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March 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 6

Opening Doors: Teacher-Guided Observations

As I stepped through the doorway of my administrator's office, I was greeted by a checkered tablecloth, baskets of muffins and fruit, and a thermos of coffee. A party? No. The ever-dreaded administrator's postobservation conference!Our administrator had set the stage for the English Department's first collaborative postobservation conference. The ambience created a friendly, relaxed forum for discussing the instructional methodologies and philosophies of six teacher triads.Along with our administrator, we had all observed one another teach. Now we gathered to reflect on our practices in an effort to grow both personally and as a department of professional educators.—Jonica Manak-Bushman, Co-Chair, Buchanan High School English Department
Teacher observation hasn't always been this way at Buchanan High School. Three years ago, teachers here faced the same obstacle to collaborative professional growth as those in other locales. At a time when educators are searching for collaborative ways to revitalize their schools, teacher observation has, regrettably, become synonymous with teacher evaluation.
Veterans of the process are well aware of the canned lesson for observation day, the one that fits the model of clinical teaching. (This is not a criticism of the model, but rather of teachers' and administrators' expectations that all of the steps of the clinical model occur in a single lesson in one class period—everyday!) Such a process does little to develop an open dialogue and, in fact, lends itself to presentation of "the observation lesson."
  • to be treated as professionals,
  • to have opportunities to grow in a nonthreatening environment,
  • to have the primary responsibility for curriculum analysis,
  • to feel comfortable with change, and
  • to experience camaraderie.

Taking Small Steps Toward Big Changes

John Goodlad, Seymour Sarason, and others have written about the adversarial position between teacher and administrator during traditional observations. The "us against them" mentality is clearly based on a lack of communication. Talk and trust-building, therefore, need to be at the core of any teacher observation model.
With some trepidation, the Buchanan High School English Department began to formulate our new observation model. The focus was on collaboration. Our goal was to grow as educators—together. To do so, we had to open our doors and invite one another into our classrooms. Elliot Eisner and John Goodlad have both written much about teacher isolation. It's easy to blame time constraints and busy schedules as the culprits that isolate us. But excuses have no place in problem solving. We had to dig deeper.
We began with small steps, realizing that many of us would be uncomfortable with a dramatic change. First, at our department meeting we talked about observing one another. For several more days, we continued conversations among ourselves and with our administrator. We needed to clarify, question, turn every stone.
The current system, we all agreed, did not lead to improved instruction, but to change would mean doing things much differently. Were we ready? Did we want to watch one another teach? Could we become better teachers by learning from one another? What were the implications of a group postconference instead of the traditional one-on-one model? What about interactions between new teachers and veterans? How would teachers view the administrator in the role of moderator, rather than questioner?
And what about time—that elusive commodity? Would teachers have to give up prep periods to do this? Absolutely not, we assured everyone. Even though we reminded teachers that the program was a nonmandatory alternative to traditional observations, some had difficulty believing that no hidden agenda existed.

Growing Comfortable with the Process

The new structure grew out of many discussions with teachers and administrators. Here's how it works. Teachers, working in triads (or teams, in some cases) agree to observe one another at least twice a week for approximately four weeks each semester.
Every department member submits a monthly calendar of general lesson information and completes the standard district observation paperwork for one of the lessons that the administrator observes. The administrator then gives everyone in the department a consolidated calendar of the lesson topics for each team. Under the new structure, the administrator conducts three 30-minute observations of teachers during a four-week observation cycle each semester. The process culminates in a 90-minute team postconference, held during the school day.
Convenience and consideration are key elements of the model. We want the process to work without disrupting daily life or causing undue stress to anyone involved. Everyone knows that observation times can be rescheduled if needed.
Rather than decide among themselves who would observe whom, the teachers asked the administrator in charge of the English Department and the department chairperson to establish the collaborative triads. The teachers had agreed that 20 to 30 minutes per observation would be sufficient. (As it has turned out, many stay longer than the allotted time to see what happens next.)
Dividing the department into groups for peer observations and postconferences posed some interesting challenges, but we finally selected people on the basis of experience, teacher course schedules, prep periods (or lack of them), and areas of interest. For the first effort, we thought that each team needed a balance of experience levels.
The blend of youth and experience on the teams has proved successful. Experience truly is a great teacher. To gain additional growth experiences, nontenured teachers participate in one additional individual observation conducted outside of the Teacher-Guided Observation/Curriculum Analysis process each semester.
Another critical factor is the balancing of teachers without prep periods throughout the teams. The better the distribution of these teachers, the fewer substitutes for peer observations and postconferences are needed. By considering this factor carefully, we've been able to manage the fiscal requirement for substitute teachers.
At first, the administrator's task of scheduling classroom observations appeared to be an ambitious undertaking: 51 observations of approximately 30 minutes replaced the 17 one-hour observations. The number of observations requiring formal paperwork, however, did not increase. Actually, the opportunity to see a unit of study progress from introduction to conclusion within a teacher's class process is much more enjoyable and informative than simply viewing a snapshot in time. Moreover, the enthusiasm of teachers during observations motivates administrators to exceed the minimum observation responsibilities.
Nonetheless, an emotional obstacle to this process is teachers' fear of being observed by their peers. This legitimate concern needs to be met with calm professionalism and the reminder that the only goal of observation is to improve instruction, not to formulate an evaluation. Interestingly, both teachers and students quickly adapt to the presence of additional adults in the classroom and, in fact, look forward to demonstrating innovative practices. Teachers appear to grow more confident in their instructional skills as they progress through an observation cycle.

