The Ultimate Teaching Observation
I was recently at a teaching gathering of active and former educators of varying ages. They all had similar, but not very positive, observation and teacher evaluation stories. The conversation was pretty non-stop, floating from good memories to bad ones. The younger educators and older educators were pretty even as far as good and bad memories. Some loved teaching and some were happy to be out of it, and some wanted to teach forever, and some wanted to get out sooner than later. Some taught in rural settings and others had taught in the city. Most smiled when they told stories of students, who had made a positive impression, and most grimaced when mentioning students, who had made a negative one. The same held true for administrators and leaders. Interestingly, all agreed that they fought and argued for more teaching materials, solutions, and tools for teaching and for their students.
As I listened I wondered if given a chance could there be something that I could have done to change those negative vibes, as well as possibly amplify the positive. For some reason, I always think there is. Sometimes it is what you say, but even those things need to be said in the right place and the right time. While I did track some of the young educators down to share a tip or two, it was a bit out of context. Explanations without demonstrations in education are stories without actions, and even a good storyteller may not get to make a point that way,
I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities to actually see educators change their teaching styles and their attitudes towards their teaching positively for the better in one class time. It seems to happen, and I don’t think it has to do with anything magical, but rather something quite innocently traditional—an honest sharing of what really happened in a lesson, and a direct conversation of ideas to make actionable changes. That last part, if done right, results in an educator’s understanding of what was done, what wasn’t done, and what could truly be accomplished with just a redirected mindset. It really is about timing.
Again, it is better to experience this, first hand, but the idea for getting there is so simple, because it’s based in the traditional observations already done by school leaders. In this case, though, the product—end result—is not just one in a line of management documents and checklists for a teacher’s folder. Instead, this teaching reformation is exactly that. It is a more direct consultation approach.
This type of observation is also more of a student-based barometer for teaching success. That doesn’t mean that older, traditional checkpoints such as listing the number of times a teacher called on a student, mentioned a student’s name, or recognized raised hands were incorrect. It’s just that those checklists are as outdated as an administrator transcribing a lesson word for word as it’s happening. Mostly that is only great for missing the action. That isn’t an observation—that’s pure management—something to do and get done. That is not an observation for transforming teaching. This is not to say that notes, or a checklist are invaluable, but they should be notes, and nothing more. It cannot replace direct and immediate feedback.
Steps to an initial one-lesson teaching reformation observation:
- Teacher schedules an observation with an administrator, and plans a lesson. The administrator can set some parameters, such as including classroom tools and technology.
- Administrator attends the class to be observed, sits in a place where all students, the educator, and the entire classroom can be observed. This requires an administrator to actually see what students are doing every moment of the class lesson. The focus is not solely just on the educator in this type of observation. The administrator can take notes, but this isn’t a time to transcribe everything and every word.
- Immediately, and that means minutes after students leave the class, and the observation lesson is done, the teacher and administrator meet. This is so foreign to most everyone using the traditional model of scheduling the post observation meeting a week, or more after an observation, but it is an essential change. It is similar to the instant feedback students should get in class every day.
- At that immediate observation talk, the administrator should ask the educator how many students were engaged, and to what extent each student participated in the lesson? In most cases, the first part of the questioning will be enough. The active engagement of all students in a lesson is easily observed from a good position in a classroom, and it is something that teachers may not think about unless asked. The lesson itself may be the priority and not the student participation. That may be one of the biggest reality checks.
- Another pressing question for immediately after the observation lesson should be to ask the educator if there was a missing part to the lesson. This is a good segue to discuss organizing for personalized student engagement, as well as possibly how to more effectively use technology in the same lesson to help that happen.
I know that’s a simple and quick list of how to examples to a much more complex best practices solution, and certainly more discussion needs to happen to solidify better teaching for better student engagement, but it’s a beginning that doesn’t seem too overwhelming to do. When done the benefits will be immediately and significantly noted in follow-up observations. In most cases an educator will quickly answer the student engagement question, begin to think of how to use the technology better, and be open to specific ideas to help fill in the missing parts to make a lesson better, but most of all engage more students in their learning better.
You may also be surprised that a smile is usually associated with these types of observations. There is something about them that brings out the feel good in educator and administrator alike. Beyond that, there may be a bit more positive buzz from students at home and from parents at conference time as well.
About the Author
Ken Royal is a former educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology teaching experience. He has written at many of the major education publications, including District Administration, TechLearning, and Scholastic Administrator. Presently, Ken is a blogger on all things education and education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is a Promethean storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.