How to Make Teacher Observations More Effective
Imagine one of your colleagues is sitting in your office watching you and taking notes on how well you email parents, monitor student achievement, and revise policies and procedures. This goes on for hours, and you don’t find out until after you’ve finished working whether or not they thought you did a good job.
Do you feel a little nervous?
That’s how many educators feel during teacher observations. While evaluations are essential to improving instruction, you can make the process more impactful by offering teachers extra support. After all, you don’t gain anything from watching a nervous teacher fumble through a lesson when they would normally teach with bravado.
When you know how to put teachers at ease, accurately identify their strengths and weaknesses, and give constructive feedback, you can drastically improve the education at your school. Here are a few tips that can help.
Before the Observation
Teachers feel more comfortable having you sit in on their lessons when they believe you are on their side. Former ELA teacher Abby Baker told EdWeek, “Observations should not be seen as a “gotcha” for teachers; instead, administrators, instructional coaches, and teachers should work together in order for the betterment of students.”
To gain a teacher’s trust, show you empathize with the vulnerability they feel during an observation, said Craig Randall in his article, There’s a Better Way: Trust-Based Observations.
“There is no other job that I’m aware of where the boss comes into the employee’s office as it were, sits down, and watches them work while taking graded notes on what they see,” Randall said.
Sending teachers an encouraging email or leaving a handwritten note on their desk can make a world of difference. Let them know it’s natural to feel nervous and that you are there to help them get better at teaching their students.
Encourage Preliminary Observations
Teachers often feel pressure to know how to do everything perfectly and all by themselves, which can be overwhelming and lead to burnout.
Noelle Carter, Studies Weekly curriculum architect, recommends encouraging teachers to do preliminary observations with another teacher or a coach before the formal evaluation.
“Talking with a peer about their teaching style, what they feel their strengths are, and at least one area where they want to grow makes teacher evaluations less stressful,” Carter said.
These observations also put teachers in a growth mindset, making them more open to receiving feedback.
Pre-brief the Observation
If you really want to know how good your teachers are, don’t just observe them during a lesson, Larry Ferlazzo explained in his article 18 Ways to Improve Teacher Observations. Meet with them beforehand and ask what they’re going to teach and how. This pre-briefing lets you see how teachers plan lessons and whether they can execute those plans and meet their objectives.
“To observe someone’s lesson without pre-knowledge of its design is to assess their teaching against an imagined perception of how you would have taught it,” Ferlazzo said. “That misses the mark in terms of providing informed feedback.”
When you know what a teacher is trying to accomplish, you can give them better feedback. The more helpful your feedback is, the faster your school’s instruction will improve.
Consider spending time in the teacher’s classroom before the observation to get a feel for the class culture. You’ll be able to provide much better feedback when you understand how that teacher runs the class and what their behavior expectations are.
Know Your Purpose
There are so many things you can look for when evaluating a lesson. Are the students paying attention? Is the teacher clearly explaining the content? Are students learning what they’re supposed to? And, is the teacher making every student feel included?
In Ferlazzo’s EdWeek article, Throw Out the Protocol for Teacher Observations. Use Common Sense Instead, he said, “Before setting foot inside a classroom, observers need to have a clear purpose for the visit. Far too often, this is a missing piece and is why many observations are rendered meaningless. The primary purpose of observations should be to help teachers find the most effective way to improve student learning. This requires school leaders to leave the checklists and complicated rubrics at the door and instead arm themselves with a clear set of “look fors” collaboratively developed by staff around the practices being learned in professional-development settings.”
During the Observation
Getting the most out of teacher evaluations requires paying attention during the lesson. However, it’s easy to get distracted when you receive a constant stream of bings and beeps from your cell phone and computer.
When you enter the classroom, consider turning your cell phone off or putting it on silent. If you are using your laptop to take notes, turn off notifications. You may delay responding to an important message, but you’ll learn how your teachers need your support.
Turning off notifications also sends a positive message to the teacher that you respect their time and efforts and truly care about what’s happening in the classroom.
Participate in the Lesson
Traditionally, teacher observations involve sitting in a corner and watching, but you can learn so much more by participating in the lesson.
Educator PJ Caposey said in a 2022 EdWeek, “If you are unable to tell if students know what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they are expected to demonstrate mastery of the lesson, it is impossible to understand if the lesson is effective. The only way you can know the answer to these questions is by engaging in conversation with multiple students at an appropriate time.”
Obviously you don’t want to interrupt the middle of a lecture, but any good lesson will have a guided activity. That is the perfect time to talk to students and see if they’re learning what they’re supposed to.
In the same EdWeek article, principal Bill August recommended asking students why they are doing something.
“[It] can be the easiest way to tell how engaged they are in what is going on and how coherent the instruction has been,” August said.
After the Observation
Reinforce School Values and Expectations
Teacher observations give you the perfect opportunity to remind teachers of your school’s values. In your feedback, you can mention how well they applied these values and what they can do better in the future. By reinforcing your expectations, you assure teachers will uphold your vision for the school.
“A school is only as good as its teachers,” Ferlazzo pointed out in his EdWeek article, Throw Out the Protocol for Teacher Observations. Use Common Sense Instead. “The quality of a school simply cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. As such, feedback provided from an observation should be consistently aligned with the vision, values, and initiatives of the school.”
Ferlazzo added that aligning your feedback with school values prevents teacher evaluations from becoming burdensome.
“The observation should not place “one more thing on the plate” of teachers and should instead reinforce previously stated expectations and help to tie together all that the school is attempting to accomplish.”
Consider asking teachers to rate the lesson on a scale of 1-5 then ask what could’ve made the lesson better. This opens up a conversation about ways to support your teachers and helps them receive your feedback more readily.
Look for Their Strengthens
A 2018 Journal of School Leadership study found when administrators gave positive as well as negative feedback after observations, it drastically increased teachers’ self-confidence.
While it’s important to tell teachers how they can improve, highlighting their strengths also impacts the quality of their teaching. Confident teachers do better because they have the motivation to keep trying. Overtime, their efforts enhance the quality of your school’s education.
Educator Starr Sackstein said in a 2019 EdWeek article to look for what teachers did well and how the lesson was effective.
“If you have a relationship with the teacher and have observed them before, notice things that have improved and make a point of pointing them out,” Sackstein added.
When you do give constructive criticism, Sackstein recommends giving teachers as much helpful information as possible.
“Don’t just point out what isn’t working. Be prepared to share simple, usable strategies that can improve whatever wasn’t working. The feedback you provide the educator is where the learning and growing will happen, so do some homework before the conversation and provide actual resources in the write-up,” Sackstein said.
Making the entire teacher observation process a positive experience for everyone involved increases its effectiveness. The more you support teachers before, during, and after evaluations, the better education your school will offer the children in your community.
See how you can support teachers with quality professional development through Studies Weekly by visiting our website.
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