the purpose of your visit is to help, not to catch them doing something wrong. Even if there is a breakdown, your interest is to help them reflect and identify better ways forward, not to get stuck in the moment.
- Develop a common language. Use terminology that all parties understand. When analyzing the lesson, it is helpful to be able to speak about terms like objective, anticipatory set, input and closure and have the teachers know clearly what you mean. If there are terms that are unknown or ambiguous, use in-service teacher meetings to elucidate and explain their importance.
- Take good notes. Script-tape is a way of keeping copious notes that allows you to drill down and achieve greater understanding about classroom activities and teacher rationale. By giving teachers the chance to explain before passing verdict — “tell me about when you…” — you will oftentimes find that their apparent misstep or incongruent comment was both relevant and purposeful.
- Leave quick impressions with specificity. Pen a short note just as you are planning to exit the room. It should be positive and specific, detailing something in particular that you noticed and want to reinforce.
- Debrief in the near term. Don’t let much time elapse between your visit and the debriefing. Teachers are anxious to hear from you and a prolonged delay can lead them to think that something was amiss or that you simply do not care enough to get back with them. Moreover, the longer the gap, the harder it’ll be for both parties to reconstruct the events and make sense of them, which is the real point of the visit to begin with.
- Collect data. There are tools that principals can use, such as Teachscape, that can help them “check off” when they observe certain things in the classroom, such as student groupings and instructional tone. Such data can be useful to view in the aggregate, either to observe a teacher’s progression over time or to see how prevalent certain teaching practices are amongst members of staff or even subsections. For example, perhaps trends will emerge in which lower school teachers are using more cooperative and group learning and middle school teachers tend to rely more heavily on frontal lecturing.
- Choose frequency over duration. If done correctly, a principal can gather much information and a clear understanding of what’s going on in a classroom in just a few short minutes. Short visitations allow principals to get into more rooms, which boost morale. They also put teachers at ease, as each visit is low stakes and part of a natural, organic process, not based on a concern.
- Use a formative approach. As with formative assessment, a proactive approach gives teachers feedback in an ongoing fashion and gives all parties a chance to try to remedy problem situations in a timely fashion. Gone are the almighty summative observations in the spring that are used to determine whether a teacher is a keeper.
- Stay to the goals. This may be the most important of all. I strongly suggest that every teacher be asked in the spring for a few goals that they wish to work on over the summer and into the following school year. The goals should be reviewed by a supervisor and agreed to. Once that’s in place, principals should try whenever possible to comment with the goals in mind. How is the teacher faring? What steps need to be taken to help support her? Staying focused on goals not only helps you check off on an important growth area, but also makes the post-observation conversation feel more natural, as the next step in an ongoing conversation.
By following at least some of these suggestions, principals can set a more positive, focused and goal-oriented tone to the observation process. The result will be happier teachers and genuine sense of fulfillment, knowing that you are satisfying one of the most important tasks in your role as instructional leader.