Campus Culture

Teaching Observations: A Spiral of Aspirations

Photo credit: Groume on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

In his recent blog, Calming the Storm, Jason Schneiderman identifies teaching observations as a site of anxiety that potentially erodes authentic collegiality, and he expresses legitimate frustration in stating: “I’m not sure anyone learns anything.”

That frustration is the subject of this essay. We are educators, after all—dedicated to empowering students to scale the spiral of their aspirations. So how can we reshape the observation process to reflect our own aspirations?

In fact, Jason has identified one effective strategy: He invites the Observee to visit his own classroom. That invitation not only completes the circle of collegiality, however; it also opens an avenue for valuable learning.

In my former work as an arts-in education advocate for K-12 schools, I took every opportunity to observe excellent teachers in action. And I must say, I learned more from those hours of observation than I ever learned in a course or workshop.

And though Jason was too modest to say so, I have no doubt that his observer came away with insights, strategies, and inspiration. Therefore, I’d like to add yet another strategy based in reciprocity: Empower Observees to generate their own assessments.

How does this strategy work? It begins in a thorough observation. When I observe a colleague, I focus first on pedagogy: Are the learning experiences efficiently promoting the acquisition of a skill or concept for all the learners?

This assessment involves questions of pacing, clarity, and focus. I find a reliable touchstone in Bloom’s Taxonomy, with its gradient from least engagement (remembering) to greatest engagement (synthesizing).

Second is the question of student engagement. Does the instructor create a supportive environment that meaningfully engages all the students? As Jason points out, this concern may be the most salient. After all, if students are fully engaged, learning will take place.

After making these observations, I then flip the evaluation during the conference. Rather than deliver my assessment, I ask my colleague to self-evaluate—first by identifying three areas that exemplify their greatest strengths and then by identifying three areas they most want to improve.

Regarding the strengths, I can easily find specific evidence from the observation to affirm that assessment. Regarding areas for improvement, I validate the real challenges of teaching—for it is always the case that I have encountered similar problems. And here too, I support the self-assessment with specific observations.

The entire process is thus based in collegiality. Everyone wants to teach more effectively. And we can all agree: The best teachers are the best learners, always asking themselves: “How can I improve?”

After working together to map three areas for improvement, I then make specific suggestions—explaining the method, but avoiding a claim that my strategies work for everyone. And as follow up, if my colleague is interested, I extend an invitation to visit my class to see those strategies at work.

Not every Observee takes up the invitation, but most do. In a visit, I can model and clarify the methods I have suggested, and I can also solicit my colleague’s insights and suggestions. So now the roles are entirely flipped, and I receive the benefit of my colleague’s feedback.

After this kind of interaction, I can specifically affirm my colleague’s strengths. And I can affirm that my colleague has independently identified areas for improvement and is already taking steps to find, develop, and implement more effective strategies.

Such a process empowers all concerned. When the Observation emerges from a mutual commitment to professional improvement, the Observee and the Observor enter the Spiral of Aspiration together. The result is a valuable experience that not only enhances collegiality but the art of teaching as well.


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