Posts Tagged ‘observation’

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So, I’ve been thinking about observing classes. Last spring I joined our upper school division head in doing short, unannounced observations of classes. The observations are only 10 minutes long.

Last year I followed up with a short conversation and then an email that summarized my observations and our discussion. I made it to see 35+ classes last spring. I was very nervous at first. I have worked very hard to build positive relationships with as many teachers as possible; it’s the only way I know to get people to consider using technology in the classroom and keep using it once I am not around. Adding observing to the list of things I do changes things. I admit that I started with some folks with whom I felt comfortable. I steered clear of departments in which I teach, unless I asked if I could come to see something in particular. I built up my own comfort with this new role and moved to other teachers and departments. I loved it. (I wrote about it twice last school year.)

This school year I am continuing with general observing and have three teachers that I am evaluating. For those teachers, my goal is to see a class (still 10 minutes) once a rotation (7 teaching days), with a goal of 20 observations for the year. As a group, the evaluation team in all divisions is using many ideas from the Marshall Method for mini-observations. So, we are doing lots of short observations, having a brief follow up conversation, and sending an email with several positives and one item that might be a question or a suggestion. For the folks I am not evaluating, but simply observing, I just send a follow-up email.

That’s a lot of introduction to get to my point. It’s going great overall. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • I make time for this every week and block out time on my calendar to make time for this work.
  • It really does only take 10 minutes to see a lot and then another 10 to write a follow-up email.
  • A lot of teachers reply to my email which leads to either a face-to-face conversation or email exchange about strategies, technology, or students.
  • Some teachers still want to make time to sit down and hear more about what I saw.
  • One teacher who is being evaluated, but not by me, asked if I would still come in and observe because my feedback was very useful last year.
  • When I get to see teachers a second time, I start to notice their “signature moves,” some of which I am adapting for myself or recommending to others.
  • As I get to know teachers as teachers rather than lunch table companions, I can recommend or share techniques from one teacher to another or suggest that a teacher observe another teacher in particular.
  • The culture of the classroom, although invisible to my eyes, is obvious to the rest of me.
  • In particular, I tend to focus on student engagement and class culture.

Earlier this fall I had a real victory with a particular teacher. First, a little background. I waited quite a while before observing this teacher last year. I wasn’t too sure there was much enthusiasm for my visit; the follow-up conversation was difficult to schedule. This year I checked in with this teacher about a student I teach whom this teacher had taught the year before. We had a lovely conversation and it turned out my write up had been helpful to the teacher later in the year in other circumstances. Then, after my first observation this year I got this reply to my follow-up email:


Thanks for this. When you have a few minutes (ha) I would love to hear more of your impressions, thoughts,  and—in addition– advice. I found our conversation from your previous observation enormously helpful.


teacher-who-might-not-have-been-very-excited-to-see-me-last-year (not a real name)

Now, not to reveal too much here, but to receive this email made my day. As I have said before, I play the long game. I think I first learned this when I taught in Chicago Public Schools. I just kept showing up, not quitting, figuring out a little more, ignoring the little stuff (and some big stuff), trying again, hoping that people were giving me another chance (just like I was trying to do). Don’t get me wrong, the little and big stuff does get to me. I just try not to let that be visible in public. Because it’s a long game, sometimes it’s hard to see the progress. This email was great proof that it’s not just a long stalemate; it’s a long game, and I am putting points on the board.


CCO public domain image from Pixabay.

So, I’m still thinking about my observations. The other day I wrote about my experience in the math department in particular. This time, I’m thinking about the students.

At this point, I have observed a lot of classes. Even though I meet afterward with the teachers, I often think about the students. There are plenty of students whom I know by name or grade, but whom I do not teach or have never taught. For these students, I have vague impressions based on things like how they walk down the hall, how loud they are in the library, who they sit with at lunch. None of these is anything on which to base even a guess as to what they are like in class. And yet, don’t we all make those kinds of guesses all the time?

