Is there a phrase that strikes more fear in the heart of a new teacher than “Your principal will be observing you next week”? The thought of a formal observation (or, worse for some, an informal drop-in visit) can cause anxiety for fledgling teachers, and even for some veterans. Yet it needn’t be the case. With a little planning and the right attitude, you can sail through with flying colors. I know: One of my students threw up while my principal was observing me, but she said that how I handled it told her more about my skills than if the lesson had gone perfectly!
Juan Gonzalez Jr., a grades 3–5 reading, language arts, and social studies teacher at Louis G. Lobit Elementary in Dickinson, Texas, welcomes observations, viewing them as opportunities. “Our work is difficult and complex,” he says. “We can’t be great alone.”
“I think about how I can show what I do well,” says Carolyn Fortson, a second-grade teacher at Streams Elementary in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania. She tries to “incorporate things my administrator values—a technology initiative or increasing student engagement.”
Making students part of the observation can also work to your advantage. Fortson has a wonderful strategy for informal observations. She appoints a daily “classroom ambassador” to greet any visitors and let them know what’s happening in class that day. “This gives me a second to compose myself while the student does the talking. Afterward, the ambassador walks the adult out and wishes him or her a great day, so my administrator leaves on a positive note!”
Ultimately, best practices start and end with students. “Knowing your students by name, need, and passion should be reflected in your work with each child,” says Jennifer Fallert, a former special education teacher and now an assistant principal at Fort Belvoir Primary, in Virginia.
Read on for some valuable lessons learned from teachers who have been through an observation or two—and emerged not only intact but better for the experience.
Embrace Noisy Learning
Who: Kelly W. Elder, sixth-grade geography teacher, C. R. Anderson Middle School, Helena, Montana
Lesson Learned: A noisy classroom can be a good thing.
How It Went Down: “One day, the assistant principal came to check out the noise coming from my room as students reviewed history with a game of Brain Bowl,” says Elder, Montana’s 2017 Teacher of the Year. “He paused in the doorway, and I said, ‘Mr. Dubbs, take a seat and join us!’ He got to see students eagerly engaging with one another and excited about learning, and he saw how I managed my classroom.” Dubbs later told Elder that he had followed the noise, expecting to help out the new teacher with classroom management. Instead, he found that Elder was involving all students in the lesson, even those who had been having discipline issues that year. “Not only were these students participating,” he told Elder, “they were helping lead the class.”
Show Your Playful Side
Who: Carolyn Fortson, second-grade teacher, Streams Elementary, Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania
Lesson Learned: Pretend like there’s not another adult in the room.
How It Went Down: “An administrator came in during a place-value lesson, where students were coming up with clues for a ‘mystery number,’” says Fortson. “I acted as though this number was the biggest secret of my students’ lives and made sure they kept it covered. I made sure to whisper so that nobody else could hear. I felt so silly in front of another adult, but my administrator loved that I was making the activity fun for the students.”
Fortson’s administrator even jumped in herself, coming up with her own mystery number that had a special meaning for her family. “The students were thrilled to be able to solve the principal’s clues and get to know her better.” Since then, Fortson doesn’t worry about changing her act just because an administrator walks in. “I wear a tiara during guided reading to remind students not to interrupt what is going on at the table. My principal comes in often during guided reading, so she’s never surprised by the tiara!”
Advocate Your Approach
Who: Courtney Danyliw, fourth-grade teacher, Meeting House Hill School, New Fairfield, Connecticut
Lesson Learned: Not all feedback is created equal.
How It Went Down: “I remember one post-observation conference when I didn’t agree with the feedback that my assistant principal offered about guided reading,” says Danyliw. “I explained why I supported a more balanced approach to teaching reading than he was suggesting. He listened and respected my view. Now I always speak up when I feel I need to.”
Though you may be hesitant to contradict the boss, confidence in your teaching, presented respectfully, could be just the right strategy. For Danyliw, the best feedback always comes with specific suggestions. When one evaluator recommended she jot down notes about students who are struggling during independent or group work, the suggestion really hit the mark. “I use these jots for small groups, and it’s been so helpful.”
Ask for Specific Feedback
Who: Juan Gonzalez Jr., grades 3–5 reading, language arts, and social studies teacher, Louis G. Lobit Elementary, Dickinson, Texas
Lesson Learned: Don’t pack too much into mini lessons.
How It Went Down: “A couple of years ago I couldn’t figure why my mini lessons were going over the max time of 10 minutes,” says Gonzalez. “So I asked my principal and my academic coach to watch one. During our debrief, they helped me see that I was packing too much information into my ‘mini’ lesson, and they helped me structure my classes so that I was giving students enough to connect to, and then releasing them to try whatever I showed them on their own.”
Gonzalez’s approach comes from a learner mind-set: “Schedule an observation in one of your weak areas and ask for specific feedback for growth.”
Stick With Your Lesson
Who: Jennifer Fallert, former special education teacher, Kings Park Elementary, Springfield, Virginia
Lesson Learned: Keep your focus on your students.
How It Went Down: “When working with children with disabilities who aren’t achieving at the same rate as their peers, time is valuable,” says Fallert. Students deserve her full focus, even while her principal is in the room, she says. During a recent observation of a math lesson, one of her students was struggling with counting by fives. She tried several strategies and nothing was working, but Fallert kept her focus on the student instead of worrying about being observed, and it paid off. “Finally, I gathered up 20 nickels, placed them over the multiples of five on a hundreds chart, and the student successfully named the numbers.” Fallert’s administrator appreciated that she kept her attention on the student.
Create a Big Tent
Who: Luke Reynolds, former seventh-grade English teacher, The Bromfield School, Harvard, Massachusetts
Lesson Learned: Make your administrator an active observer.
How It Went Down: “During one observation, students took the lead by searching for themes and truths about literature and life on their own,” says Reynolds, who is now an assistant professor of Education at Endicott College, Massachusetts. They were discussing S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders. “I invited my administrator to join the conversation about the gap in class and income. He shared his connection with people who were homeless, and students looked at him in a new way. In that circle, we all felt equal—each of us sharing what we knew.” In their post-observation conference, says Reynolds, “my principal said how he appreciated being able to share his own experience and talk in a meaningful way with students.”
Final advice? After a classroom visit, if a post-observation conference isn’t scheduled, request one.
Danyliw says conferences make her more aware of the best practices she’s using (or not using) in her classroom. “Observations show students that we are all learners who constantly strive to become better.”
Gonzalez also thrives on feedback. He uses it to reflect, and makes a plan to improve with professional development or through observing peers.
And what if your lesson didn’t go as planned? “If I’ve really bombed an observation,” Fortson says, “I’m straightforward with my administrator and ask to schedule another so that I can show how I’ve improved.”
Illustration: Luci Gutiérrez