Four Things to Remember about Classroom Observations
Throughout my time working with the Network for Educator Effectiveness, I have had many conversations with teachers and administrators about classroom observations. Some of these have been in offices, some in classrooms, some over dinner with friends. A lot of these conversations have been about dispelling myths and helping teachers and administrators unlearn past classroom observation conventions. NEE is different, and we pride ourselves on our different philosophy about conducting classroom observations. Below are my four most important things to remember about classroom observations.
1. Frequency, not competency
The scoring rubrics at the Network for Educator Effectiveness are scaled based on the frequency of use for specific teaching practices. Most evaluation systems are based on the competency of the teacher. Evaluation rubrics based on competency are usually attached to subjective labels. Often those labels are infused with negative language. NEE classroom observation scoring rubrics are different. By using frequency, we can provide a range of values with objective language for administrators to use in their observations and feedback to teachers.
In competency-based observation, the evaluation focuses on regimented definitions of what a teacher should do to match the predefined competency. This restrains teachers and makes them feel as if they are teaching in a box.
In my many travels around different schools, this practice is seared within teachers’ minds. So much so, that being observed in a different practice is hard to fathom. Teachers have been observed in this way for so long that it has seeped into how we think evaluation has to be.
To put it a different way: Competency-focused observation and evaluation is equal to the traditional classroom grading scale. To get an A, student must do this, or to get a B, student does this … so on and so forth. For example, when cognitive engagement is measured in a competency-based way during an observation, it may be based on what type of engagement strategies are being used, with specific strategies being preferred and rated as “better.” Frequency allows for flexibility. By observing teaching practices, and not interlacing the teaching practices with competency, the administrator looks for the number of students involved or the amount of time that a practice is in use. The scoring rubric at NEE is a gauge for the use of teaching practices, not a gauge of the competency of the teacher.
2. Observations align with the teaching practices the school wants to have in place.
The Network for Educator Effectiveness recommends that schools select three to five indicators to focus on for classroom observations. The selected indicators should be tied closely to the improvement initiatives and mission and vision of the school. In other words, NEE provides the opportunity for buildings and districts to identify the specific behaviors they want to increase, and everyone works toward making those teaching practices visible in the learning environment as often as possible.
The classroom observation process, therefore, is not all-encompassing of all teaching practices or styles. It allows for a multitude of teaching styles without dictating step-by-step teaching or scripted behaviors. Teachers have the autonomy to develop their environment as they wish and mesh it with the specific teaching practices the school wants to have in every classroom.
Different classrooms should look different. A physical education classroom and a math classroom will differ in terms of cognitive engagement, critical thinking, and any other teaching practice. Despite those differences, an administrator should be able to find evidence for specific teaching practices in either classroom. One piece of advice I offer when teachers ask me specifically about how to make sure they incorporate the indicators into their teaching is to make that indicator a part of the lesson plan. When it’s in the plan, it’s more likely to get done, and it’s something that can be fully incorporated into the teaching. Each indicator has a multitude of strategies that can be used to garner the evidence of that teaching practice being utilized in the classroom. Plan for those strategies to be in place, and the teaching practices that the school believes to be most important are going to be incorporated within the teaching.
One piece of advice I offer when teachers ask me specifically about how to make sure they incorporate the indicators into their teaching is to make that indicator a part of the lesson plan. When it’s in the plan, it’s more likely to get done, and it’s something that can be fully incorporated into the teaching. Each indicator has a multitude of strategies that can be used to garner the evidence of that teaching practice being utilized in the classroom. Plan for those strategies to be in place, and the teaching practices that the school believes to be most important are going to be incorporated within the teaching.
3. “Score” is probably not the best word to use.
“Score” is probably not the best word for what the NEE numbers mean. In education, the word score makes us automatically think of a traditional gradebook where everything is based on percentages. Yet, the scores for NEE classroom observations are different. They are not similar to a gradebook. On NEE’s seven-point classroom observation rubrics, a score of “5” should not be looked at as a score of “5 out of 7.” Instead, it should be looked at as a shorthand documentation of what the concrete descriptor says. In the case of a “5,” that is shorthand for “this specific teaching practice was occurring more than half the time or with more than half of the students.”
Changing the perspective from a gradebook score to a shorthand description of the frequency of specific teaching practices should alleviate a lot of internal judgment that may come when reviewing classroom observation results.
On that note, each indicator should be looked at individually. The score for one indicator only focuses on that specific teaching practice. On specific days, one teaching practice may not be used much, and there are plenty of reasonable justifications for why that occurs. On other days, the same teaching practice may be used much more, with the same amount of reasonable justifications, and therefore reaches a higher level on the scale. Teaching requires creativity, flexibility, and the ability to know what teaching practices are important to the classroom when. Again, if we think of scores as shorthand descriptions of the frequency with which a teaching practice occurs, we wipe away the value judgments that are put in place when we think of scores as being akin to gradebook scores.
4. The more observations, the better.
Classroom observations based on NEE recommendations are structured to build an understanding of what happens in the classroom throughout the year, not to be isolated incidents. The more an administrator is in a classroom, the better idea they have of what that classroom may look like on a daily basis, and how effective teaching practices are interwoven into the environment.
Observing a classroom only once or twice a year does not provide the administrator with an accurate sample of which teaching practices are employed with frequency in the classroom.
Experiencing multiple slices of teaching provides a more accurate understanding of the frequency that a specific classroom practice is used. NEE recommends 6 to 10 classroom observations per year – or, another way to think about it, a 10-minute observation once per month. In total, it’s not a lot of time. That is 60 to 100 minutes of observation throughout the year. However, distributing the observations should allow the administrator to see a variety of teaching practices based on time of the day, place in the lesson/unit, or needs of the students. Such variety provides for a more accurate glimpse into the routine practice in a classroom.
Teachers should want their administrators to evaluate them via classroom observation as often as possible. It gives the teacher the best opportunity to show the effective teaching practices that occur throughout the year and on a frequent basis, not just during a one-time high-stakes observation. NEE also believes that the observation is the beginning. The feedback conversation after the observation is the most important part. We have talked previously about effective feedback. Feedback should occur after every observation. Frequent observations provide more accurate, complete, and informed feedback conversations.
Let’s recap my four most important reminders about classroom observation processes:
- The NEE rubric is objective and focuses on the frequency that selected teaching practices are used in the classroom. This differs from other systems that evaluate teacher competency.
- The selected indicators are chosen by the school because the school believes those indicators to be the most vital to a learning environment that supports all students.
- The score should not be thought of as a gradebook or a percentage correct. Think instead of the score only as a shorthand description of what occurred in the classroom during that specific time.
- Frequent observations provide more accurate data and give the most accurate understanding of how frequently specific teaching practices are used in a classroom.
I hope these four points help to dispel some myths and assuage some common anxieties around classroom observations.
The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.