Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Are Teacher Observations Helpful?

A recent trend has been for schools to make walk throughs or mini-observations part of the instructional evaluation and growth process. But the purpose and effectiveness of various approaches differs greatly from school to school and administrator to administrator.

A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School and American Institutes for research called into question the effectiveness of classroom observation as a means of assessing teacher effectiveness. The report indicated that students' prior academic achievement was a significant predictor of success on the evaluation, perhaps more influential than actual teaching effectiveness. The study suggests that high-stakes observation systems may be flawed.

But this post from Todd Schmidt expresses great enthusiasm for principals getting into classrooms. He describes how being in classrooms is an important way of supporting teachers. His approach involves offering help to teachers in just about any way needed. He starts with a desire to serve. His article is a must-read.

So what makes classroom visits worthwhile? A focus on growth and relationships.

I have tried a variety of things to make walk throughs better. I believe these mini-observations/classroom visits can be helpful with the right conditions. My goals are to 1) support instruction and show that learning is important by my presence in classrooms, 2) to help teachers grow stronger and feel validated in their professional skills, and 3) to fulfill evaluation necessities.

I think the greatest value in the process is the conversation that results about teaching and learning. The opportunity for a teacher and principal to work together to reflect on a lesson brings new meaning and better understanding of how instructional decisions impact the classroom. It builds a stronger relationships around teaching and learning.

So let's get to specifics. After years of reflection, practice, and reading on the topic, I've settled on the process describe below. But it's challenging to consistently fulfill these aims. Occasionally, I fail to follow-up with the face-to-face conversation or the email doesn't happen. I'm a work in progress and so is this system.

1. Make walk throughs frequent and routine. It can be very challenging to do this. The principal's job is built for distraction. The goal is to have multiple drop-in visits at various times throughout the school year to get an overall understanding of the teacher's work and how students are learning. The conversations gain depth and clarity when the teacher and the principal understand the classroom dynamics over time.

2. Avoid checklists or forms. I've used a variety of checklists and forms in the past, but I don't anymore. I don't want the teacher to focus on boxes that were or were not checked. Not every instructional strategy is going to be present in every lesson, but many teachers think it's a negative if they don't get lots of positive check marks. The forms become the focus instead of the conversation. I want both parties offering ideas into the dialogue. With forms and checklists, it feels like the principal is the only voice that matters.

3. Don't rate teachers on walk throughs. I realize there are many new evaluation systems that require the observer to rate each teacher with each visit. These systems require extensive training to have any reliability or consistency, and even when training is comprehensive, I believe they are susceptible to bias. As soon as you rate teachers, it creates a natural tendency to "look good" for the system rather than to reflect on "what's good" or how one can grow. When these ratings systems are high stakes, there is even greater pressure play a game instead of focusing on authentic improvement.

4. Talk to students about what they are learning. If it won't interrupt the teacher or the lesson, I always try to talk with students while in the classroom. It helps me really understand what is going on and how they are learning. It also demonstrates to students that I support the efforts they are making. I care about you and what you are learning.

Some questions to ask:
  • What are you learning today? 
  • How are you learning it? What activity are you doing to learn about this?
  • How will you know you've learned it?
  • What do you do if you don't understand or run into a problem?
5. Don't use your electronic device in the classroom. In the past, I always took notes on my electronic device. But I think that was sometimes a distraction for me or for the teacher. The teacher might wonder what I'm typing, or I might miss something important as I type. Now, I devote all of my attention to observing and interacting with students. Then I make my notes on my electronic device right after I've left the classroom. The notes just help me remember some conversation starters for when I visit with the teacher. I use the Evernote app on my iPhone.

6. Make the visit long enough to have at least one thing to praise and one thing to polish. Some visits are very short and others last a little longer. Usually, I observe from 5-15 minutes. I want to have at least one thing to praise, or reinforce, about the lesson and one thing to suggest for improvement. Often, the suggestions are actually questions, "What ideas might you try to involve more students in the discussion?" I want to be extremely positive and make the teacher feel safe and supported.

7. Meet with the teacher briefly face-to-face to discuss the visit. Within 24 hours, I do my very best to meet with the teacher face-to-face to have a very brief conversation about the classroom visit. I present the positive feedback and then ask a question or make a suggestion for a possible improvement. I always try to remember that I am only seeing a small snapshot of a much bigger picture.

7. Follow-up with an email to affirm what was discussed during the visit. After my visit with the teacher, I send an email thanking him or her and summarizing the main points of what was discussed. I think this helps to reinforce the ideas we generated and helps to create more traction for possible improvements or adjustments. Ultimately, I want every interaction generating more excitement and passion about teaching and learning.

Note: The work of Kim Marshall has had the greatest influence on this post and my work of instructional observation and coaching. 

Question: How are observations working at your school? In what ways are they helpful or not helpful? Leave a comment below or share on Facebook or Twitter. I want to hear from you!

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