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Isn't It Time to Improve Teacher Observations?

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A few days ago I read a powerful post in Education Week Teacher by Justin Minkel called "The Particular Agony of Teacher Observations." In the post, Minkel writes, 

I hate being observed. When my principal walks in with her laptop or a clipboard and pen, I'm instantly afflicted by a crippling self-doubt I haven't felt since junior high. I scan the room with the alert panic a gazelle must feel when scanning the savannah for predators.

Please take the time to read the rest of the post here, but Minkel offers some great tips to consider when going through the observation process, and thankfully even adds, 

Your principal--or whoever else walks in with a clipboard--isn't perfect, either. She is trying, like we all are, to do a good job in a role where mistakes are unavoidable and chaos theory bites a sizable chunk out of the best-laid plans. If the person observing you is a true professional, she will show you some grace.

The truth is, sometimes it's more than the idea that the principal isn't perfect. Sometimes the issue is about the requirements behind the teacher observations that hurt the process. For example, a few years ago I wrote a blog called, 3 Reasons Your Teacher Observations May Be a Waste of Time, which I wrote from the other perspective in the teacher observation process that Minkel highlighted. At the time I wrote it I was a principal. 

Sadly, it was also during a period when my home state of New York required principals to use a point scale when observing teachers. Yes, that means we had to score teachers after we went through the observation process. It set up a very unhealthy dynamic in many schools. 

The Self-Efficacy of Observations
Other times, perfection has nothing to do with it. It's that the principal isn't fully disclosing that they do not understand the content of the teacher, and they don't trust the teacher enough to let them know that. This lack of understanding puts the principal's self-efficacy at risk, and they do not always feel comfortable telling teachers that. 

Self-efficacy has been defined as "beliefs in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments (Bandura)," which really comes down the principal's own self-confidence they have in actually completing important tasks like teacher observations. The truth is that not all principals have self-efficacy when it comes to completing teacher observations in an authentic manner. 

Tschannen-Moran and Gareis found that "Self-efficacy beliefs are context-specific, however, people do not feel equally efficacious for all situations,meaning that there are principals who feel fully confident about observations and can go about them in a way that is collaborative, so teachers like Minkel will feel less anxious. Then there are other principals who do not feel particularly efficacious when it comes to observations, so they add to Minkel's anxiety. 

For example, imagine these two scenarios. 

Gavin is a high school principal, and former social studies teacher. He has to observe Doug, who is a chemistry teacher. Gavin and Doug do not have a particularly close relationship, and Gavin does not trust Doug enough to tell him that he doesn't understand the content in Doug's chemistry class. They complete the normal pre-observation process, and Gavin asks Doug what he will be teaching. Doug talks about a particular concept in chemistry that Gavin doesn't understand, and Gavin doesn't ask any deeper questions because he doesn't want Doug to know he doesn't understand it. After all, Gavin is the leader. Shouldn't he know it all already? 

Gavin goes into Doug's classroom and sits in the back of the classroom. He takes notes on that infamous clipboard Minkel refers to, and leaves class after observing for 45 minutes. Doug goes in for his scheduled post observation meeting, and Gavin gives Doug appreciation feedback, meaning he says things like, "That was a great lesson. The kids seemed really engaged. Good job." Gavin leaves the observation feeling as though it was a waste of time. Gavin doesn't rock the boat because he doesn't want pushback from Doug. Gavin feels self-efficacy when it comes to student discipline or family engagement, but doesn't have it when it comes to observation, so each time he does an observation outside of his comfort zone, he tries to complete them as quickly and as painless as possible. 

However, let's imagine it another way...

Gavin meets with Doug in a pre-observation meeting. They have a good relationship, and there is trust between the two. Gavin asks Doug what he will be observing in class, and reminds Doug that chemistry was not his forte because before becoming a principal he was a social studies teacher. Gavin tells Doug that he will sit next to students and ask them what they are learning, and then asks Doug what vocabulary the students should be using in order for Gavin to gauge how deep the learning is in the chemistry class. 

Gavin goes into the observation, and instead of sitting in the back of the class, sits down next to students and quietly asks them what they are learning. One by one the students use the vocabulary that Doug told Gavin to expect. After 45 minutes to an hour, Gavin walks out of the class.  

When Gavin and Doug meet for their post observation conversation, Gavin is able to give Doug evaluative feedback, meaning that he is able to give specific details on how many students were able to use the vocabulary that Doug wanted them to use. Gavin and Doug go a bit deeper and talk about the students' level of engagement. It's a two-way conversation based in trust. Doug will leave that observation conversation feeling like it was worth the time he put into it. 

Which one would you prefer? 

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In the End
The teacher observation process has provided angst for teachers and principals for far too long. More than that, it's been a waste of time in many schools, which is highly unfortunate because it is one of the times during the school day that teachers and principals can really learn from one another. Additionally, it has deep implications for other learning that could take place in the school. 

Our faculty meetings and professional learning and development can all be tied back to what we learn from one another in a classroom observation, and what we use in the classroom when it comes to teaching strategies or content can show observers that we have transfer level learning from the faculty meeting or professional learning and development we took part in. It's part of a very important cycle of learning...if we take it for the important moment it is. 

Minkel offered some great suggestions for teachers and I really value his vulnerability in the post. After all, if a teacher of the year is nervous about teacher observations, it makes it OK for the rest of us to be nervous about the process, too. 

However, we need to do something about that nervous energy. We have to use it to change an archaic process and make it more worthwhile for both parties, regardless of which side of the clipboard we may be on.  

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt's Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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