Two women talking in front of a class in the library

Peer observation is a technique for teachers to observe other teachers’ lessons and offer feedback for the purpose of growth. Because peer observations are separate from the teacher evaluation process, teachers often see them as a safer environment for seeking feedback, trying new instructional strategies, and improving in an area where they may feel less confident.

While there is some variety in how peer observations are conducted, typically the process starts when a teacher invites another teacher to observe part or all of a lesson and to give feedback on predetermined instructional strategies. After the observation, the two teachers meet, and the one who observed offers feedback on the data collected.

The Network for Educator Effectiveness has written a blog series about peer observation, offering suggestions for best practices. One important suggestion is for the teacher who observes to focus their feedback on what they observed without making judgment.

Once the observing teacher objectively explains the data from the observation, often the observed teacher will ask questions and seek advice and additional information. This opens the door for collaborative feedback and allows the observing teacher to ask questions and offer suggestions when asked. The key to this process is letting the observed teacher guide the process and for the observing teacher to assume a supportive role in the feedback conference. By offering the facts and asking the observed teacher questions about the lesson, the observed teacher may draw conclusions and determine a plan for growth and improvement.

Though peer observations are not related to the formal evaluation process, they do share one important trait: In both processes, feedback is given to help the teacher grow and improve their practices.

NEE continues to stress the importance of feedback conferences and introduced the Four Paths to Effective Feedback to help evaluators differentiate feedback to better meet teachers’ needs. These paths utilize specific questions to direct feedback to teachers and to assist in planning next steps toward growth and improvement.

The Four Feedback Paths

  • Diagnostic: Feedback used when a teacher lacks the foundational and conceptual knowledge of a principle of instructional effectiveness.
  • Prescriptive: Feedback used when the teacher has an understanding of the instructional strategy but does not use it effectively.
  • Descriptive: Feedback used when the teacher is knowledgeable, has some success implementing a strategy, and is able to reflect on how to further improve their practice.
  • Micro-Feedback: Feedback used when the teacher clearly understands the concepts surrounding the instructional practice and implements it with some degree of expertise.

Given the benefits of differentiating feedback to meet teachers’ needs, it isn’t much of a leap to envision using feedback paths in peer observation to give teachers feedback that’s specifically designed for their needs. An important consideration is how to use feedback paths to help a teacher grow in a peer observation and remain nonjudgmental about what was observed.

When a teacher is asked to observe another, they probably have some expertise in the focus of the observation. Using their expertise, they are likely able to determine the level of success the observed teacher had in the implementation of the observed strategy and the teacher’s understanding of the concept.

NEE’s Guide to Effective Feedback Conversations, a great resource available for free download, outlines a five-step process for an effective feedback conference. This guide may be adapted for peer observations. For example, two teachers participating in a feedback conference after a peer observation might begin with the teacher who observed presenting the data they collected over the predetermined focus points of the observation. Next, the observed teacher may have questions or comments about the data presented. As this discussion takes place, the teacher who observed carefully selects questions to ask the observed teacher based on the feedback path determined to be most effective for the teacher’s understanding of the instructional strategy used. These questions guide the observed teacher to a plan for continued growth based on their needs.

A teacher on the diagnostic path might be asked questions related to the effectiveness of the instructional strategy or concept that was the focus of the observation. Likely a teacher on this path will understand the lesson was not successful but struggle with why due to the lack of understanding of the strategy or concept. When discussing the next steps after the peer observation, guidance may be given to the observed teacher about how they can learn more about the concept and how to choose a strategy or revise the current one to help with effectiveness.

A teacher on the prescriptive path might be asked questions about the level of success of the strategy used and consideration of other strategies that might be more effective. It’s likely this teacher has some understanding of the importance of the concept but may be using an ineffective strategy in their instruction. Next steps might include the selection of another strategy to be used or a peer observation where this teacher observes another teacher with a more effective strategy for this concept.

A teacher on the descriptive path might be asked questions to lead to an enhancement of the strategy used to make it more effective. This teacher may just need a good collaborative discussion about tweaks and revisions to enhance the quality of the instructional strategy.

Finally, a teacher on the micro-feedback path might be asked questions about the success of this lesson, other instructional strategies where they wish to experience growth, or how to take this strategy to the next level. This teacher likely needs a listening ear to help them select a new path for continued growth.

The key to a successful peer observation using the NEE feedback paths is to remain nonjudgmental about what was observed, present the facts from the observation over the predetermined focus, and offer specific feedback aligned with the feedback paths so the observed teacher may develop an appropriate plan for growth.

The peer observation process can be a great vehicle for growth when teachers are able to give and receive honest, constructive feedback and develop plans for continuous improvement. Districts using peer observations might consider training teachers on how to use feedback paths in their feedback conferences to increase their effectiveness.

Chuck Mayes is a NEE trainer and field support representative. He retired in 2020 after 30 years in K-12 public education where he served as a teacher, elementary principal, middle school principal, and for eight years as the Sikeston Chief Academic Officer/Assistant Superintendent working with curriculum, assessment, gifted education, and virtual learning.

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.