Getting into classrooms and conducting teacher observations is one of the most important jobs a principal can have, but carving out time for these visits (and the subsequent reports) is always a challenge. Here are five ways to maximize the time you spend in your school’s classrooms.
1. Prepare yourself, prepare the teacher.
So much of what makes a great observation takes place before you even step inside the classroom. Know the framework you are basing your evaluation on, and communicate that clearly to teachers. Per Charlotte Danielson, be clear about what you expect to see in the classroom, and what you’ll be evaluating both pre and post observation. Interpret what you see fairly, and make sure your ratings coincide with others in the school and district. You don’t want to be known as either the easy or hard evaluator.
2. Look for learning, not teaching.
“Instead of observing a teacher teaching a lesson, I start out with the idea that I’m observing learning in Mrs. Smith’s class,” retired principal Jim Thompson told Education World. “That is where I try to keep my emphasis. The more I focus on learning—evidence of student learning in classrooms and evidence of teacher learning through the development of a collegial learning community—the stronger my school will be.” Thompson is now the director of Instructional Coaching Services from Genesee Valley Educational Partnership in New York.
He leans on Rick DuFour’s three essential questions to help guide his assessment.
- What do we want students to learn?
- How do we know students are learning?
- What do we do when we find out students are not learning?
3. Properly judge the lesson plan.
Creating a great lesson plan is akin to walking a tightrope in a windstorm. Lots of factors can push a teacher off his intended mark. Principal Ron Tibbets tells Education World there are three factors he considers when evaluating a teacher’s lesson planning.
- Are students engaged? And if they aren’t, how long does it take to get them back on task? And if they are, is the content challenging them enough to stretch their learning?
- Does the teacher make it clear to her students what they should be learning? This sounds basic, but is often missing. Having a teacher post essential questions is a great way to cover this aspect.
- Classroom participation. Getting students to answer questions is a lot more complicated than calling on the first hand to go up. Check to see if teachers are varying whom they call on, waiting sufficiently to allow more students to participate, and varying their question types to include factual, divergent, and higher-order questions. For a rubric that covers questions, discussion and student participating, see this rubric from Charlotte Danielson.
4. Tie your observation to the professional learning at your school.
Charlotte Danielson reminds principals to tie their observation findings back to the professional learning community (hopefully) already in place at the school or department. Encouraging professional discussions about teaching and learning helps everyone in your school. If a teacher nails her lesson and observation, invite her to share tips with peers. If she needs help in one or more area, be sure to point out other teachers she can connect with to discuss sticking points
5. Give feedback promptly.
Be clear with teachers about what you’ll be observing for (hopefully tied to their teacher goals for the year), take good notes, offer one positive note as you leave the room, and follow up quickly with a full report. Just like students crave to see their work corrected and returned quickly, teachers crave timely (as soon as possible!), meaningful feedback. Wrapping up an observation within one week lessens the potential for doubt and confusion, and allows teachers to understand and apply corrections to their teaching quickly.
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