Teacher Observations: We cannot see what we do not understand


The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.

- Albert Einstein

This week, I will finish my final formal observation. I still have to complete mini-observations for most teachers, an annual obligation, but the major work is done.

What I have learned after thirteen years of the educator evaluation process is, without an in-depth knowledge of our students and of our content (especially literacy) in addition to strategic instruction, I cannot accurately observe instruction. A lack of awareness when engaging in this process can lead not only to ineffective supervision but also increased teacher stress.

This sounds counterintuitive to how administrators are taught regarding teacher supervision and evaluation of instruction. Whether we engage in a weeklong video-based training process to calibrate our observations with a pre-determined rubric, or we take one hour to glance through a binder with a regional consultant (I’ve experienced both), our time is spent ensuring what we see is aligned with what others have deemed to be “best practice”.

I am not going to get into the best ways to teach and learn here. What I will say is that instruction is too complex to assign a single way of perceiving it. Multiple perspectives must be brought to the surface to truly understand what is taking place in the classroom.

One Lesson, Many Perspectives

I recently watched a video with building principals of a kindergarten classroom. A small group of students were engaged in letter study with the teacher. I asked the principals to think about positive comments they might share with this teacher if they were in the classroom. Then I showed them what I wrote down during this lesson.

“Wait,” noted one principal. “You didn’t notice how well the teacher managed student discussion during the lesson?” I conceded that, no, I did not and went on to explain how my focus was on the literacy aspect of the experience. “And what might the teacher acknowledge about her own instruction if she were to watch this video of herself?” I asked. This group of administrators agreed that there were many ways to perceive a lesson, and that one way may be no less valid than another.

I can already hear the response from teacher evaluation advocates. But capturing multiple pieces of evidence is what educator evaluation systems do! They guide the administrator to document what is happening during instruction and organize these artifacts under domains and categories. Yes, this is accurate. But effective? It really depends on the context as well as our capacities.

For example, if our knowledge of students and/or of the content (again, especially literacy) is lacking, then we may use our misconceptions as a filter for what is observed. Subsequently, what we document partially represents our ignorance. In addition, when we break down instruction into bite-sized chunks, we lose the context of the lesson later when making a judgment about a teacher’s performance. This evaluation process is thus confusing and unfair for both teachers and principals without many formative and informal opportunities to observe instruction through a more open-ended and appreciative lens.

Leading First as a Learner

For an upcoming workshop I am facilitating for principals, I plan to guide the group through a series of activities with the goal of leading like a coach. The objective is to teach leaders a new strategy - instructional walks - that will give them and their faculty a better approach for understanding the intricacies of teaching and learning in their schools in order to improve collective instruction for all students.

What do successful coaches typically have in common? One of the most common traits I have found is they are responsive. They are aware of others’ strengths, interests, and needs, clear about what the goal is, can fairly observe how the players perform, and then consider next actions that will best guide the team toward success. This means that the coach is a learner first.

In the context of schools, leading like a coach includes:

  • Learning about the school and then co-creating the culture of the organization.

  • Learning what the goal(s) should be based on best available information.

  • Learning about how collective instruction is currently going, focusing first on strengths.

  • Learning what is working in some classrooms and distributing that knowledge to others.

  • Learning how to build the capacity of teachers to become leaders in their school.

The goal is an organization that is self-monitoring, self-correcting and self-sustaining. (Hattie and others refer to this as “collective efficacy”.) In a way, we are working ourselves out of a job. Yes, you read that right. Yet think about it: why set up your school to be dependent on a principal, to be reliant on the whims of any one leader and all of their gaps in knowledge? Why not, instead, build up the capacity of a learning community so teachers become both receptive to new ideas and immune to possible future ineffective practices? This is the greatest gift we can give our school: the capacity to govern itself with the constant goal of continuous improvement.

A Closing Story: Removing Pine Needles from Gutters

In my former district, I participated in the pilot program for the new evaluation system, which the entire state of Wisconsin eventually adopted. Every school leader needed to go through a weeklong training to become certified to use this system. Our district devoted several days to watching video of instruction and practicing how to document what was observed.

Because I was part of the pilot process, I was exempted from this training. I remember taking one of those days off to do some early fall clean up at my home. This included removing pine needles out of my rain-clogged gutters - not a favorite task. As I crawled along the edge of my roof, slinging grime onto the ground with soaked gloves, my cell phone rang. I took off my gloves and answered it, appreciating the break. It was one of my colleagues currently taking the training.

“Matt, am I doing this right?” Apparently, the administrative team had split up and decided to do the remainder of the training on their own (it was online, video-based). As I stood upon my roof, I shared my experience of going through the modules, including offering how I rated a few of the teaching examples. We found ourselves disagreeing more than once on how best to respond to the tasks.

After we hung up, I saw my fall clean up tasks in a whole new light. The pine needles gave off a golden hue as the late afternoon sunlight glimmered off of them. The fall colors were starting to reveal themselves. I breathed in the crisp autumn air, thankful to have the day outside with nature.

The previous description is a bit in jest, but also to make a point: our perspective on anything is relative to our own experiences and beliefs in addition to the context of our school. Every building is unique. Teacher evaluation systems become unwieldly and often frustrating to implement when we rely only on a few visits per year to develop that essential understanding of the complexities of our school.

To be clear, instructional walks are not a panacea for what ails education. But they can be that missing piece in supporting teachers and creating a more growth-minded culture in our schools. They help everyone involved in the educational experience become a more knowledgeable and empathetic professional. In such a complex and stressed out profession, this seems needed now more than ever.

Join us tomorrow night at 7 P.M. CST here for an online discussion around the question, “What can you learn from a student’s book box?” Later this week, I will publish my interview with a 4th grade reader as a demonstration of authentic assessment. It will be available to subscribers only; see below for more information.