Working from a Common Perspective

In the fall semester, many of the issues the administrator raised during the 90-minute postconferences centered primarily on instruction. Ideally, the administrator should moderate the discussion by posing questions that allow teachers to analyze the instructional strategies they have witnessed.
Our postconferences in the spring semester touched briefly on instructional practices, but developed into in-depth curriculum analysis. By observing their peers in action and viewing students other than their own, all six teams were able to reach amazingly similar consensus about how best to modify the curriculum.
With the administrator serving as moderator, the postconference became a forum about educational pedagogy. We asked one another questions about what we teach, how we teach, and why we use particular methodologies. We explored topics such as reasons for teaching poetry, vocabulary building strategies, the difference between effective and ineffective collaborative groups, and how to address grammar systematically in the writing process.
Each triad established its own issues, but the quality of the conversations remained the same: thoughtful, probing, and professional. As a direct result of the new observation process, the English Department of Buchanan High School addressed the problems encountered in teaching grammar and punctuation by systematically infusing objectives at each grade level. We now base curriculum change on teacher observations and analyses in conjunction with standardized and authentic assessment tools. Teachers have a much easier time reaching agreement on curriculum issues when they share a common perspective based on peer observations.
It's important to note that no correlation is made between the Teacher-Guided Observation/Curriculum Analysis postconferences and future conferences for evaluation purposes. Teacher evaluations are, and should be, broader and more general in content than the new observation postconferences. All teacher evaluation conferences are conducted at a later date with the principal, the responsible administrator, and the individual teacher.

Reaping the Benefits of Collaboration

Since Buchanan High School began using Teacher-Guided Observation/Curriculum Analysis, we've noticed overt as well as subtle changes. A highly visible benefit is the increased collegiality between teachers and administrators.
In addition, English teachers are now assuming a greater role as instructional leaders, and are growing more at ease discussing instructional techniques with peers. Andrea Radmilovich, for example, commented, As a new teacher, I've broadened my knowledge of good classroom practices and strengthened my confidence through the observation process. It was comforting to know that my colleagues wanted to hear my thoughts and ideas about teaching and our curriculum.
Teachers have also reached consensus on several curricular topics that we've either never had a proper forum for addressing or have not discussed because of differing time priorities. Ongoing curriculum alignment by grade level and modifications in grammar instruction throughout the course offerings have become priorities.
Without question, the most impressive success of our program has been the progressive involvement of teachers in our school's professional development program. Their sense of self-determination about the growth of instructional and curricular programs at Buchanan High is a result of their empowerment to direct individual, departmental, and schoolwide improvement.
But teachers aren't the only beneficiaries of the new observation model. Administrators have enhanced their knowledge of the curricular content and instructional practices of the English Department. And students, too, benefit by seeing teachers striving to improve themselves by learning from one another. Many positive comments from students bespeak the fact that our teachers are now highly visual academic role models. As student Erica Motes remarked, Peer observation allows teachers to learn more about themselves; thus they become better teachers, bringing more knowledge to the classroom. When teachers learn from one another, they develop varied instructional techniques and new ideas. This results in more interesting teaching and more opportunities for students to grow.

From Rhetoric to Results

Since its inception, Teacher-Guided Observation/Curriculum Analysis has taken several different forms. New versions have evolved, but all changes have come directly from teachers. After the first observation cycle, we asked teachers for their suggestions, and they told us how to improve the process.
Their request not to be restricted to observing within their own teams led to the development of Open and Closed Form versions of the program. The Closed Form works most effectively when targeted team members analyze specific areas of curriculum or teaching techniques. The Open Form, in which teachers are free to observe any staff member, provides a broad overview of the curriculum.
Among the most current offshoots is the development of cross-curricular observation teams. Continued use of these teams will establish the foundation necessary for successful long-term cross-curricular instruction. The sequential development of this teacher-centered observation model should build the staff support and confidence that many cross-curricular efforts have lacked.
In the months to come, an additional advantage of Teacher-Guided Observation/Curriculum Analysis will be that school departments will be able to progress from analyzing basic curriculum issues to examining curriculum revisions brought about through the process. In the next few years, we plan to streamline the paperwork required for the observation process, and to place the coordination of observation teams outside of administrative control and under the direction of teachers.
In education, we rely too often on tradition and textbooks rather than scientific research or even trial and error. Teacher input must play a major role in a school's curricular and instructional changes. Once the door to a classroom closes, the success that students experience is directly related to the teacher's commitment to the educational plan.
Teacher-Guided Observation/Curriculum Analysis provides teachers with opportunities for leadership and for collective buy-in—two essential elements for effective education. In a professional environment where teachers' opinions are respected and acted upon, continual instructional and curricular improvements are achievable; they are not just rhetoric.

Pauline Sahakian has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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