2.8 'Tis the season...for observations
The lunch bell interrupted my third period class every day. At 11:03, it signaled my students to close their books, race to the cafeteria, and consume as much caffeine and sugar as possible. At 11:25, another bell would ring, indicating that it was time for them to return to my class. Getting that third-period group refocused after mealtime was one of my greatest daily challenges. So it was just my luck that my administrators would choose that particular segment of the day to observe my interactions with the class.
I wanted to impress those administrators. My normal routine — welcoming students back from lunch, reminding them where we’d left off, and encouraging them to continue their work — seemed unimaginative and thus unimpressive. As a result, I wanted to try something different on the day of my administrative observation. I decided to use a technique I had learned in a workshop. The technique was a method of regaining students’ attention, and it was called “If you hear me, clap once.”
In an ideal world, it would work like this: My students, chatting to one another as they entered the room, would gravitate toward their seats. In my normal voice, I would say, “If you hear me, clap once,” and the few students who heard me would respond with their hands.
That would earn the attention of a few more students, so a greater number would be listening when I repeated the statement, in the same tone, “If you hear me, clap once.”
Pretty soon, everyone would stop chatting, listen, and clap on cue. Then instead of repeating the instruction to clap, I would thank them for their attention. At that point, we would continue our work.
At least it was beautiful in theory.
In reality, my students were so thrown by this new approach that they seized the clapping as a rhythmic backdrop they could use to display their latest dance moves. MTV would have been incredibly impressed with the scene I created. My administrators were less impressed. They simply watched as I spent five minutes trying to stop the soul train and calm everyone down.
Tips for observations
As far as administrative observations go, mine has to be one of the worst on record. Still, I survived (and even benefited from) that observation and many others. I am still aware of the anxiety that surrounds observations for many teachers, but after years of being observed (and later conducting observations), I have come to a few realizations that might help reduce your stress.
Administrators want you to succeed.
Administrators are responsible for a school full of students. They want teachers who care for those students, and who are eager to improve their teaching. If you demonstrate those forms of investment, administrators will recognize that, even if there are missteps during a particular lesson. I expected my administrators to be judgmental about my “soul train” situation. Instead, they were sympathetic. I thought they were reflecting on my horrible moment. Instead, they were reflecting on what advice they could offer that would best help me manage the class.
Administrators respect honest self-evaluations and genuine requests for help.
I knew that I had botched the first five minutes of our post-lunch session. Instead of defending the technique, I admitted that I needed help in structuring that portion of my class period. That led to a conversation about how I could manage the transition from lunch-time to class-time more effectively. It also made me realize that instead of hiding management issues from my administration, I could approach them with questions. They were happy to serve as a general resource and to offer specific advice.
Design the lesson for your students, not for your administrators.
I decided to try something new, not because it would best serve my students, but because I thought doing something flashy would impress the people observing my class. I lost focus. My job was to make sure my students were learning. Facilitating learning — in whatever way works best for your students — is the most impressive accomplishment. It is what your students need and what your administrators will respect.
Understand what observations mean at your school and how they work.
The unknown can be scary. Thus, accessing information about observations can be the best way to help you relax. Learning more about the process certainly alleviated many of my fears.
For example, I was initially concerned about the fact that both administrators took copious notes during my lesson. I thought there must be something really wrong if they had to write that much down! I later learned that my school had a procedure for observations that required administrators to record as many quotes from the classroom as possible.
I also found out that observations happened during specific weeks of the school year, which reduced my anxiety around spot-checks.
Finally, I learned that at the end of each observation, the administrator had to evaluate my teaching against a checklist that was readily available to anyone who requested it. Once I had a copy of that, I knew what they were looking for during the observations. (The checklist emphasized items like “monitors independent work effectively” and “provides positive feedback.”) I became more conscious about including those elements in each of my lessons. Doing so served my students well and improved my observational feedback.
Invite administrators to view particular lessons.
If there is one lesson you are particularly proud of, invite someone to observe it. Doing so means there is less pressure next time you are observed. On the flip side, if you struggle to manage cooperative learning groups, consider asking an administrator to observe a few minutes of a cooperative learning lesson and then give you advice. In addition to learning something valuable, you will identify yourself as a teacher who is attempting improvement. Any good administrator is going to be impressed with that.
Treat observations as opportunities
Observations are opportunities for you gain new perspectives on your classroom, as well as new insights into how to best serve your students. It can be stressful when you feel like you are being evaluated. In reality, though, most observations are intended to point out areas on which you should continue to focus and identify ways in which the administration can provide additional support. Reduce your stress by familiarizing yourself with the process and by recognizing that you are on the same team as your observer. Both of you care about your students and want the best for your classroom. Together, you can explore what works best for your students more fully, and that can produce amazing effects.