A classroom observation can be anxiety-producing, even for an experienced teacher. The format varies from school to school, but wherever you are, it can still feel like you're performing for an audience of one—even with a room full of kids.
Tips for Classroom Observations
Careful planning and preparation can lessen the stress of a traditional classroom observation. Let's start with a few suggestions to help you be at your best.
1. Prepare with Care
If you are asked for information about the lesson beforehand, provide clear and succinct context for what you're doing. The observer may want to know the goal of the lesson, its relationship to the state curriculum, or any particular aspects of the lesson you'd like them to notice.
2. Check Tech
If you're using technology, have it ready to go. Make sure it works before class begins, but have a backup plan in case. As every teacher knows, despite our best efforts, glitches happen.
3. Timing Is Everything
Even if you've taught this lesson before, think about how long it takes. You don't want to finish the lesson with 15 minutes left and no plans. But keep in mind that a competent observer is not looking for what some call a "dog and pony show," requiring more preparation and materials than you would ever have time for on a daily basis.
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You may have to tweak your plan for the day if you've already scheduled a test or group work for the entire time. The key is to fit your observation lesson into what you're currently teaching, so your students aren't wondering why they're learning something totally unrelated to what they've been studying.
Start the lesson on time, even if the observer hasn't yet arrived. Unexpected interruptions can waylay an administrator. But instructional time is valuable, and you and your students should go ahead with the plan.
4. Lesson Strategies
Start by telling students what the goals of the day's lesson are and what they will be doing. If it's appropriate, hook today's lesson to yesterday's and build on it.
Include teaching strategies your students are familiar with, such as pair–share, putting kids on the clock, and checking for understanding. Make sure you leave time at the end of the lesson for closure, questions, and reminders of tests or deadlines.
5. Student Participation
How teachers interact with their students is usually of prime importance to observers. Encouraging student participation, of course, is part of a teacher's daily repertoire. But be careful not to call on the same kids or allow a few kids to dominate the conversation. Don't just call on students who raise their hands, and take care not to embarrass a child who doesn't know the answer to a question. You can include kids reluctant to volunteer by simply asking them if they agree with the last answer.
Remember to use wait time to allow students to think about a question before volunteering an answer. And kids often stop considering a question if someone else has already been chosen to respond, so ask the question first, then call on a student.
6. Student Behavior
Students usually realize their teacher is being observed if an administrator is sitting in the back of the room with a yellow tablet or an iPad. In my experience, most kids are cooperative in that situation. Of course, a student may forget someone new is in the room, but a quiet word from the teacher can usually remind them of expectations. In fact, more than once kids actually asked me if they did OK after an observation.
7. When the Lesson Is Over
Thank the observer for coming in, and ask about a follow-up. Enjoy the rest of your day.
Reflections on Classroom Observations
Having gone through some of the ways to succeed during a classroom observation, let's consider a couple of wider issues surrounding teacher assessment.
Feedback or Conversation?
While the above strategies may calm teachers who are being observed, veteran teacher Trisha Arnold asks why teachers get nervous in the first place.
"Why would a highly qualified professional who can explain a math problem in three different ways while simultaneously assessing children, diffusing arguments, and applying a Band-Aid to a child's arm be scared of anything?" she wonders.
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Arnold blames teacher anxiety on the process. In traditional evaluation systems, she says, teachers are the subject of a rating rather than a participant in improving instruction. In her opinion, the whole system needs to be revised.
Evidence-Based Observations and Analysis
One process with real potential to improve classroom practice is the use of "evidence-based tools" for observations, says the Association for Supervision and Development (ASCD). In a new project funded by the U.S. Department of Education, administrators are trained to record what they see in the classroom and share it with teachers. Together, the observer and teacher analyze the data and determine what, if anything, needs to improve.
This conversation, notes ASCD, is much more helpful than feedback, which is usually one-way communication from the observer to the teacher. In addition, feedback can be judgmental rather than evidence-based.
Another suggestion to improve classroom observations is to make greater use of video, so teachers and administrators can watch and analyze together. Having teaching coaches, rather than administrators, observe classes also encourages a collaborative effort to improve teaching strategies.
Careful planning and preparation can help calm pre-observation jitters. But what would really foster post-observation reflection and growth is including teachers in analyzing the data.