Every teacher needs feedback to improve, but traditional observations can create or contribute to a divide between teachers and school leaders because teachers often perceive the processes as punitive. Are there ways the observation process can be reimagined as an empowering growth experience for both school leaders and teachers? The answer is yes, and the following four strategies can help facilitate collaborative, productive interactions.
Few teachers get to choose when their observations occur. But when observations are done by invitation, teachers drive the narrative. They can choose lessons that highlight activities and moments of learning that they are excited to share, repositioning the entire paradigm around observations to make them joyful and less burdensome.
Teachers can also invite leaders when they are experiencing problems or challenges, positioning the visit as an opportunity to seek advice and collaborate on finding solutions. By showing up on a teacher’s terms, leaders build trust, affirming to the teacher that their success is among the leader’s highest priorities.
Regardless of what happened in the observation, thank the teacher. The goal is to make the observation process one that is welcoming. A short email with genuine praise does the trick. A handwritten note goes even further, especially if it includes specific details on what aspects of the lesson stood out.
For example, a teacher I supervised asked me to come to see her lead a Socratic seminar. Her approach was structured in such an innovative way that I borrowed it when teaching my own classes. Ever since that observation, I have made sure to thank her repeatedly for what she taught me.
Celebrate teachers who stepped up and volunteered to be seen, even if the lesson was less than outstanding. If we don’t respond favorably to their risk-taking, word will go out that the by-invitation technique is a gotcha, and no one will want to participate.
To put this concept into action, set up an online site where teachers can invite you to witness lessons. Coordinating schedules may necessitate some logistical maneuvering for leaders who juggle competing priorities. However, teachers will be more ready to find time to accommodate you if they believe their invites are valuable.
Leaders as Teachers
Leaders want teachers to feel at ease with the observation process, but do we follow through with a collaborative spirit? With this technique, the school leader and teacher meet for a planning session; then the school leader takes over the class while the teacher watches. While this technique is most successful with beginner instructors for modeling reasons, it is critical to involve all teachers to build trust and capacity. Otherwise, we transmit the impression that seasoned instructors do not require professional development, which is far from the case.
This approach can be eye-opening for teachers. During the pandemic, I saw a leader model instruction for a teacher who was struggling with a new curriculum. The teacher was overwhelmed with the vendor’s materials. By watching a seasoned expert bring the process to life, the teacher had a tangible set of new ideas to bridge theory to practice.
The follow-up to the leader’s teaching session is critical in terms of making significant changes to school culture around observation methods. While the instructor and leader have already met to prepare, everyone must process what they’ve learned. The teacher or leader can present data that is qualitative, quantitative, or a combination of both while providing feedback. If the teacher scripted what the leader said, the conversation may be a qualitative data point. A count of who raised their hands or the findings of a fast formative evaluation are examples of quantitative data.
The debrief is based on facts rather than opinions. This focus on information and not individuals not only will help the teacher form a closer bond with the leader but also can help both parties become more introspective and empathic.
One of the most memorable moments I shared with a leader was around a blended learning strategy. I was working to implement station rotations into my classroom, and when I shared my difficulties with an administrator, he expressed interest in joining the process. Together, we designed and co-taught a set of lessons around our shared goal of learning more about stations, and as a result, I realized that he truly understood instruction in a way that I had not seen before.
For this method, the instructor and leader organize and teach a class together and then discuss each other’s areas of strength and progress. Roles are more successful when they are established ahead of time. For example, splitting the class and having each individual work with a group of kids at the same time would not work; instead, the teacher and leader must team teach, taking turns giving instruction, as both the leader and the instructor need to see each other in action.
A follow-up reflection discussion can focus on specific students. Let’s say the co-teaching plan includes collecting questions from students about how to graph points on an axis, and one student writes, “Why does it matter whether I graph x first and not y?” That question provides information for the co-teaching team to use to assess where there may have been a lack of clarity and how to proceed.
In this strategy, the teacher shares what the class is working on with the leader ahead of time. The leader then teaches the class, and the instructor leaves to observe another colleague teaching.
It is important to share how the session went with the teacher—they need to know how things were for their students, and, just as important, the school leader can model vulnerability. This is a way I can show that I’m still learning as a school leader and that I want to acknowledge the teacher’s skill. When I did a teacher flip with a 10th-grade teacher, I realized that I needed to brush up on my strategies for engaging those students in close reading, and I told the teacher that.
This strategy not only allows teachers to visit other classes—a rare opportunity for many—but also allows them to think about practice.
A school leader providing ongoing, effective, and productive support is far more indicative of teacher appreciation than a gift card or catered luncheon. Instead of a top-down strategy that breeds distrust, there can be genuine teamwork aimed at mutually strengthening one another. If we start taking steps toward adopting these observation strategies, we can develop a school culture that values teaching and learning while removing the more frightening and distrustful associations with teacher observations.