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When Evaluating Teachers, what Works Best, High-Tech or Low-Tech?

By Kim Marshall, TIE Columnist

The article: “Teacher Observation: Tech or No Tech?” by Kim Marshall in Education Week, 31 October 2012 (32 10, pp. 20-21);
In this Education Week article, Kim Marshall argues that when principals, assistant principals, and department heads supervise teachers, using laptops, tablets, and smartphones is not always the best approach.
Here is Mr. Marshall’s take on what works best in each of the four components of teacher supervision:
• Learning about the curriculum: high-tech. Before making a classroom visit, it is helpful for administrators to know the big ideas, essential questions, knowledge and skill goals, and planned assessments of the teacher’s current curriculum unit. The most efficient way for teacher teams to share their unit plans and get comments and suggestions from colleagues and supervisors is via an easily accessible online platform such as Google Docs. “With this background information,” says Mr. Marshall, “it should be obvious within a minute of walking into a classroom how the lesson fits into the broader instructional plan.”
• Classroom visits: low-tech. “You can observe a lot by watching,” said Yogi Berra, and that strikes Mr. Marshall as the best approach to observing instruction. “Take a deep breath, slow yourself down, stroll around looking over students’ shoulders to check out the instructional task,” he advises. “Ask yourself whether the task is appropriately rigorous and on target for the unit and lesson objectives. In addition, quietly chat with a couple of students (‘What are you working on?’) … and, of course, assess what the teacher is saying and doing.” Within 5-10 minutes, there are always a few key take-aways, and the administrator should jot these down on a notepad, index card, or piece of paper.
Using an electronic device for note-taking has two important disadvantages:
- It makes it more difficult to walk around the classroom.
- It is disconcerting to many teachers: What is being typed? Where is the information going? Is the administrator texting or e-mailing?
Mr. Marshall believes it is especially ineffective to try to fill out a checklist or rubric during a classroom visit: “This doubly distracts the administrator from being a good observer, imposing a long list of criteria onto a fluid, highly complex situation that requires fully focused powers of observation, mobility, wisdom, and differentiation for each teacher’s background and unique classroom situation.”
Administrators should be formulating the two or three most important pieces of praise or coaching for each teacher, not filling out forms, Mr. Marshall believes; school leaders “should push back against attempts to ‘principal-proof’ the observation process, and teachers should raise concerns when administrators bring technology, checklists, and rubrics into their classrooms.”
It is important for there to be a shared understanding of good teaching and what administrators are looking for when they visit classrooms, he continues, and suggests that school faculties look at their evaluation criteria and boil them down to no more than five key criteria that everyone can keep in their heads—for example: SOTEL: Safety, Objectives, Teaching, Engagement, and Learning.
• Immediate feedback to teachers: low-tech. Some busy administrators give teachers quick feedback in written or electronic form, but Mr. Marshall believes this kind of commentary will have very little impact on classroom practice—especially checklists, rubrics, and low-inference narratives without clear conclusions or recommendations. “If the principal wants to make a difference in teaching and learning (rather than fulfilling a bureaucratic requirement), the best way to give feedback to teachers is face to face,” he says, “ideally within 24 hours of the visit and, if possible, in the teacher’s classroom when students are not there.”
These short, informal conversations allow the teacher to explain the context, show artifacts and student work, and accept coaching and suggestions—as well as educating the administrator about what the teacher is trying to accomplish. “Face-to-face talks are the drivers of change,” says Mr. Marshall.
• Documentation: high-tech. The most efficient way for an administrator to keep track of numerous classroom visits and important details about each one (What time of day? Which part of the lesson? Which curriculum unit? When did the follow-up chat take place?) is electronically. Some schools are developing their own software, and a number of products are being aggressively marketed to school leaders.
T-EVAL (, developed by three educators in Tennessee), has the unique feature of providing a 1,000-character-maximum window for the administrator to sum up the observation and conversation and automatically e-mail it to the teacher (and archive it).
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 459, 5 November 2012.

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