Sunday, March 29, 2015

Should Observations Be Part of a Teacher's Evaluation?

As a principal, I should be observing teachers and helping them to reflect on the strengths of the lesson as well as any challenges that can be areas for growth.  The question is, should a formal observation be part of the evaluation system? Should one observation be part of a teacher's year-long rating?

Our department uses a modified version of the Danielson Framework, and during the observation, we collect evidences for only five different components.  Prior to the observation. the teacher responds to questions on-line, the administrator comments, and there is a pre-conference to discuss any changes in the lesson plan or to ask final questions.

This is why I read Peter DeWitt's Education Week blog -"Leaders: Are Your Teacher Observations Active or Passive?" - with interest.  I wondered if he shared my view about observations that are tied to evaluations.  Peter suggests that administrators approach observations like an instructional coach would, with the purpose of providing feedback and helping the teacher improve in their teaching and learning. As he states, "Unfortunately, just because observations are tied to point scales doesn't mean they provide any more feedback to teachers.  It is often seen as a process to get done . . . instead of a process to get done right."

I spent the morning reflecting on the teacher observations I've been doing every year since I became a principal over 12 years ago. Here are some of my thoughts:
  • A trusting relationship between the teacher and the administrator is essential.  In such a relationship, the teacher will often come to the post-conference having already reflected on how they can improve the lesson in the future.  I think the greatest example of the trust a teacher had with me was when she shared that she was having difficulty with one of her students.  She had hoped he would exhibit the challenging behaviors during the lesson so I could observe how she dealt with the student and possibly give her some suggestions or insights. This teacher viewed the observation as an opportunity to grow and improve in her practice, not just as a score on her evaluation.
  • Visiting classrooms is the best part of my job, and spending time with students informs me about the teaching and learning taking place every day in the classroom, not just during a formal observation. The informal conversation afterward is one way for administrators to create a trusting relationship with the teacher; that relationship is essential as we constantly strive to improve teaching and learning at our school.
  • As teachers begin to "blend" their lessons  with students using technology as an essential component of their learning, the Danielson Framework may not be the best tool to observe what is going on in the classroom.  The Framework does not take into account the learning that can happen virtually or collaboratively via technology. When teachers have to "plan" their lesson so an observer can collect a "plethora" of evidences to warrant a rating, it is less likely that a teacher will plan a virtual assignment where evidences may not be observable.
  • Any formal observation by an administrator should be an opportunity for improvement rather than an evaluative tool. We want teachers to take risks and to be flexible when they are teaching. When teachers are given a rating that counts towards their evaluation, most of them will play it safe and not plan something different that may not be successful.  Yet, in our classrooms everyday, we want teachers to take risks and be flexible with their students. We want them to be creative and to learn from lessons that "failed" and to reflect on what they might need to change to make it successful in the future. Peter DeWitt suggests that administrators be more like instructional coaches:  "Teachers should be able to learn what they do well, what needs some tweaking and what needs improving.  The observation process should be structured like instructional coaches do it so that the focus is on providing effective feedback to bring learning forward." 
The conversation prior to and after the observations are essential to building positive relationships with teachers.  It is my hope that teachers trust me to be honest with them and to ask the tough questions to get them to think about their lessons. In the end, though,it is just one lesson for one hour of a whole school year. We should care more about what happens on the other 179 school days.  


  1. I am an elementary teacher in Missouri. We have started a new evaluation system where we are observed in 10 minute increments every couple of weeks. Our administrators have focused on 3 main goals and that is what they watch for when they come in. We do get a score that gets compiled over the course of the year. Obviously it's not a perfect system because they may come in during independent practice and not see the collaboration between students and such. However, they meet with us the same day and talk about what they saw and give us suggestions. It creates a time that we can talk openly about things in a less formal setting (they meet with us in our classrooms). One thing that our administrators did at the beginning of the year that helped foster a positive relationship with us, was to send an email about something positive they saw as they did their daily walk throughs of our classroom. It was so refreshing to open my email and read something that they liked or peaked their interest.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Jennifer! I think several shorter unannounced observations would be more beneficial to me as a principal as well as the teacher. I love the conversations I have with teachers after the observations, and I think it helps them to reflect on how they can improve as teachers. This is what I should be doing as a principal, but those long observations take up a lot of time.