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A Better Way to Observe, Appreciate, and Evaluate Teachers

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

“Rethinking the Way We Coach, Evaluate, and Appreciate Teachers” by Kim Marshall in The Education Gadfly, February 20, 2019 (Vol. 19, #8),
In this Education Gadfly article, Kim Marshall says that when he visits classroom with the principals he coaches, he sees lots of effective teaching (Level 3 and 4 on a rating scale), very little that’s really bad (Level 1), but some mediocre practices (Level 2) – for example, low-rigor worksheets, teachers calling only on students who raise their hands, and failing to answer students’ unspoken question, Why are we learning this?
Every school has a range of teaching effectiveness, and a bell-shaped curve might seem inevitable. But Marshall argues that variation produces inequitable results: “Effective practices are especially beneficial to students who walk into school with any kind of disadvantages,” he says, “and these same students are disproportionately harmed by mediocre and ineffective practices – kids who don’t raise their hands when the teacher asks, ‘Any questions?’; who haven’t yet learned how to work around their disabilities; who are dealing with a family breakup or other trauma; who are openly defiant or sit in sullen silence. Truly bad teaching obviously needs to be addressed immediately, but so do mediocre practices, which all too often fly under the radar, and are not okay.”
But how can busy principals improve sub-optimal classroom performance and bend the curve toward effectiveness? Certainly not by once-a-year announced observations with long evidence write-ups; not by superficial walk-throughs with checklists; not by correcting teachers in front of students; not by using student surveys as a high-stakes cudgel; and not by evaluating teachers on student test scores and value-added data (now thoroughly discredited). “We shouldn’t be surprised that these and other practices driven by distrust and compliance have never shown up in the research on effective schools,” says Marshall. “That dog hasn’t barked.”
The questions that school board members, superintendents, and union leaders should be asking about their teacher-evaluation system are: How often are teachers observed each year, and by whom? Are visits announced or unannounced (in other words, are observers seeing what students experience day by day)? How long do observers stay, and what are they looking for? Do they chat with students and look at their work? Afterward, is there a conversation with the teacher? How time-consuming is documentation? Are supervisors supervised, not only on their observation skills, but also on how well they orchestrate teacher teamwork (another key driver of instructional improvement)? And what goes in each teacher’s file at the end of each school year?
Pondering these questions, Marshall and others have come up with a more-effective way of supervising, coaching, and evaluating teachers:
- Short, frequent, unannounced classroom visits replacing traditional formal evaluations;
- A humble, curious, low-tech approach to visits, checking in with students (“What are you working on?”), looking for student outcomes, and jotting a few quick notes;
- A face-to-face conversation shortly after each visit;
- The observer sharing appropriate appreciation and one “leverage point;”
- Afterward, a brief narrative summary sent electronically to the teacher (one software program limits the observer to 1,000 characters);
- Administrators making brief visits to teacher teams as they plan curriculum units and look at student work;
- Rubric used only three times a year: in September for teacher self-assessment and goal-setting; mid-year to compare teachers’ detailed self-assessment with the supervisor’s and discussing any disagreements; and repeating that at year’s end.
“This approach takes about the same number of educator hours as traditional evaluations,” says Marshall, “but is vastly more authentic and effective at understanding and improving teaching and learning.”
But will teachers feel safe with unannounced visits to their classrooms? Marshall’s experience is that they will if:
- Observers visit at least once a month;
- They stay long enough – 10-15 minutes gives a meaningful snapshot;
- Visits are randomized to capture different days of the week, subjects, student groups, time of day, and beginning, middle, and end of lessons;
- There’s agreement on key look-fors;
- Observers have a good eye for instruction and aren’t intrusive;
- There’s always a face-to-face chat after each visit;
- There are other points of contact – team meetings, parent interactions, other activities;
- Teachers have input on rubric scoring;
- Observers are supervised and coached;
- Everyone knows the process is about improving teaching and learning, not a “gotcha.”
Who should be doing these classroom visits? That will vary from school to school, says Marshall, and should involve as many administrators, instructional coaches, and peer observers as possible to get the best teacher-observer ratio and maximize visits and conversations.
Can this system be implemented skillfully in schools? Marshall argues that in most cases the answer is yes, because mini-observations avoid bureaucratic nonsense and liberate (and develop) the skills that administrators, instructional coaches, and peer observers already have. Here’s how:
- Informal classroom visits, unshackled from copious note-taking, make people better observers and bring out their natural curiosity.
- A lot happens in 10-15 minutes, providing plenty of talking points (sometimes addressing mediocre practices).
- Teachers are less defensive in face-to-face conversations, especially if they take place in their classrooms when students aren’t there.
- Focusing on one leverage point per visit makes feedback conversations less fraught.
- Conversations give teachers a chance to educate their observers.
- Observers have multiple at-bats, giving them a chance to continuously improve their feedback skills and get a meaningful sampling of teachers’ work.
“For educators who are new to this approach,” says Marshall, “there will be a learning curve. But the good news is that mini-observation and feedback skills are eminently coachable by superintendents or their designees through the use of co-observations and discussions of case studies and write-ups in leadership meetings… The result: more good teaching in more classrooms more of the time. And that is the key to raising the next generation of well-educated Americans and closing our social-class and racial achievement gaps.”

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