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Are Your Observations Improving Teaching and Learning?

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Time spent observing teachers' work is either time well spent, or simply time spent. As human beings, and as professionals, we can always find places where our practice can be improved. As a result of addressing those places, the student experience can be improved.  None of us ever reach perfection in our profession or, for those very few who might, they don't stay there for long. 

It is a matter of doing things like human beings.  No matter the years of practice, as humans there is always room for learning.  It makes little sense to work in a learning environment and not be learners.  So, observing teacher practice ought to be one of the ways teachers and their leaders learn.

We all operate within the boundaries of our experience and knowledge.  That is limiting. What is informing the results of student achievement must be expanding and multidimensional.  What matters at this moment in the class? Is it the schedule, the attention to the grade, or the dislike for course content, is it the student-teacher relationship, the student's language acquisition, family life, or mental health?  The teacher is key; hence, a responsibility for supporting, encouraging, and having difficult conversations with teachers rests with the school leaders.

Time Well Spent vs. Time Spent
Finding out what is preventing a school from moving toward a 100% proficiency goal is a huge undertaking. It involves open minds and open hearts and many skills.  We have to be prepared to approach the question of what holds some back and what propels others into the arena of proficiency.  Don't you think if we knew the answer, the problem would be solved?  The limits of our own minds prevent true solutions.  Different perspectives, data, concerns, fears, and blind spots, all contribute to the nature of the solutions chosen. Deciding that improving teacher practice is the solution is short sighted.  But deciding improving teacher practice is not part of the solution is also short sighted. 

Taking the Broader View
Take this scenario as an example.  Middle school math scores are lower than desired.  A decision to look at teaching methods of the math teachers is made.  Observations and feedback are centered on the math teacher's methods and manner of working with his or her students. Not a bad choice but not the only route to solve the problem.  So, improvements are made and the next year, math scores are lower than desired. In the meantime, all other teachers in the middle school are observed on the same thing; their methods and manner of working with students, keeping the observer focused on methods and manner. What do we do this time that is different? Perhaps this is why, for some, the observation process has become undervalued.  All this work, being observed, evaluated, given recommendations to change, putting in the effort with no visible results diminishes the value of the process for both the evaluator and the evaluated. 

Teacher practice is central, but is it the teacher in THAT class or is it the teachers that came before? Is it THAT teacher's practice or is it the limitations brought by students? If all the time taken for observation and evaluation do not result in improved student results, why pay attention to the process?  Maybe this is why the schedule for and the time spent on this process causes such a sigh.  Maybe this is why when observers come into a classroom, some think of it as one of those things that has to happen instead of an opportunity for improvement. 

Tying the teacher observation process to improving student achievement requires a multi-dimensional process that does, in fact, find the connections and the contributing causes of the disappointing results. Using the middle school example above, ask is there something the low scoring students have in common like:

  • Did they all have the same teachers leading up to this course?
  • Might speaking with their previous teachers provide important information?
  • Did they experience something in common like a tragedy, or a teacher change mid year, or a change in math curriculum?
  • Is there high mobility in this particular class? High poverty rate?  High classification rate? 
  • Are these scores representative of this subject or are we seeing it across the curriculum?
  • What time of day are these classes scheduled?

These questions are not to excuse student performance, rather to inform the path to improving their ability to succeed. Any of the answers can inform a plan for intervention that can support students' success. Observing teachers in order to improve practice can only improve results if teacher practice is in relationship with the causes of student performance. What are the contributing factors that need attention as much as teacher practice?  Step back from the classroom view and take a broader look across the vista of the school or district. Consider all the contributing factors, even limiting them to a few, but putting them in relationship with each other before setting targets and giving feedback. Make it so the work produces results. When the observation process yields improved student achievement, then it may become a valued process. 

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