“How come nobody observes me?” After a second consecutive year of not being observed by my principal, I was feeling more than a little frustrated. I knew I wanted two things: first, someone, anyone to observe me; second, to be observed more often than the standard twice a year, pre-conference, observation, post-observation conference model. I craved receiving more feedback on how to improve my teaching and, truth be told, I wanted to demonstrate what I thought was good teaching.
I wasn’t alone. If you ask any teacher about their experiences with the observation process, you are likely to hear comments like these:
- “It’s just a dog and pony show.”
- “They only saw me one time, then told me to get better at something that is a strength for me. They just didn’t see it that day.”
- “They observed me, but never gave me feedback.”
- “They emailed me my feedback.”
There had to be a better way of conducting observations, but how? Walkthroughs feel too short. Traditional observations feel like nothing more than high stakes evaluations. I wanted something more; I wanted observations to be about becoming a better teacher. Driven by this desire for something more meaningful, I began my principal certification program. It was there that I met my mentor, Warren Aller. He said the key to teacher growth was “observing classes and having supportive follow-up conversations with teachers every day”.
So, beginning with what I learned from Warren then developing, tweaking, failing and adapting multiple times, I share, Trust Based Observations (TBO), the most powerful tool I know to improve teaching and learning. My hope in sharing this is to give educational leaders a manageable step-by-step guide they can use to improve teaching and learning in measurable and meaningful ways.
First, a principal’s top priority has to be doing everything possible to optimize teaching and learning just like a teacher’s job is to do everything possible to maximize student learning. Second, the most powerful tool to improve teaching and learning is the observation process, when done with a focus on growing the individual capacity of each teacher, instead of making evaluative graded judgements.
There are popular models of observation like Marzano’s and Danielson’s, which aim to serve a dual purpose: develop professional growth and evaluatively grade teachers. Doing both effectively is a challenging and perhaps impossible task because, according to O’Leary “there was a nullifying impact on innovation with graded observations, which resulted in a decline in the creativity in teachers’ practice as they feared taking risks (2017, l 964-5). In contrast, TBO focuses solely on the professional growth of teachers.
How do we help manifest this growth? One, we don’t score them, either after observations or at the end of the year. At the end of the year we evaluate professionalism and collegiality, planning and preparation, but instead of evaluating pedagogical skills, we evaluate their mindset, growth or fixed. Crucially, we also focus on the importance of building trusting relationships with our teachers so they feel safe taking risks in their practice. We want them to know that if we come into class when they are trying something new and it bombs, that the next day they are going to get a high five for being a risk-taker. TBO accomplishes this through a combination of frequent visits, which help us to know our teachers, and through a reflective conversation process focused on deep listening and sharing observed teacher strengths. Lastly, TBO makes the form manageable, with only ten pedagogical areas listed.
Structure and Pre Observation Organization
The observations are 20 minutes and unannounced. They are frequent, 12 per week, cycling continuously and equally through all teachers because we want to send the message that all teachers are continuous lifelong learners. By continuous cycling we mean as soon as one round of visits finishes, immediately begin the next round and repeat, repeat, repeat. There will be a large increase in the number of observations per teacher per year, but the time commitment of the traditional twice annual cycle will be about the same. Other observation models suggest “frequent” but lack details as to what this means. TBO offers a specific schedule of three observations on Monday-Thursday followed by three reflective conversations the next day on Tuesday-Friday.
To easily track observations and reflective conversations use a spreadsheet. List the teachers and the courses they teach. In the appropriate column write the date and B, M or E (beginning, middle or end of the lesson). Highlight the box the next day when the reflective conversation is completed. Strive to visit teachers in all of their courses and see them at least once in B, M and E. Also, create a Google folder for each teacher to store the completed observation forms.
Each morning create a schedule for observations and reflective conversations. Write the names of teachers due for observation and the periods they teach that day. List two or three extra teachers for observation because obstacles arise which can prevent the scheduled teachers from being observed. Sometimes a teacher is giving tests that day and now you have backups. For the reflective conversations write the prep periods of those teachers. Use this list to make visits over the course of the day.
- Do as many visits as early in the day as possible because things come up.
- Frequent visits is a key to success. Maintaining the regularity of visits is like working out. Make yourself do them every day. Some days are easy and some days you have to force yourself.
- When you miss a visit recognize these things happen. Don’t try to make the visit up the next day; it only leads to a bigger hole. Just continue observations the next day.
