denisekrebs7 Ways School Leaders Can Use Observations More Effectively

by Paul Moss 

Whilst observations are certainly not the whole picture of a teacher’s skill, they can provide excellent opportunities for teachers to reflect on their practice.

If my last article How Your Teacher Observation Can Help You Grow convinced teachers of the benefits of observations, the onus is now placed on school leaders to provide the necessary conditions for such a culture to survive, and thrive.

The key word here is culture. The atmosphere or mood of a school is imperative if teachers are to embrace observation. And while that culture is the responsibility of every employee in a school, school leaders have the most influence in shaping it.

7 Ways School Leaders Can Use Teacher Observations More Effectively

Justify observations – most teachers are afraid of being observed, and feel they are unrepresentative of their skill. Convey to teachers the benefits of observation. Create an excitement about personal growth, and what it will do for the school. Presently, most teachers would feel that they are being checked up on. Creating the excitement begins with altering the language of observation.

Even the word observation has an Orwellian connotation. It may as well be ‘evaluated’. Change it to ‘performance’, or something similar. Straight away the semantics change the focus and the power from the watcher to the doer, and from something stale to something creative. ‘How did your ‘performance’ go?’

Facilitate personal observation – this is perhaps the most powerful way to eliminate observation anxiety, as teachers can work on areas on their own and build their capacity in being critical of their practice. This can be done using technology and recording lessons. There is no better way to reduce observation anxiety for even the shyest of teachers amongst us than to observe yourself.

The pressure is completely removed.  Most teachers will quickly see where things could improve, especially with a set of criteria provided by the school. By the time observation gets to leadership or beyond, small easy things have already been fixed, only leaving room for positive discussions about growth. The next step is then to show the videos to colleagues.

Provide ample opportunities to reflect – if teachers are given time to reflect, it will become part of their routine. This is key to the culture shift – familiarity. Embedding personal reflection of lessons into the timetable is also the best way to translate to the team that you take personal development very seriously. In that timetable, schedule a build up in the observations in terms of who sees lessons.

Begin with personal, then to colleagues, then to area leaders, then to senior leaders. By the time it gets to the last group, the teacher will be on autopilot. This point can’t be stated more clearly – if you are serious about your teachers getting better, you have to provide time for them to reflect on their practice.

Begin with very short observations – let teachers know that you are only coming in for a short time, focusing on a specific area. Slowly building up the time in the room helps teachers get used to your presence.

Observe more often – providing teachers with several opportunities to demonstrate their skill is going to provide you with a better idea of what they can do. It also takes some pressure off teachers if they know that 1 lesson isn’t the be all and end all.

Interact in the observation – engage with the class as though you are also teaching. Engage with the teacher. Make it seem that you are there because you are anticipating good things to follow, and interact when things are done well. Most times, teachers get no feedback during the actual lesson, leaving them wondering and sometimes second guessing what they are doing when perceived good moments are met with indifference from the observer. Imagine doing that with the students.

Sitting in the back taking notes and avoiding eye contact may not be the best approach in eliminating the observer effect.

Accept nothing less – this requires patience as the culture transforms, but also assertiveness. Some staff may find the transition uncomfortable, or unnecessary, and resist, and it is in this time that strength and conviction is required from leadership. Belief in the process is paramount, and using early adopters as examples is important. Show reluctant teachers how other teachers are progressing. After all, the proof is in the pudding.

Teachers want to get better. It’s in our DNA. We are also proud professionals, and we want to be able to demonstrate to others exactly how good we are. When we are observed, we want that moment to be truly representative. We want people to leave our performance feeling inspired.

But practice makes perfect. Bands don’t just start playing at Wembley or Madison Square Garden. They build. They get used to crowds. They iterate after each gig. Eventually their performance becomes a true reflection of who they are, no matter who’s watching. Teaching too is an art form. But without the feedback, the iteration, and the time to improve, we can’t ever demonstrate it to others.

Give us the culture in which to shine though, and we will.

7 Ways School Leaders Can Use Teacher Observations More Effectively; image attribution flickr user denisekrebs