Classroom Observations: Leading In A Culture of Change

Accountability. This term is now at the political forefront as state and federal officials consider the best ways to improve our schools, student performance, and of course teacher performance. The discussions and changes have naturally led to more questions about the validity and true worth of standardized exams, “value added,” the CCSS, and new teacher evaluation systems. In NYS, for example, teachers and school leaders are now assigned numerical end-year composite scores and students continue to be categorized based on their academic “level” as determined by state exams. While the verdict is still out on how this shift will impact the quality of our schools, the immediate results seem to indicate that there is a great deal of confusion, angst, and distrust on the part of parents, teachers, and (most unfortunately) students.

As part of this wave of change, school leaders are now increasing the number of formal and informal observations of teachers in an effort to gather sufficient evidence to support final end-year ratings. The idea of school leaders observing teachers is certainly not a new concept. In fact, administrators who place instruction and teacher learning at the forefront have long embraced the observation process as the ideal form of professional development for teachers. Of course, the challenge for school leaders is to get teachers to a place where that they are not only comfortable with the process, but see it as an opportunity to explore new methods and take some risks by stepping out of their “comfort zone.” To accomplish this requires a great deal of trust along with an understanding that the process is not about nitpicking in a “gotcha” type of way.

While many school leaders have successfully established a positive culture around the observation process, it is inevitable that the thoughts and perceptions of teachers have taken a bit of a hit in light of the new scoring systems that are being used to evaluate performance. And while I am certainly not advocating against the importance of evaluation in organizations, it is critical for school leaders to continually communicate the true purpose of the process while keeping the focus on what is most important— teacher growth and student success.

As observations are now in full swing in all schools, here are a few important reminders for school leaders…

1) Think Like A Teacher: When school is in session, teachers eat, sleep, and breathe teaching. Just as the Principalship is multifaceted and ever-changing, so too is the life of a teacher. When teachers are not grading and planning (which is pretty much all of the time), they are communicating with parents, conferencing with students, facilitating extra-curricular activities, collaborating with colleagues, participating in meetings, and attending professional workshops. Teachers are busy! Therefore, it is critical to make sure that all feedback is practical, specific, and concise. No teacher wants to sit and listen to an administrator pontificate about abstract theory that comes straight out of a journal article.

2) Provide an Objective Overview: Perhaps that greatest role of the observer is to provide teachers with a “second set of eyes” in the classroom. When observing teachers, I will typically type 4-5 pages of notes based on all that I see and hear and will then share those notes at the start of our post-observation meeting. It is a perfect vehicle for allowing teachers to step outside of themselves so that they may “observe” and critique their own lessons based on the objective notes provided. This practice has worked especially well as our school has made the transition to the Danielson rubric. It allows for a collaborative discussion around the sub-components, is non-threatening, and typically gives rise to a particular aspect of the lesson that the teacher had not considered or might have missed.

3) Think Like A Coach: The best coaches in any sport are successful because they are able to identify what their players do well and can find ways to capitalize on those respective strengths. The same principles hold true when working with teachers. All teachers (particularly seasoned ones) possess a particular style with regard to delivering instruction. Some are teacher-centered while others are more comfortable with facilitating. The key for the school leader is to recognize that it is not necessary to force teachers into a new style in order to become something that they are not; rather, it is essential to harness teachers’ strengths within their respective style by maximizing their repertoire of strategies and approaches to meet the needs of all learners.

4) Provide Differentiated Feedback: Just as teachers differ in terms of style, the same holds true with the individual strengths and weaknesses that teachers possess. When observing new or struggling teachers, for example, the initial focus is always on classroom management and student behavior. Harry Wong’s timeless classic The First Days of School is always a staple in this area. An ability to “run the room” is critical above all else and must be mastered before moving onto some of the more advanced skills that might be focused on with more seasoned teachers. The belief in meeting teachers “where they are” gets to the heart of effective instruction and is what we always demand of teachers when working with diverse populations of students. The expectation for school leaders should be no different.

5) Focus on Students: In the end, observations and professional development are about furthering student learning so that they are best prepared for life beyond high school. Period. When observing classes, it is sometimes as simple as looking at the faces of the students in the room to see if they are engaged and challenged. A zoned blank expression says a lot. Speaking with students about what they are learning if the opportunity presents itself during a lesson can also go a long way. When providing feedback, the focus then becomes on how to engage and inspire students through questioning, meaningful and relevant activities, assessment, and flexible approaches to connecting with the “big idea.” This is what is most important, is non-negotiable, and is what the expectation needs to be in all classes each and every day.

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4 thoughts on “Classroom Observations: Leading In A Culture of Change

  1. This is a great post. I think #3 should be #1. I was looking forward to evaluations as being collaborative exercises in improvement. It hasn’t been my experience. I feel it’s a documentation event and very subjective. I’ve had references to upper-level concepts from the previous day’s lesson missed “Off task.” No, not off task. Reference to a higher-level economics equation from a student question yesterday. I’ve seen people downgraded in schools for “not being seen taking attendance” and “your student didn’t have a pencil.” So, we’ve transferred subjectivity from Old System into rubrics of new.

    I was hoping for a coach’s mindset. I’m a bit unique because teaching isn’t all I do. For my entire teaching career I’ve also owned a business. I’ve coached and assisted employees in the past, and my first career was corporate. I just see this as being an unhealthy paradigm in many places where the duck/cover mentality needs to be replaced. My idea is a 360 eval process. That, I think, would bring mindful coaching and thoughtful feedback to all areas of the process, especially if it counted equally on all levels. A successful leader will be lifted up by his/her team. Maybe it’s a bit Confucian, but I’d love to see someone try it.

  2. This is an important piece for so many reasons. I agree with the tenets you present, and agree that communicating the true purpose of an evaluation is vitally important. Just a thought, how would you suggest administrators develop and promote trust in advance of evaluations?

  3. Pingback: Classroom Observations: Leading In A Culture of Change – John Falino | THE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR

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