New observation training has had us focus on minimizing bias and personal preference, collecting observational data that objectively focuses on just the instruction and classroom management observed and script: “What the teacher is saying and doing and what the students are saying or doing.” Our job is to be a silent observer and collector of data and then go back to our office and compile written feedback to send out via email with reflective questions of wonderings and think abouts to be shared at data review feedback sessions and/or post-observation conferences.
The focus seems to be on the accountability aspect instead of the support side. Every piece of research literature tells us that if we only observe and provide written feedback to a teacher, minimal change will occur in the classroom. Teachers need immediate explicit feedback, yes, but coaching, opportunities to observe others and practice new skills must occur in order to demonstrate proficiency of a particular skill or strategy. Simply sharing observational data with reflective wonderings will not affect change on the teacher’s part.
Last spring when I was at the ASCD national conference in Chicago I heard a wonderful presentation by Regie Routman on what she calls Instructional Walks. Her work with schools as a coach has led her to the conclusion that real change in a school has to start with strong instructional leadership by the principal. Her focus was that the principal plays a strong role in leading as a literacy coach and needs to enter the classroom as an active participant looking for the positive things that teachers and students are doing in the area of reading and writing, instead of a focus on check sheets and rubrics.
In this day and age of accountability, her focus remains on the support that our teachers and students need to do their best work. Our ability to give positive feedback and look for what is right instead of wrong can be transformative and change a teacher’s outlook from one of unconfident to confident. It is what we are trying to help create, right? Teacher certainty! Routman states: “I believe it is disrespectful to come into a teacher’s classroom, take notes, and leave without giving positive feedback.”
When I began using a more computerized observation tool, I fell into this exact trap and sent my feedback to teachers electronically. They were used to getting the feedback immediately either verbally or in writing on their desk. And I always ensured tons of positive look fors were included. We expect our teachers to give students immediate feedback right? Well, my teachers revolted and I reverted back to giving written affirmation notes after my walkthroughs. Sometimes we get too focused on the data collection and the small finite parts of the classroom experience, instead of collectively seeing the whole piece of artwork!
When we visit classrooms more frequently in an instructional walk manner, we are seen more as a coach and supporter, which leads to the building of relational trust. Routman explains: “Noticing and celebrating what students and teachers are doing well is not a frill or mere paying of compliments. It is honestly and speciﬁcally acknowledging a positive behavior, action, or learning activity”
Instructional Walks provide three distinct opportunities for a principal according to Routman.
1. We build teachers’ expertise and gain their trust.
2. Just like with students, every time we are in the classroom is an opportunity to teach.
3. Positive but honest feedback builds trust and gives dignity, energy, and encouragement to teachers.
Routman gives this advice when visiting classrooms, that a principal:
- Notices what’s going well in the classroom (environment, management, engagement, level of student independence, lesson content, grouping arrangements, quality of student work, level of discussion, and so on.)
- Takes brief, non-judgmental notes on what he/she observes going well and what needs attention
- Comments orally and/or in writing on what’s going well (at least several positive comments to the teacher and/or students.)
- Suggests a strategy or idea on the spot, if appropriate (and, if the teacher is receptive and the relationship between the principal and teacher is a trusting one)
- Does not leave the classroom without letting the teacher know what he/she has observed
- Revisits observational notes for whole school patterns of strengths and needs
- Uses those observations to determine and share schoolwide strengths and weaknesses (without naming a particular teacher or grade level)
- Leads the staff to determine next steps and actions