Seeing these students whom I don’t know as students in class has been so interesting. Since I am observing rather than teaching, I can really look around and see that big picture. Yes, so-and-so is not good at sitting still and talks out of turn, but is also on topic and engaged, while walking across the back of the room to switch chairs. Someone else who slouches through the day, trailing papers, once settled sits up and is focussed.

Now that I am mostly an administrator, I only teach a relatively few number of students in my English and Digital Fabrication classes, and even those students I see in only one learning environment. I try to make sense of the whole person by putting together the pieces I see in class with what I see around school and what I learn from other teachers. I try to go to one extra event that each of my students does during the semester (a game, a concert, whatever).

However, the vast majority of students I don’t teach, and therefore don’t see doing the most school-ish thing—learning in class. It’s strange to think that for a lot of students, I know the least about them as students. When I was a lower school, teacher and taught in a self-contained classroom, I knew all of my students so well; we spent all day together, went to recess together, went to lunch together, got ready to go home together. That leaves a mark. And, even though I had only one section of 5th grade, I had enough interaction with the other sections and teachers to know all of the 5th graders pretty well. For most of the students that I have now observed in class, I have seen a more studious version of the person I see in the hallways, a more lively person than I see in the library. It’s been wonderful to see all of these people as learners and members of an academic community.

Plus, the way schedule crumbled meant that I got to see several students in multiple classes purely by accident. I enjoyed seeing the same student interact with different content, with different classroom environments, with different teacher strategies. I got to see what part of the student was consistent across all those classes and what part changed, just like I used to see with my 5th graders.

More wins for me.

CCO public domain image by Pixabay user

So, I’ve been thinking about classroom observations. I have been observing colleagues informally at my school this spring. What that means is I look at my schedule for the week, find some time when I don’t have a meeting/class/whatnot, look at the master schedule, find out who is teaching what, and drop by for 10-20 minutes.

I decided to pick a department and stick with it until I had observed each teacher. I did this partly because it made it economical to go between classes in terms of time. It has turned out to be a great choice for a first go round. I started with Math.

It’s been a long time since I was in a high school math class. I found that there were classes where all or most of the content came back, and I could listen along with the students. Then, there were classes where content didn’t really come back; words sounded familiar, but I really did not know what was going on mathematically. And, there were classes somewhere in between. However, since I was not necessarily there to learn math that really did not matter.

One of the things I noticed, particularly in classes where I was not necessarily familiar anymore with the specifics of how to do or solve the problems, was that I did have access to the patterns and the big picture. For example, in one class I observed a teacher put a few things on the board in a chart. She asked students to look and share what they noticed. A couple of students had big picture comment to make. Most students saw the trees and really didn’t or couldn’t step back and wonder if there was a place in the forest where the trees were short, or place in the forest where all the trees had no leaves. I, on the other hand, was not burdened by the details, and so for me, the patterns and the interesting similarities between data points were relatively easy to see.

I spoke to the teacher afterward and I said that I had thought that the point she was trying to make with the chart was interesting and told here that I had found it actually the part that was easiest for me to do, yet surprisingly hard for the students to do. We talked about how it happens that students get lost in the specifics of the content.

I have to say this idea of the details and the big picture and what students find easier and more challenging to do is really fascinating to me. Always has been. I see it in my English classes all the time; it just looks a little different. There are often students who love the big picture, love the big themes and grand ideas of the book. When it gets down to the specific details of solving the problem and actually defending those big ideas, explaining how the author very specifically builds those ideas, they either lose interest or don’t quite know where to go. And, I have students who would love to collect details, see all those little trees, and never or rarely get to what kind of forest that makes. 

So interesting.

I am sure teachers in math classes find that there are students who love those patterns but do not really want to do the work of solving the problem or be particular. And, then are there other students who are happy to follow the directions, complete the steps in the right order, but don’t ever really step back and see what it all means. 

What conversations should we be having across disciplines to compare notes? Are the same students big picture thinkers in all disciplines? What strategies and vocabulary are we using that are working?

I can’t wait to think about another department in a new way.