Teacher observations are but one of two elephants in the teacher’s lounge. The other is student grading, but we can only wrangle one elephant at a time, so let’s pick the biggest and the orneriest.

I love teaching, enjoy the administrators, and in fifteen years of teaching have always received satisfactory evaluations.  So do not misconstrue my intent as a criticism of principals and assistant principals who oversee observations. I know that principals’ hands may be tied regarding the process, but there is an alternative – a better way to evaluate teachers that requires both vision and desire. Today’s version of the teacher observation does not do justice to the administrators, the teachers or the students.

The observation has the potential to be the most powerful tool in an administrator’s arsenal towards building a great school. It could also be the teacher’s greatest friend – something to look forward to that would provide insight and direction. The process of teacher observation should provide a detailed understanding of the steps necessary for the teacher to help students achieve greater levels of success and achievement, not merely aping a cookbook example of “how to look good on those times we are visited by our administrators.” And it certainly should be more than a “demonstration” intended to keep our job and/or receive tenure. But sadly, it is often both.

Observations (consultations in practice management terms) could be used to help the teacher grow and develop professionally, but as we all know, the vast majority of today’s evaluations and observations are nothing more than “dog and pony” shows. This is common knowledge and I am not the first to use this expression to describe the observation, so don’t shoot the messenger. Administrators have told me they go into observations with the idea they want to see, A, B, C and D to warrant a satisfactory rating. This approach is lowering the bar, rather than raising it. Most administrators use this method rather than basing a significant percent of the evaluation on student trending, data collection, presentation and discussion of both student data and teacher classroom practice data to see how teachers are developing their own individual potential – becoming self-actualized – through their own data and goal setting to create strategies for increased student achievement. Observing to see A, B, C and D is not an evaluation. It is a skit or play at best, or yes, a “dog and pony” show.

Dog and Pony Show (Wikipedia def.) – is a colloquial term which has come to mean a highly promoted, often over-staged performance, presentation, or event designed to sway or convince opinion….

After all, how many times can the same principal walk into the same content class with the same teacher and observe how that same teacher writes the same style of Do Now or Aim or Essential Question year after year? Or maybe 6-8 times in the same year… and then year after year? When do we stop looking at teachers, assume they are performing competently, and begin to evaluate based on student data and trending?

The current observational routine only encourages teachers to become excellent technicians (and I don’t know why administrators aren’t seeing this) while true growth involves more self-actualization on the part of the teacher themselves. If teachers are being shown that the “format” of the lesson – 5 minute Do Now correct? 10 minutes modeling? 20-25 minutes Independent Student work? Was there time for a proper Close and Wrap Up? – is most important, they will come to believe this is what teaching is all about. Too many of our young teachers believe just this. It is a shame because when administrators then look for more in a lesson, the teacher comes up short. The observer has created such a wonderful “technician” that the he or she doesn’t want to – or cannot – step outside of their box. This is where teacher self-reflection, professional growth and development of their “practice” dies. At this point, you can walk into any room and you see very little individuality. Same Do Now, same E.Q., same Modeling….. Same technicians. Is this the “goal” of the observation?

This is why both formal and informal observations must be based on student trending, data collection/presentation, teacher and student short and long term goals and discussion of both student data and teacher classroom practice data and trending rather than the boiler-plated, templated, box-checking, one-fits-all process now in place.

First, let’s lay a little groundwork for this discussion. Since most teachers never directly seek out a practice management consultant for help – though many do once they realize the benefit and potential for growth in their careers – the principal or assistant principal observing a teacher is the closest many teachers will come to having their own personal consultant to advise them on growth and professional development. And it is before, during and after the observation where a teacher hopes, expects and deserves to be given this direction so as to better help students achieve academic success. This is where the ball is dropping. A simplistic overview of the observation structure looks like this:

  1. Pre-observations are where a lesson plan, goals and instructional strategies are presented while expectations to be “observed” during the lesson are frequently conveyed to the teacher.
  2. Observations involve watching the lesson delivery, making sure “template” key points are touched upon. While it is often said that “learning” is being observed, feedback is frequently in the form of “procedural” deficiencies.
  3. Post-observations debrief the teacher delivery strengths and weaknesses to the teacher as observed during the lesson.

So where are the kids? When does student data enter the conversation? Where is the discussion, analysis of the data with recommendations for student advancement? When is student trending discussed? When does the administrator help set goals from your baselines? Does you administrator even know what your baselines are? Do they understand how your students develop their own parameters for individual goal setting? Do they even ask what steps your students have taken to ensure their own successes? No? Then how can they provide direction and guidance if they don’t know these things before the pre-observation? Lots of questions.

