More Fresh Eyes

In our weekly Teaching and Learning Leadership Team meeting we explored the nagging feeling that our current observation strategies weren’t helping our teachers grow as much as they or we wanted.   In order to do give our teachers more observation (more eyes) and better observation (fresh eyes) we embraced four, at times counter-intuitive ideas.

  • If you want to see more, you have to see together.
  • If you want to see better, you have to measure something.
  • If you want to see better, expand your observation repertoire and matching skills.
  • If you want to see better, you have to wear sneakers.

1.  If you want to see better, see together.

Multiple times as a leader I have made the mistake of increasing the supply of observation without ensuring the quality of observation improves.  Hyping peer observation  or pushing grade level chairs to observe during their planning periods often felt like an added responsibility that the observers weren’t prepared for.  If these observers were able to give feedback, which was often unlikely due to schedules, it wasn’t necessarily aligned to the feedback I was giving.

In an earlier post about my visit to UIC prep I noted the power of a principal doing weekly norming observations with the leadership team using a simple observation tool.  The KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching one page observation tool is very much a work in progress but it’s helped us start to norm what we see. You can download it at KIPP Share.  The leadership team also shares their observation notes and action steps on a google doc so our feedback aligns.

One new way I may attempt to norm a group of observers is through back-channeling.  Back-channeling (for the Luddites like myself) is a instant messaging conversation occurring between the students or in this case the observers during the lesson.  This creates a real time opportunity to compare what you see and leaves a searchable record of the “conversation”.  Or it leads to the distracting trading of silly jokes.  Either way I am game to try.  You can set up a free three at

2.  If you want to see better, measure something.

This means taking on the mindset of a researcher and testing your assumptions and hypotheses about excellent teaching.  It’s generally accepted wisdom that teachers should talk less, but how much less?  Is there an actual number a teacher should shoot for?  We  tracked stats on teacher: student talk ratio using the E-Cove software.  It’s a simple timer that produces reports like the one below.

Classroom Observation Report

Observer: Dolan Teacher: X
Date: Wed, Aug 19, 2009 Time report saved: 11:01 AM

Teacher talk: 28:56   (53 %)

Student talk: 5:34 (10 %)

Group discussion: 6:59 (13 %)

No talking: 13:33 (25 %)

Total Time: 55:02 Total time

Whether it’s ratio or Bloom’s levels of questions or percent of kids called on each period measuring specific student and teacher actions helped me as an observer check my beliefs against facts.  The teachers I work with love these stats because they make the invisible visible.

3. If you want to see better, expand your observation repertoire and matching skills.

Kim Marshal and Jon Saphier have a great debate about what is the optimal amount of time an observer should devote to a classroom.  Marshall advocates frequent quick observations.  Saphier pushes for longer 15+ minute stays in classrooms.  I have vacillated between the poles throughout my career when the answer is really matching the length and style of the observation to the needs of the teacher.  Frequent, short observations may be valuable for a teacher needing to work on management while full lesson observations may be needed for a charismatic teacher struggling with rigor.  Two new additions to the observation repertoire that I will try this spring are:

Courtesy of Nick Bucy from KIPP Montebello Prep: Quarterly Extended Observations: Once each quarter each staff member will work with a school leader to dive deeply into the planning, execution, and debrief of one lesson.  This is important because it provides an opportunity to provide a deeper dialogue about teaching and learning than is possible in brief weekly observations and debriefs.  This will begin with a planning conference in which the school leader and teacher will plan the lesson together.  The school leader will then observe the entire lesson, taking literal notes, and video recording the lesson.  The teacher will bring student learning evidence (class work, exit tickets) to the debrief meeting, and the school leader and teacher will identify key strengths and areas for growth through the lens of Teach For America’s Academic Impact Model (teacher knowledge/mindset/skills à teacher actions à student actions à student outcomes).  Teachers will identify key strengths to share with colleagues, and these “highlight clips” will be collected for use in staff professional development when possible.

Another innovation comes from Jenne Colasacco at the Academy of the Pacific Rim.  She observes a week of lessons by a teacher to see the arc of planning throughout the week.  This approach seems like a powerful way to uncover elements of effective and ineffective teaching that don’t show up in an individual lesson.  I often find myself making assumptions about a classroom when a teacher says “we’ll look at that tomorrow.”

4. If you want to see better, you have to wear sneakers.

Sebha Ali (founder of KIPP Heartwood and CAO of KIPP Bay Area Schools) tells a a great story about ditching her customary heels for sneakers one day and suddenly seeing more students goofing around in the hallways.  The kids had learned to tighten up at the the click of her heels down the hallway and the soft sole of her sneakers gave her new view into school culture.

The figurative act of wearing sneakers as an observer is regularly inviting strong outside observers into your school.  School leaders observing a class tend to change the weather in the room; therefore your data about culture and climate is often skewed.  Bringing in someone kids don’t know to observe can allow for newer, sharper insight.

What are you doing to see your schools and classrooms with better eyes?


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