Be Observed at Your Worst

First, some caveats. If being observed is tied to a performance review or your continued employment as a teacher, disregard this. Prepare and perform your very best teaching. Implicitly threaten your students or bribe them with free time to be on their best behavior. Do whatever you have to do to survive.

If that’s not the case, though, and if you’re being observed as a teacher informally or as part of an ongoing low-stakes growth and development plan, consider this: observing a teacher delivering a lesson scripted, rehearsed and designed specifically for the purpose of being observed is a pointless exercise for everyone involved.

Instead, think about how getting some impartial feedback from a colleague or a trusted administrator about specific self-selected aspects of teaching and classroom management in your most chaotic, lowest performing or least motivated class could make classroom observations beneficial for you as a teacher as well as for your observer.

At my school, we’re currently rolling out a new observation protocol adapted from Project Zero’s Cultures of Thinking. It’s designed to be nonjudgmental (at least to the extent that that’s possible) and isn’t tied to raises or contract renewals in anyway. It’s also, at least in this first phase, entirely voluntary. So, I volunteered and asked our IB DP and MYP curriculum coordinators to pay particular attention to how I talk about assessment vs. learning or product vs. process.

I’m less interested in discussing the protocol, which is very good, here than my own thinking in being observed. Like anyone else, I initially wanted to be observed doing my best teaching to my most switched-on group of students. Of course I did. But then I thought more about the goal of this protocol and, at least I hope, of teacher observations in general: better teaching and learning, and decided instead to be observed teaching my toughest class, a group of 21 10th graders in the block right after lunch.

How did it go? Not great. The students fell into two distinct camps: manic and lethargic. A few kept defaulting to staring at the screens. Some tried to sneak in math homework. As I moved from group to group during the activity, it was clear a lot of them were waiting for me to move on so they could surreptitiously finish their math homework or watch YouTube. It was, in short, a completely representative version of this class.

Afterwards, I participated in an also-voluntary debriefing session where my two observers and I reflected on the lesson. We reflected on the challenges of managing large groups in small classrooms, of engaging unmotivated students and shared moments where our own lessons didn’t go as well. In the end, the three of us agreed on a few visual thinking protocols I might try with the group in the future and that was it. No anxiety or fear or shame.

It’s important to remember that we all have strengths and weaknesses as teachers and that, by and large, we’re good at what we do. Starting with this assumption, being observed and observing others, which I do as a department head, doesn’t have to be an exercise in judgement with potentially negative outcomes. Instead, it really can be an opportunity to say, “Look, I know what I’m good at–building relationships with students–and what I’m not–general management of large groups of squirrely kids–and I’d like some feedback. Administrators may appreciate your candor, openness and growth mindset, and you might actually get some practical takeaways.

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