Imagine for a moment, how great would it be to walk into your pre-observation with three pieces of paper: the lesson plan and two other pages detailing exactly how your students are trending (both individually and as a group) as well as how YOU are trending? Would it give your principal a better idea of what to look for as he or she observes you? Would these papers be of interest to your principal, or would they fall back on just wanting to make sure your classroom maneuverings – your ducks – are all in a row?

If you are a doctor, lawyer or any other professional, your consultant does not want to know how you practice your profession. They will never come to observe you in action;  never come into your office and observe you fill a cavity or observe how you litigate a slip and fall case in court. They believe you already learned these things in school, and understand you have learned the practice of what you do. (So why does this fact elude those who observe teachers?) The consultant wants to know the results of how you practice your profession. This is how a teacher practice management consultant “consults” with a teacher. We do not want to see if your Do Now is visible in the top left corner of the board, or if your Essential Question is actually in the form of a question or not. We want to know:

  • What are your results?
  • What are your goals to increase your results (student achievement)?
  • How are you going to achieve those goals?

Current teacher observations are but one piece – albeit the biggest piece – of the teaching profession that alienates us, diminishes us, and negates us when being compared to our fellow professionals. The teacher observation is our “Achilles heel.” If we could more objectively demonstrate how well we do what we do, our credibility would increase exponentially.

Achilles heel (def.) – a deadly weakness in spite of overall strength, which can actually or potentially lead to downfall.

Teaching is a great and noble profession. Our strength is in our teachers to teach and our students to learn. Change the current system of observation to make it right for everyone. Our current subjectively-based evaluations are both structurally and functionally unclear and unjustifiable when contrasted with the evaluative processes used for every other profession. It is not because we are different. We need to adopt a more “objective” statistical analysis of existing classroom data that will increase teacher performance while developing specific plans for increasing student productivity. Our failure to do so puts the optics of teaching – and teachers – at a tremendous disadvantage when viewed by both the public and by other professionals. How else can we explain veteran teachers receiving rave observations with high student achievement for years only to receive an “unsatisfactory” under a new administrator? Too much subjectivity – and it happens all the time. The Achilles heel of education.

Most teachers would embrace having administrators walk into their room every day to observe and evaluate them if – and only if – the administrator knew beforehand, or could see upon entering, how their students were trending. We hear the word trending in education, but teachers really don’t know how to apply it to classroom data. This is a new, and to be honest, slightly revolutionary take on teacher practice management, but are administrators amenable enough to embrace it?

The question remains, “Why are we being observed?” The obvious, and most honest, answer is that observations are contractually mandated. Are today’s observations really making better teachers? LinkedIn discussions are filled with disgruntled administrators unhappy about the burdensome and time-consuming demands that teacher observations place on their schedules. They wish they could open this part of their schedule and, I believe, find a new and better means to this end. Based on these voices alone, most of us would agree this cannot be a system that produces better educators. So let’s play Devil’s advocate. Nobody is watching and you are asked for your simplest response to the question, “Why do you observe your teachers?” The least complicated (simple) answer might be, “To see how the teacher is doing.”

But what exactly is doing? Better or worse? Better or worse than what? If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re lost before you start. This is the problem. If principals are looking to see progress, then data (in addition to grades) that would include baselines and trending demonstrating progress must be made available prior to a pre-observation. These baselines must include individual and class student achievement, as well as that for teacher management data. Is there really any other way to provide an honest evaluation for the teacher? If a principal does not have this data, then what are they observing? The Do Now, Modeling, Group Work, the Close or the Wrap Up? Teachers are working really, really hard to do the right things, but cannot continue to be judged on these procedural points years after year. Teachers, like administrators, need to be shown – taught – how to compile their data in such a way to create statistical reports and analysis to be used to form baselines, set goals and create strategic plans for professional as well as student growth.

How about informal observations? What are principals looking for there? If it is to see how effective or skilled a teacher is at their trade, isn’t it important that the observer also sees how students are doing as a result of teacher practice? How many principals know if the class (and each individual student) is trending better or worse as soon as they walk through the door? It is easy to accomplish and helps demonstrate how all classes are trending, but most importantly it provides instant feedback for students as they enter the room as well. It is, after all, about our students.

Instead, our current observations and evaluations are snapshots, “Kodak Moments” (another pejorative, but accurate term) that in a split second “capture” if the teacher is able to, while being carefully watched, precisely follow a detailed series of rote procedures carefully prescribed by the administration or district, and to be used as a template that administrators can follow to determine teacher proficiency during that 45 minutes or a few minute walk-through. Question – Is it possible to appear “inept” during a principal’s “Kodak Moment,” yet have students achieving great success? Is this really fair?