- Schedule as many meetings or weekly tasks as possible on Mondays and Fridays since there are less visits those days.
- Make yourself get into classes in the beginning (B) because this proves to be the most challenging.
For effectiveness, the form’s indicators must be research based, aligned with a school’s teaching and learning principles, and the form must be manageable in size. Whether you choose to use the TBO form or not, use no more than 10 performance indicators, because researchers found that beyond a handful of indicators, observers have too much trouble keeping the competencies and indicators distinct and become overloaded(TNTP, 2013).
Begin the observation by making a copy of the Google doc observation form, re-title it with the teacher’s name and the date, and store the form in that teacher’s folder.
Write notes on what you see, use ‘Toolbox Possibilities’ terminology when possible; listing specific strategies helps during the reflective conversations. Also, write teacher quotes as much as possible. Teachers are often unaware of what they say and hearing their own words can be a powerful tool in growth or in building confidence. For example, I had a teacher who was masterful at building student confidence and grit with the encouragement she gave to students as she worked the room while they were problem solving. When I read the quotes to her, several samples of exact words she used to encourage or praise efforts, she was completely unaware she had made these comments. Because this was shared, her confidence bloomed and other teachers who struggled with giving encouragement now had the opportunity to observe and learn from her. Without writing quotes, this learning might not have happened.
Other than the student interview questions, leaving sections of the form blank is okay. These are 20 minute visits, the cumulative nature of the observations tells us what is working well and what is a potential area for growth. A blank means nothing; it just didn’t happen to be observed during the period, it is not a negative.
Remember, teaching is art and craft. Some of the things that help teachers to positively impact student learning or make a teacher special don’t fit into a quantifiable box to check, for example, a teacher’s passion. I have seen teachers who use traditional direct instruction be more effective than teachers who incorporate all the best pedagogy into their practice. While we want to build capacity we also want to honor autonomy and the traits that make each teacher unique and successful. So, make notes of these intangibles in the ‘Additional Notes’ section. Every positive thing you share helps build a trusting relationship with the teacher.
Don’t write suggestions in the body of the form; only put them in ‘Additional Notes.’ When suggestions are written in the body of the form we share them with the teacher while we’re sharing evidence of strengths during the reflective conversation. When this happens they don’t hear any other strengths because they become worried about the growth suggestion.
The Reflective Conversation
As Marshall states, “There’s nothing more productive and satisfying than being in classrooms and talking to colleagues about teaching and learning. This is the work!” (2013, l 265-6) Combined with the frequency of observations, the reflective conversation is the most important element of TBO. These conversations are where trust is built and growth happens.
If we really care about improving teaching and learning we must honor the vulnerable process observations are. No other profession requires/ someone to regularly come into their place of work, sit down, observe, and take notes on how well you do your job. With vulnerability inherent in the process, how do we make observations and reflective conversations as effective as possible? We do this by focusing on strengths. In fact, during the first three reflective conversations only discuss teacher strengths. While admittedly there can be times when this can be challenging, this focus on strengths soon pays off. Teachers begin to trust their administrators. The sense that an administrator is out to get the teacher disappears. Instead teachers appreciate that administrators are noticing what they do well. They feel so supported that, almost inevitably, teachers will ask after the third visit what they should be working on to improve. This is when teachers are beginning to trust and the door to collaborative growth opens. On a side note, often teachers will ask after the first or second visit, what they can get better at. Respond by telling them that you are still getting to know their teaching, it takes time, and that right now you are only focusing on their strengths. Just wait; it is worth it.
Remembering this is about making teachers feel as safe and comfortable as possible, conduct the reflective conversation in the teacher’s room. Teachers feel more relaxed talking in their classrooms than they do in the principal’s office. Find a way to sit beside the teacher and begin by asking the questions. Be as transparent as possible by typing the answers to the questions, where they can read what you write. After writing the answers, share back what you wrote. This ensures you are in agreement, demonstrates good listening, and that this process is a partnership.
Next, the focus on strengths begins with you sharing the evidence of effective pedagogy observed during the observation.
As O’Leary (2017) points out:
when positive aspects of performance are emphasised, self-efficacy is enhanced along with aspirations, efficient analytical thinking and self-satisfaction which often leads to enhanced performance (Jourden 1992). Feedback provided following a lesson observation therefore needs to be constructed in such a way that it helps the teacher to gain insight into the affective elements that underpinned their practice and also avoids stressing deficiencies in performance disproportionately or at the expense of highlighting attainments as this can have a debilitating effect on the teacher’s self-efficacy and subsequent performance (l. 4133).
