Sunday, October 18, 2015
Formal Teaching Observations Part 1
I know teachers who say they're not the slightest bit intimidated by unannounced formal evaluation visits. There's a little part of me that wonders if that's true. Who feels just fine about having someone show up unannounced to watch them work for 45 minutes? I know it's supposed to be helpful. But it feels more like stalking when somebody shows up without warning, watches you silently and intently for nearly an hour without taking their eyes off you except to take notes on what you say and do, and then leaves without saying a word to you or letting you see what they wrote. There's absolutely nothing natural or comfortable about that.
The first round of observations in my district always starts in October. That's supposed to give teachers time to get to know students and get students used to the teacher and the structure of the class. Unfortunately the time period from October through December is often packed with end of term exams, first parent conferences and grading piling up on teachers. And with holidays thrown in, administrators can get pretty pressured to get in the observations they need to do. The combination of those factors creates some unfortunate timing. I know a teacher whose principal came in to do an unannounced observation of her on Halloween in a middle school. News Flash: Middle school students are not on their best behavior when they're dressed like zombies.
I don't know how it's possible to be comfortable and teach naturally while someone is clearly taking data on everything you're doing, and is also taking data on what your students are doing, as if every move they make is somehow under your control. In my job I was sometimes the second person sitting in the back of the room with the administrator during those observations. It was kind of like a checks and balances thing for people whose jobs were on the line and for whom the observation carried even more weight than usual. In a way, I was observing the observer. So maybe I can give you some tips about what your administrator will be looking for and what you need to do during an observation. Hopefully that will help you to not be so anxious.
Every evaluation system I'm familiar with includes whether or not the teacher explicitly states and periodically revisits the objectives for the lesson. It's not likely that your administrator will be in your class from the time class starts until it ends. That's extremely frustrating when what you do at the beginning and end of class is part of the evaluation, but it's just the way it goes. And it makes it especially important that there be visible evidence that you went over the objectives with students before the administrator got there.
From my work with struggling teachers I can tell you that it's surprising how many teachers just start teaching when class begins and never tell students what they'll be doing, why they're doing it, or how they'll be expected to demonstrate what they've learned. So there's no reason for students to get engaged in the first place. That is going to have a negative effect on student behavior and on the evaluation of your teaching. Get in the habit of writing your objectives on the board and starting class by going over them with students. It's fairly obvious when that is being done for the first time during a formal observation. It needs to be - and look like - a practiced routine, not like some dog and pony show that you're putting on for the administrator's benefit.
While you're teaching the lesson, point at the objective you wrote on the board and make a reference to it. Perhaps say something like this: "At the beginning of class, we talked about today's objectives. We've been working on #1, and now we're ready to transition to #2, where you'll be working in small groups. You have one minute to get ready to move. I'll know you're ready when you have ____."
Saying something like that draws your students' (and administrator's) attention back to the objectives for the day and helps students make the connection between what they have just finished doing and what they'll be doing next. That statement also incorporates two other really important student engagement strategies: Time Limits and Signals. More about those in my next post.