Additionally, today’s administrators are rejoicing in having access to so many new software programs out there that make it as easy as tapping an IPad, strapped to the wrist, that will produce – in addition to some personalized comments – coded remarks, criticisms and suggestions. *Note – “templating” or “boiler-plating” was developed by lawyers and adopted by doctors when report-writing became too voluminous to handle. While it alleviated cumbersome paperwork, it turned the process or report-writing into a rote process of button pressing. It did not produce a better report – just increased convenience.

How many teachers feel actual “professional growth and development” following a classroom observation or post-observation? How many teachers feel they have taught what they consider to be a great class only to be eviscerated during the infamous post-observation due to the lack of “procedural snapshots”? Better yet, following an observation, how many teachers actually look forward to the next observation to hear more about their growth, development and self-actualization (the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potential)? Are principals not aware of this wondrous missed opportunity? Are they not seeing what they are missing? Teachers walk away from “post-obs” in a whirlwind of what they did right, what they did wrong and what the administrator wants to see next time. There are four (perhaps more) stages of observation grief outcomes from a teacher’s perspective:

  1. For most teachers who have a “good” evaluation it is the same kind of elation when we did good as a kid and made our bed right, fed the dog or finally got coloring inside the lines down pat. This is usually mixed relief though, a glass or two of wine that evening, and a countdown until the next one.
  2. How about a successful post-observation when we receive a “satisfactory” rating, but we were shown – in no uncertain terms – there was a t we didn’t cross and an i we didn’t dot. This type of “evaluation” is unheard of in any other profession and it is very dehumanizing for teachers. “You were good, but here’s everything you did wrong.”
  3. For those who are not quite so fortunate it is enough to make them look through the help wanted ads during their next prep as they forgot the mandatory “don’t forget this” moments – brought on by an acute case of angina pectoris – in the middle of the observation.
  4. And how about the lucky guy or gal who misses hitting certain high notes, but is adored so much by the teacher they get a pass, and they know it. Are evaluations subjective? Yeah, a little.

I have never know a professional who worked with “business” practice management consultants to ever feel deflated after a meeting. We were all excited upon leaving – full of hope – and look forward to the next meeting, or consultation, for signs of growth. This because we were shown – every month – what steps should be taken next based on our collected data, statistics, achievements, and yes failures, to make things even better. There was no limit – ever – and there should be no limit for teachers as well. And the most important part was that every consult was done in a non-judgmental fashion. Why should it be any other way? This is a key difference between the consultant and the administrator – one is giving you a grade, the other is helping you grow. The consultant is there to help you improve – nothing more and certainly nothing less. This is their job. This type of relationship creates a sense of urgency within the professional. It makes you want to do better.

So following a professional consultation, what would happen to those who failed to reach their goals, or whose data wasn’t demonstrating what the consultant felt they were capable of achieving? New baselines were created, new goals were set, new strategies were incorporated into their practice. (Yes, we are professionals with practices!) This is what we need in teaching. Observations shouldn’t be entering rooms for the tenth year and commenting on how effective the Do Now is constructed. We got it, but now we need someone who can look at our data – it takes no more than 2-3 minutes – and tell us where we need to push harder. We also need to be shown how to create and present the data that principals really want to see – but that is not in the current mindset.

This is what practice management consultants should be doing for teachers and, in the absence of contracting with one, this is the job of the administrator. The responsibility of teacher practice management consultants (or principals) is – using data – to objectively diagnose problems that will assist teachers in setting goals, prioritizing work and managing time in ways that are never mentioned in typical school day PD’s.

New teachers will ask before their first observation, “What will they look for in the observation?” Years ago, it was a relatively easy question to answer, but today it is a bit more complicated – and a lot more contrived. Most teachers believe that if they do what is asked of them, they will achieve the required “satisfactory” evaluation. This thinking and the ensuing history of evaluation discrepancies, grievances – even satisfactory evaluations – does not bear out the truth in this logic. Teachers will tell you that instead of just teaching, they were always cognizant of the need to “hit” certain points that administration would be looking for. Hit or miss. Is this what we want?

The function of the teacher consultant is to provide solutions, using statistical analysis of existing organizational problems to increase teacher performance while developing plans for increasing student improvement. We objectively diagnose problems to help teachers set goals, prioritize work and manage time. Most teachers have never sat down with a genuine practice management consultant, because there aren’t that many out there qualified to do these things. But if they did they would see that we look at the classroom data described here (most of which is never looked at – or even asked for – and often found unimpressive or irrelevant to the observer) and to help the teacher identify weaknesses and strengths, then adjust each accordingly. A teacher practice consultant is a “numbers guy.” And unfortunately, schools want to get away from “numbers” which leaves only a subjective system of evaluation.

