Wednesday / July 24

Leading the Learning Through Courageous Observations

“I hate being observed.”

That is how a teacher of the year, Justin Minkel, started his recent blog – and, it got our attention. However, we learn every day that he is not alone. After reading our new book, Feedback to Feed Forward, last month, a veteran teacher (now administrator) called and told us, “In 28 years, I have never received feedback that feeds forward.” Last week, while supporting teachers who mentor and coach other teachers, it was shared that “my administrator came in my room once last year and is not able to give me any feedback that helps.” Our fellow Corwin author, Peter Dewitt, recently built upon Justin’s blog in “Isn’t it Time to Improve Teacher Observations?” (yes!), emphasizing, “The teacher observation process has provided angst for teachers and principals for far too long.”

The Confidence to Lead

Teachers may not have ever considered that the principals, too, dread or fear the process as well. But why? Peter reminds us, “The truth is that not all principals have self-efficacy when it comes to completing teacher observations in an authentic manner… however, we need to do something about that nervous energy. We have to use it to change an archaic process and make it more worthwhile for both parties, regardless of which side of the clipboard we may be on.”

This “nervous energy” is often rooted in a lack of confidence—which in turn, we know, is very often due to a lack of knowledge, skills, and understanding of how to engage in effective observation that will result in feedback that will feed forward. This type of feedback:

  • goes beyond summarizing events to providing an analysis of effectiveness
  • allows teachers to accurately and clearly see how they are impacting learners,
  • leads to improved reflection, instructional practices, and outcomes.

This lack of confidence and ongoing stress has caused leaders to continually ask us for help in preparing for “difficult conversations.” Perhaps, this is because it will be a meeting in which the leader needs to share lower ratings (especially if ineffective practice has been confirmed or ratings have been inaccurately inflated in the past). Or, perhaps this is because the leader will be providing information that highlights evidence of a lack of engagement or success for students (especially if the teacher believes the lesson went well). We are human and generally seek to avoid experiences that cause us anxiety or bring about negative emotional responses in ourselves or in another person. But a conversation between teacher and leader does not have to result in that end.

The Courage to Lead

These situations require courage, as Jen Abrams reminds us. Courage is tough to come by when an observer:

  • is unsure about the rating or why students were not engaged or successful
  • does not know what the next best step could be for the teacher or how to promote reflective practices about next steps

This may follow additional fears stemming from the fact that the observer:

  • isn’t comfortable in the discipline (as Peter mentions)
  • doesn’t know what to look for or do in the room during an observation
  • is unsure about how to engage with students in the moment
  • is unable to collect or record the information because of the speed, volume, and variety of tasks and activity

The Skills to Lead

 The quality and impact of feedback is directly connected to the quality of the evidence collected during a lesson.

However, it then hinges on the observer’s ability to accurately analyze that evidence to determine how a teacher’s actions caused the observed outcomes. An effective feedback conversation begins the moment you step into a classroom to observe instruction and requires a discrete set of skills (Table 1.5).

(Tepper & Flynn, 2018, p. 23)

Mastery of the first seven skills sets the foundation for the whole 14. Mastery of the next seven in turn builds confidence and ensures the ability to observe and analyze what is happening accurately and objectively. Ultimately, leaders can then find the courage to provide feedback that is grounded in evidence and centers on how the teacher is impacting engagement and learning.

But, why don’t leaders have the skills to do this work?

  • Certain assumptions were made about the readiness of classroom observers
  • The focus has been on the teaching versus on student engagement and learning
  • Emphasis was placed on ratings versus growth
  • Observers are not being explicitly taught how to engage in this work

The bottom line is that all observers need the skill set to collect evidence from learners in the moment as it at the heart of the process. Yet, this is where we see the greatest gap for leaders.

The Vision to Lead

We were saddened by Justin’s blog title, “The Particular Agony of Teacher Observations” and suggestions as to how to “survive observations.” He is a teacher of the year and feeling this way! Maybe the “difficult” part for his observers is related to a limited ability to “Recognize Research-Based Strategies” or “Develop Reflective Questions” because of Justin’s current level of practice.

We get up every day to support observers and leaders in the 21 skills to ensure all teachers receive the support that they need.

Imagine a world in which all observers have these skills to provide all observed teachers with feedback to feed forward. Could we daresay even that teachers and leaders would look forward to the visits and conversations? We can envision it because we have seen it. We have seen leaders providing impactful feedback based on a balance of evaluative and non-evaluative observations that are not only welcomed, but sought out by teachers. For this to occur, leaders need to…

  • have the courage to admit what they don’t know or know how to do and seek the necessary resources, support, and training to improve while recognizing this is challenging work that takes time to master.
  • have the courage to go out into classrooms and try new evidence-collection strategies that will allow them to help teachers understand not just how they are teaching but also how students are learning. This requires the courage to talk to students as they are learning.
  • have the courage to tell teachers when teaching practices are decreasing engagement or hindering students’ abilities to move forward (rooted in evidence), but then have the courage to work with the teacher to improve and change outcomes.
  • have the courage to talk about their own learning with teachers and dedicate themselves to mastering the necessary skills and strategies to improve observation and feedback practices.

Leaders need to believe they can improve, and that as a result, they will make a difference for teachers and students. So teachers…

  • have the courage to welcome observers into their classroom.

In the immortal words of the Cowardly Lion…

What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage.

What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk? Courage.

What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage.

What makes the Sphinx the 7th Wonder? Courage.

What makes feedback that feeds forward? Courage.

Written by

Amy Tepper and Patrick Flynn are the authors of Feedback to Feed Forward, which is a comprehensive step-by-step guide that builds an observer’s capacity to ensure high quality and impactful feedback as the result of every observation. The book focuses on the capture, organization, and processing of evidence and the crafting of written reports – the skills and steps necessary to engage in highly impactful conversations.


Latest comments

  • Thanks Michele. We actually know of many administrators who incorporate modeling in the moment to their observations – especially during non evaluative walkthroughs – and who co-teach lessons or teach classes themselves. In fact, one recently took over a math class for two months instead of bringing in a long term sub when one teacher was out (in order to walk the walk).

    It is important to note that most teacher performance rubrics and corresponding observations are focused on instructional practice and student outcomes. So, for example, while Amy who has a Literacy background can observe in a chemistry classroom and provide rich feedback to promote effective instruction, we might not expect her to go in and teach a lesson on stoichiometry as she does not have the discipline knowledge to execute the strategies as effectively as a teacher of science. This tends to apply mostly to upper grade levels as content knowledge becomes more and more sophisticated.

    We promote the idea that multiple lenses be applied to support teachers. We work with districts to build a cadre of observers who support teachers along with a supervisor (such as, coaches, department chairs, mentors) who also provide high quality feedback aligned to an instructional framework, allowing for discipline expertise. This allows for many more opportunities for modeling of instructional practices within the disciplines.

  • What if one of the observations was replaced by the evaluator presenting a lesson to the class in question? It would give the evaluator information about that particular class and provide an opportunity to lead by example rather than leading by critiquing.

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