Fifteen years ago, I thought that the teacher observation component of my job would be the most straightforward. I would watch a lesson, write up what I had seen, and note some commendations and recommendations I might have for improving things. Afterward, we would have a wonderfully fulfilling, theoretical and professional discussion, and, voila! They would see what I had seen and make appropriate changes.
Really? From what planet had I hailed? The fact was, the observation process was messy, sometimes contentious, often a dog-and-pony show, and yielded conversations teachers thought I wanted to hear but very little actual change in the classroom. Veteran teachers resented suggestions from someone who had spent considerably less time than they in a classroom; new teachers were so overwhelmed that too many suggestions could not be processed. It was akin to marking up a student’s paper with hundreds of red inked comments: too many corrections intimidate and virtually assure no change will ever occur.
I used to go into classrooms asking, “What can I do to make this lesson better?” “How can I help this teacher become more effective?” My write-up was clinical, written in the third person, and most often showed how I would do things differently. Wrong, wrong, and wrong! It should not have been about my doing anything. It wasn’t, in fact, about me at all! I have learned over the years to check my ego at the door and to ask an entirely different set of questions.
The initial questions occur in my head as the lesson unfolds. Most teachers work hard to create lessons they assume will be challenging, engaging, and that align with their school’s mandated curriculum. So my first goal, as I walk into a classroom, is to determine the intended objective of the lesson. Do I know—and, more importantly, do the students know—why the lesson is being taught? How does the lesson connect with what has come before and what will come afterwards? Next, I ask myself if the students are engrossed in the lesson? Teachers can have well-conceived plans, but if students are not engaged with the materials the lesson becomes a one-sided endeavor. Are students asking questions, paying close attention, or involved with peers trying to figure things out? Finally, I ask myself if the teacher is assessing that his or her objective has been met? Are there obvious on-the-spot checks, mention of a future assessment, or lesson closure determining that the objective has been met?
When I meet with teachers after the observation, the “real” work actually begins. My goal is to have the teacher reflect and reevaluate, for those two areas will hold the greatest possibilities for any substantive change. All good lesson planning is about choice: teachers choosing this method over that one, choosing this information over that information, choosing one or another method for presentation, and selecting multiple types of assessments. If we ask teachers why did you choose X over Y, the conversation can begin to go in a myriad of directions. This is the part of the observation I have begun to value the most. It becomes a conversation–not a “gotcha” or a condemnation of anyone’s teaching strategies. It is the place in the observation model where we learn from each other; I am usually impressed by the thoughtful and conscious choices my teachers make when designing their units or daily lessons. My guidance comes when I can offer paths they may not have considered or when I ask them to consider where other choices may have taken the lesson.
I am more convinced than ever, that despite the teacher observation model mandated by one’s district, the questions one asks and the conversations that inevitably follow are the single most important component to improving teaching and learning.
Please come join me and your colleagues from across the country as we work on issues of teacher evaluation/assessment at the CEL Summer Institute on Critical Issues: Assessment at Elmhurst College, Chicago, Illinois July 17-19, 2014.
Dr. Edie Weinthal
District English Supervisor
Pascack Valley Regional High School District, NJ
CEL Summer Institute on Critical Issues, Chair 2014