Feedback via observation

This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about classroom observations.  One of my roles is to oversee the evaluation process for faculty and classroom observations are a part of that.  I’ve felt ambivalent about our observations.  Sometimes they work well, sometimes not.  Typically, teacher and observer arrange a time to observe a particular class.  The observer writes up the observation and then the teacher and observer have a conversation about what went well, what didn’t with the idea that the teacher improves in areas that she feels she needs to.

Most of the time, that’s precisely what happens, and sometimes the teacher invites the observer back in to see how things are better or the observer sets up a revisit and there’s further conversation and things are good.  But that’s best case scenario.  Often there’s not a revisit for another year by which time whatever was discussed before has been forgotten.  This is especially true when the teachers are already pretty good.

I’ve been in conversation over the past year, and especially the last few months with our division directors and department chairs (who do most of the actual visits) about shifting the focus of our observation process from something we do as part of the evaluation process to something we do to improve teaching.  In order for that to happen, we need two things.  One, we need more frequent observations.  Once a year is not enough.  And two, we need them to not be planned.  Not everyone plans the. perfect. lesson. for observation day, but many do, and then you may or may not be getting a clear picture of what’s happening regularly in the classroom.

We’re still working out what this will look like for us.  There are a number of models out there, but we want to find the one that works for us.  Interestingly, as happens when you’ve learned a new word or something new, suddenly that word or concept is everywhere.  This morning Matt Reed writes about observations at the college level, highlighting an article by a former colleague of mine.  And last week, on Connected Principals, Sam LeDeaux writes about successful completing a challenge to visit 500 classrooms during the school year.

All mention the trickiness of separating the feedback from observations, which can be very valuable, from evaluations.  I think that’s easier at the higher ed level than at the secondary level.  We can’t employ our students to observe our classes as Cook-Sather, in the article linked above suggests.  Seniors may be ready for it, but I don’t think most faculty would be open to having a 14 year old provide feedback.  I could be wrong about that. But it seems like a real challenge.

Another route to go would be peer, not supervisor, observations. We want to implement peer observations and many faculty already do this informally.  In my mind, I’m thinking requiring a couple of peer observations that are shared only between the teacher and observer would be valuable.  The only requirement is that they get done, and we just have to trust that the feedback is productive.  The problem there is time.  Unlike professors, our teachers’ time is much more compressed.  They’re in class, generally, most of the day, and when they’re not, they’re grading, in meetings, working with students, or prepping for class.   It’s why observations tend to fall to administrators.  While they’re busy, they’re not tied to a class schedule, so can more easily get into classrooms.

There are other ways to separate, potentially.  One thought we have is to try to observe each teacher at least 10 times.  We could say that only 5 of those count–maybe two from early in the year and three from later (when presumably if improvement is needed, that improvement has happened).  The basic idea is to get faculty to trust that yes, observations are connected to the evaluation process.  They are, after all, evidence for how well a teacher is doing their job.  It can’t all be self reporting or a single data point.  But they need to trust that our main goal is not to find ways to ding them, but to help them grow, to celebrate their hard work.

I recognize that I’m a glutton for feedback–positive or negative–and not everyone else enjoys feedback the way I do.  And they don’t trust that the feedback is not just in the school’s best interests, but theirs as well.