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Effective Instructional Observation: An Ongoing Professional Dialogue Focused on Professional Practice and Student Achievement (5/30/15)

With all that principals have to do in the complex and fast-paced environment of today’s PK – 12 schools, teacher/instructional observation can often get lost as another item on the “to do” list. This is especially true in many current models of formal teacher observation where multiple extended observations of each staff member are often requirements that are built into the modules. While this reality exists, to be effective, principals must resist the tendency to relegate teacher observation to the “to do” list meeting only the minimum requirements to get them done.

As the instructional leader in the building, the principal must always focus on moving the school forward, which requires the constant maintenance and improvement of a high level of instructional practice throughout the building. Further, the instructional practice in a building must adhere to a standard/framework. This allows teachers and administrators to establish a culture based on an expectation of exemplary practice while sharing a common language on instruction and readily identifying practices that fit and do not fit within this framework.

The instructional observation is an essential key in the process of maintaining and improving a high level of instructional practice in the school building. The reason is that thorough and targeted observation connects principals to the classroom by providing insight into prevailing practices in the building and student engagement. The instructional observation also provides the opportunity for the principal to establish an ongoing dialogue with teachers about their practice based on what is observed. It is this dialogue and constant refinement of practice that provides the potential for improved student achievement. The absence of this dialogue also represents lost opportunity; this absence is also the focus of a 5/11/15 Education Week Article by Peter Dewitt Three Reasons Why Your Observations May Be a Waste of Time.    

In his article, Dewitt argues that the three main threats to teacher observation are: no new learning, too much talk, and surface level. In response to Dewitt’s threats, I argue that each is actually an opportunity for ongoing dialogue, improved practice, and teacher growth. Regarding no new learning, this only occurs in situations where principals do not give teachers low inference feedback on their practice and where principals are not listening to teacher’s expressed needs for growth and helping to make sure that those are met. As for Dewitt’s claim of too much or [not enough balanced talk] this is where principals must be sure to give teachers balanced feedback, acknowledging their exemplary practices while identifying areas for growth and providing the support needed to achieve it. Finally, in the area of surface level, principals must be sure that they are observing teachers at regular intervals at different times of the instructional day over time so that they can provide accurate appraisals of their practice that provide deep reflection on the work that has been done.

To close, while it can fall into the routine of the mundane, principals must not forget that instructional observation is one of the most important functions of the job. Observation is the lifeline that plugs principals into the practice that is occurring in their buildings; it forms the basis for ongoing conversation with staff about effective instructional practice. Because of its significant role in ensuring a sound instructional program, instructional observation must be given the appropriate focus and used as the tool that it is, for continuous improvement that results in increased student achievement.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO