One of the best parts of my job is going into classrooms and observing teachers at work. From experienced teachers through to trainee teachers, I am always inspired by what I see. Equally as important is that I always seem to come away with something that I can add to my own teaching kete.
For me, teacher observations, built around a strong culture of coaching and mentoring, is one of the key drivers in improving student outcomes. They are the foundation of good teacher agency and professional improvement.
However, I am the first to admit that sometimes the observations I have done were not as beneficial as they should have been. Recently, I was asked to lead professional development around effective classroom observations. This gave me a great opportunity to look at some research around this topic and reflect a little on this important process. Below are the links to a couple of good articles and then some personal reflections on what I have found over the years.
The first is How to get the most of of lesson observations by Rico Patzer. This article was on the IRIS CONNECT website. This webpage is basically split into a number of different sections. Also includes information on using video as an effective observational tool.
Secondly, I have used the Fixing class Observations which was a report written by TNTP in 2013. This rather old and has an American focus, but I have found some of the main points really important.
Finally, here is a video that I found had some good general things to reflect on. This one is especially good for new teachers.
A couple of key points I have reflected on after reading those articles and thinking about my own experiences are listed below.
- Good Observations start with a shared understanding of the process.
Before any classroom visits it is important to spend time developing a shared understanding about the WHY of class observations or visits. Why are you doing this? What will I be looking for? What do I expect from you? What do you expect from me?
We have probably all been in the situation where someone comes into your class un announced. Often, especialaly when it doesn’t happen often, it seems weird and you always wonder what is the exact motive. Spending time answering the WHY beforehand means that everyone is on the same page. In a recent PD session I did, during this part of the process we also talked about the times we would visit, how our follow up meetings would work and how long and expected observation could take.
- Good observation use effective protocols
One of the keys to good observation is ensuring that you use good templates or protocols. These provide a foundation for good observations and discussion to flow from. Personally, the one I am using at the moment is a sheet that essentially has three columns.
What I Saw?
Wanderings or Questions I had during the observation
Reflection Space ( to be completed by the observee)
I like this structure as it enables me, as the observer, to focus in on what I saw and then use questions to bring about reflection and change. Questions for me are more effective than saying something is right or wrong or giving my opinion.
- Good observations are specific
In order for observations to really work they must be specific. This enables the person observing to really focus on a small number of things and then provide specific feedback on these. When I get the ‘just do a general observation’ or ‘Oh I don’t know’ I know that that person hasn’t really prepared for this session. It also enables me to provide research around that topic to the person I am observing.
- Good observations are based around good questioning
This one is hard for me. I have a tendency to give my opinion or offer suggestions about areas to work on. Unfortunately, I have found that this doesn’t work in the long run. Generally people don’t like being told things we should improve. All of my post observation meetings are based around asking the questions I wrote down in the Wonderings or Questions I had column in their observation sheet. this is a non threatening way to bring about change. It certainly takes longer but means that you are working alongside staff and not just flying in and out.
- Good observations are part of an overall strategy
Observation shouldn’t be seen as a stand-alone activity to improve teacher capability. Good observations must be part of a plan to upskill teachers with the latest educational research. Whenever I observe some I try and provide that person with some education reading around the topic they want me to look at.
- Observations are not just about classroom situations.
I think it is important to realise that observations are not just for teachers in the classroom. Last year, as a Leader of Learning, I had a person come in and observe my departmental meetings. She took notes on what I did, looked over the way I planned my meetings and gave me some really good ideas-and specific readings on how to be a better leader. What might this look like for you? If you are in management and don’t have a lot of classroom time this could involve observations of your meetings, observation of you public speaking etc.