Until we begin offering an “objectively-based” system of evaluation for teachers, similar to those used by most business and/or professional consultants – founded more on the statistical analysis (of individual classroom data) to objectively diagnose problems to set goals, prioritize work and manage time, combined with student trending – we will remain resigned to professional mediocrity. Our desire to “qualify” teacher effectiveness, rather than to objectively “quantify” student outcome is breaking (yes, breaking!) the teacher’s ability to develop and grow. Current subjective observations do very little to allow for individual professional growth, professional development and self-actualization, but rather encourage boiler-plated and rigid teacher performances, or shows, rather than allow for true professional expansion and development of individual teaching skills and styles.

One major hurdle. Teachers are currently acting like junk yards dogs over the elimination of standardized and high-stakes testing. They want them gone and will accept nothing less. Data (class tests, quizzes, homework, projects, attendance, preparedness, effective parent contact, and more…) are the only truly objective data from which to judge teachers. Either we rely on our data, or we leave it up to the subjectivity of a coin-toss. What do we want? We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

If the observation is based on data collection, presentation and discussion of both student data and teacher classroom practice data, well, then you’ve got it right! So please administrators, start thinking – and looking – outside of the box. This current system is not doing anyone any good. For those administrators seeking to change how they do observations, there are many ways you and your staff could live with – and grow with.

http://thebusinessofschool.org    Teacher Practice Management Consulting

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  1. Vivian Bueno says:

    I agree with your view on observations. We have implemented Individualized data talks with our teachers as part of their observation cycle. Made a difference in teacher practice & student progress. Will incorporate other data suggested. Thank you for sharing.

  2. drcubbin says:

    Thank you as well, Vivian. Hopefully student data, particularly trending and statistical analysis of goal setting and achievement – on the part of students themselves – will become part of the overall evaluative equation very soon. I have been developing this system for years and it works great.

  3. Gregory grinham says:

    Lesson observations will fail if one goes in without a structure to follow agreed and negotiated goals.

    At my school, when observing lessons I utilise the NSW Quality Teaching Framework and look at now more than 2 agreed/negotiated areas from this; this focuses my attention on the lesson and ensures that feedback is of a constructive nature (https://www.det.nsw.edu.au/proflearn/areas/qt/).

    This in turn is also tied to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, http://www.nswteachers.nsw.edu.au/publications-policies-resources/publications/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers/
    And in addition to this they are also tied to the Schools Strategic Management Plan and Specific Targets & Programmes, http://www.granville-p.schools.nsw.edu.au/ .

    As such, at my school lesson observations are valued as part of the continued learning process for the teaching and executive staff; which in turn delivers improved student learning.

  4. drcubbin says:

    Gregory, thank you for the valuable input – and links a well!

  5. Mandy Loveder says:

    Over the last 3 years we have implemented a process called Better Practice. It involves collaboration with a reflection partner, direct observation by that partner and student feedback. The reflection partners are a mixture of leadership and senior teacher personnel and have been inserviced on how to work with others in the classroom and give appropriate feedback. The reflection partner and staff member being observed meet and discuss what is to be observed and strategies to be used. The reflection partner chooses a role to play in the room eg. assistant during a practical session, videoing the lessons etc. The teacher chooses a method of gathering data from the students eg. recorded class discussion, survey etc. Once the data has been attained. The teacher and reflection partner meet again to discuss how things went. This information can then be part of our staff appraisals later on in the year. The process is working well after some initial concern. It gives us a chance to affirm each other and see how others work in the classroom as well as do some problem-solving in a non-threatening way. I think it is all in the set up and the people you use to give the feedback.

  6. drcubbin says:

    Thank you Mandy for the well penned input. I do appreciate the alternative approach, but I counted, and aren’t there now even more people “observing” the teacher? Administration, peers, and students are giving feedback? I can appreciate teachers having some “initial concern.” Why all the feedback? We are the only profession that feels we need so much regular feedback. As a doctor coming out of private practice, I could never envision one of my peers agreeing to be observed on our “technique”… after our internships that is. I would like to know what the pre and post data shows regarding this approach. Then I would feel better about posting my opinion. Would you please keep me updated, Mandy? Many thanks!

  7. Pingback: TEACHER OBSERVATIONS DON’T WORK… BUT WHY? | The Business of School | TPS Lower School Faculty Blog

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