There’s no doubt about it, conducting formal or informal observations of teachers teaching in the classroom is an art that can only be developed through a great deal of knowledge accompanied by practice. Fortunately, there are some tried-and-true strategies that seem to get the most traction, feel the best to both the teacher being observed and the person doing the observing, and lead to the most overall improvement in pedagogy.
We have listed some of the most important ones here in the hopes that with a better experience observing teachers, you will actually make the time to do more observations. In the end, this is the way you will achieve overall school effectiveness and the learning improvement of teachers and will establish yourself as the learning leader of your school.
- Adopt the mindset that observing teachers is not about doing a better job of monitoring them, but rather about framing conversations with teachers so they gain better insight into their teaching.
- Take time to collaborate with staff to obtain a detailed description of the kind of classroom instruction that you can all accept and hold as a high standard. In the process, make sure your criteria mirrors the teacher performance standards of your district or state.
- Collectively decide what the key areas for your observations will be. Teachers should never be blindsided about what you will be looking to see. We suggest that you elect to observe no more than 10 to 12 criteria in any given school year and that you try to observe and comment on no more than 3 of these at any one time.
- Always give a teacher written or verbal feedback within hours of being in his or her classroom. Never let a teacher “guess” or worry about what you thought about what you observed.
- Observe for learning, not for teaching. Rick Dufour so aptly said, “You can’t prove anything was taught until you have proof of learning.”
- Have clear levels of performance for each criteria observed and make certain all teachers understand what each level will mean. With respect to the criteria for which you will be observing, it’s not that teachers either do them or don’t do them, it’s that they do them well or poorly—or somewhere in between.
- As the observer, remember your observation is not an opinion, interpretation, or bias. You must always record the evidence—in essence, the facts. For instance, an observer may say he or she believed students were highly engaged. That, however, is an interpretation. How specifically students were engaged in certain activities and what they had to say about their experiences is the objective evidence of whether engagement was or was not occurring.
- Make teachers active participants in the observation-feedback process. When you have your post-observation conferences, talk about what you saw happening, what the teacher felt was happening, and agree on what the scoring should be for that teacher. With this technique, you are not merely giving a score, but you are relaying evidence that supports the score.
- Conduct “walkthroughs” often. When administrators are known to visit classrooms regularly, neither students or teachers will become alarmed when you walk in the room. Students will know they should carry on normally.
- Use the data you collect to let teachers know if and how much they are collectively improving in the areas that they already agreed were essential to good teaching. Teachers need to own their collective results so they can savor “wins,” and help those colleagues who are struggling.