Better Observations


Jenga, the stacking-crashing game, is highly interactive. But one summer after a day of cutting and sanding, we discovered Big J’enga was even better.

Seven years ago when I started facilitating teachers observing teachers, I believed observations were one of the best types of embedded professional development. Then I experienced the reality. At one of my early coach-facilitated observations the two teachers with me talked to each other–and not even very quietly–throughout the observation. I was thoroughly embarrassed for the host as it became apparent that it knocked her off her game. Another time the observing teacher became so fixated with the unique seating arrangement he only questioned the host teacher about her environment and we didn’t scratch the surface of instructional conversation.

Today I still believe that observations are crucial to a coaching culture, but I’ve learned there are necessary building blocks that make observations effective for teachers. Diane Sweeney, author of Student-Centered Coaching and other great books, helped me along my path to better observations.

Check Out Diane Sweeney’s Sweet Site

She writes, “More often than not, inappropriate behavior is the result of a lack of information among the lab participants. Therefore, it is up to the facilitator to frame what is expected among the observers.”

Yes, norms are critical for observations. Here are Diane’s:

*Record detailed notes that are aligned with observation and will inform the debriefing session
*Stay close to the action so you can see and hear what students are doing as learners.
*Only talk with students if it has been established as part of the learning process for collecting evidence by the lab host and facilitator.
*Avoid being a distraction in the classroom. Maintain silence and do not take it upon yourself to teach the students.
*Maintain a positive attitude and respect for the lab host.

(From Figure 6.6 on page 122 of Student-Centered Coaching shared here with Diane Sweeney’s permission)

We borrowed much from Diane and then elaborated in a couple of places where we addressed needs we saw in our district:

*Take a learning stance. We are not here to compare, compete or judge.
*Stay close to the action so you can see and hear what students are doing as learners.
*Record detailed notes that are aligned with the observation and will inform the debriefing session.
*Maintain silence while in the room. Only talk with the other observing teachers before and after the lesson outside the classroom.
*Only talk with students if it has been established as part of the process for collecting evidence by the host teacher and facilitator.
*Avoid being a distraction in the classroom. Do not take it upon yourself to teach the students even if one says, “Can you help me?” Redirect them to the teacher.
*Maintain a positive attitude and respect for the host.

We review and discuss these norms each and every observation we facilitate. We also discuss look-fors during our pre-observation time. I often say something like,

“Observing a classroom is a lot like watching an adventure movie. There are so many things going on and we can’t pause or rewind the action. To make the most of the time, we’ll each commit to watching one particular part of instruction. A teacher who is interested in pacing could note when the minilesson starts and ends, the timing of conferences and the length of the share. Someone else might be interested in how the teacher uses questioning to get students thinking deeply about content and would transcribe student and teacher talk during the inquiry phase of the lesson. Let’s brainstorm what we each might attend to during the observation.”

These are watch-and-listen fors teachers have chosen:

* “I’ll record student talk, what kids discuss during the active engagement part of the lesson.”

* “I’ll note the pacing of the workshop.”

* “I’ll list what students are writing/reading to get a sense of the status of the class.”

* “I’ll write the dialogue of what is said during conferring. Especially the teacher’s questions.”

* “I’ll sit with one particular group and note the cooperative actions and language.”

While I once felt anxious the night before I was facilitating observations, wondering, would the teachers be respectful? Would they focus on the important teaching and learning at hand? Would we have a focused and purposeful debrief? And ultimately, would it be worth their time? Would they have big ah-has? This year I sleep soundly before the observations I host. With an understanding of my role to set norms, focus watch-fors and debrief in a  very specific way, I watch teachers walk away from observations saying things like, “I got what I came for. And more.”

In a future post I’ll reflect on better observation debriefs.

What are you thinking and wondering about better observations?

5 thoughts on “Better Observations

  1. So….. We had many of those same experiences in our observations and labs. I am lucky enough to work in a district that brings Diane in to work with both the coaches and small groups of teachers, and one of the things I did this year before our first lab was to pull those norms out of Student Centered Coaching and put them in every lab notebook for every participant. Spending the first few minutes of our pre-observation time going over the norms and discussing why it is important to follow them has made a huge difference in the learning that is happening for all involved.

    The look-fors have always been a part of our labs and observations. They too help to keep the learning focused on the big picture. When we first started this type of PD about 8 years ago, the teachers really wanted to just make notes about what was on the walls. The look fors really help to focus the observation on the topic at hand and make the debriefs more meaningful.

    This afternoon I get to spend three hours with Diane and the other coaches in my district as we learn together about “quiet coaching.” I’ll let you know the highlights!

    Great post as usual!

  2. Roberta Buhle and I worked with teachers and coaches on classroom observations. One thing that we discovered worked well as a pre-observation visit. The observers had a chance to check out the unique seating arrangements and talked to the host teacher. A follow-up session gave the observers a chance to talk to the teacher about what happened.

  3. Thank you so much for today’s posting. I conduct bi-monthly observations with our district instructional team. The information you presented (everyone focusing on different elements of the observation; remaining silent; lean away from teaching the students; stay close to the action) will really assist us as we become experts in the art of coaching. Thank you again.

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