After sharing strengths, and only after the fourth observation at the earliest, do you bring up a suggestion for growth, and even then it depends on the teacher and the observer’s perception of how ready the teacher is. Instinct and emotional intelligence are factors in deciding when to offer suggestions. Remembering that this is a continuous formative process, deciding to wait to make a suggestion can pay off in the long run. In the grand scheme of things, unless there is some egregious error that requires immediate fixing, more long term success will be made by waiting until the observer feels a teacher is ready for growth.
For example, I had a veteran teacher with 25 years of experience who I observed multiple times. The content knowledge was strong, but the pedagogy seemed traditional, lots of chalk and talk. I was uncomfortable with this and wanted to offer suggestions after the fourth visit, but something told me to wait. While waiting, I discovered that this teacher’s IB scores, year in and out, were well over one point above the world average. So, now as I watched him I noticed strengths that hadn’t been apparent to me before. His accountability bar for his students was as high as I had ever seen. The organizational tools he shared with his students always kept them on track, his dry sense of humor played really well with his students. As I realized these things I also realized that what he was doing could really help other teachers. So I asked him to put on a PD session for our faculty. After the presentation, numerous teachers came up and thanked him for giving them permission to be more demanding with their students.
Imagine what could have happened if I had made suggestions for growth too early. Maybe I wouldn’t have discovered his strengths. Maybe he would have pulled back, grown unhappy, knowing how successful his students performed in IB, and sought to move to another school. We certainly know that his peers, and therefore all the students in the school would not have benefited from his strengths being shared with all the teachers.
When you do offer a growth suggestion, tips include:
- Asking permission by saying, “Would you like to hear a suggestion?”
- Avoid the words “Need” and “Should.” People get defensive with the use of these words.
- Only work on one growth area at a time. When people spread their growth focus on more than one area efforts are diluted and the growth is minimal. When the focus is on one area the growth is more substantial.
In the end, what is the impact? How do Trust Based Observations positively impact teaching and learning?
Because teachers work hard and are proud of the work they do to help students grow, most are excited to have someone in their classroom frequently, making observations and discussing learning. They appreciate the opportunity to talk shop about specific lessons. The form’s questions play a powerful role in learning because they elicit reflective thought on one’s practice. What better start to continued growth than reflective thought and conversation with someone who saw your lesson?
Another bonus I never anticipated; the philosophical discussions that sometimes develop during the course of reflective conversations. Numerous times, teachers’ thoughts, shared with me during these discussions, have led to new initiatives which have propelled the whole school forward. Without the frequent and positive nature of these visits these ideas would not have come up.
Another of the gifts of TBO is learning who is really good at what because you are in classes so much. This newfound expertise is used in many ways, including having these teachers lead PD sessions, pairing teachers up by growth and strength areas, and having them lead PLC groups.
A small minority of teachers are worried, reluctant or skeptical when TBO is new to them. In these cases it is important to honor the fact that people open to change at different times. In the big picture, if what someone has been doing is fine, if not always excellent, there is no harm in waiting a few months until that teacher is open to growth suggestions. It is better to wait until a teacher embraces risk-taking than it is to have a teacher who is reluctant or being strategically compliant. On rare occasions though, there are teachers who are not open to growth, and in those cases other actions must be taken.
Teachers who experience TBO repeatedly say different versions of the same thing: they feel empowered, supported and challenged and this helps them feel safe taking risks. In the end, this supports our most important job, helping our teachers grow so that they in turn, can help their students learn more. This is the power of Trust Based Observations.
O’Leary M., Reclaiming Lesson Observation: Supporting excellence in teacher learning (2017) (Kindle Locations 964-965). New York, NY: Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.+.
Fixing Classroom Observations – www.tntp.org | TNTP. (2013, November 12).
Francis, Erik M., H.O.T. / D.O.K., Maverick Education, 5 July 2016, maverikeducation.blogspot.com/.
National Training Laboratories, Learning Pyramid Bethel, Maine
Marshall, Kim. Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation: How to Work Smart, Build Collaboration, and Close the Achievement Gap (2013) (Kindle Locations 2065-2066). San Francisco, CA: Wiley. Kindle Edition.
O’Leary M., Reclaiming Lesson Observation: Supporting excellence in teacher learning (2017) (Kindle Locations 4133). New York, NY: Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.