Why We Chose More Unannounced Observations

Across the city right now, teachers are choosing how they want to be observed this year: through a pre-announced, formal supervisor visit and three or more shorter, less formal ones, or through at least six informal observations. Some city teachers, including Tim Clifford, who wrote on GothamSchools about teacher evaluations earlier this month, say they can’t imagine who would choose six short visits from their administrators over a combination of one formal observation and three short ones.

They don’t have to leave the question up to imagination anymore. We chose the six visits, and here’s why:

The more feedback the better

We work to give specific, actionable feedback to our students so they might improve their skills and sets of academic knowledge. As teachers, we are also learners, and we want that kind of feedback from our administrators. We believe that more feedback delivered more frequently will make us better teachers. Frequent conversations with colleagues and administrators allow us to establish relationships with each another, which makes it possible to be more frank and honest in our self-assessment and assessment of one another.

Humans gather information and data, make sense of it as best we can with the tools at our disposal, and then make choices as to how to move forward. As teachers, we do not strive to give our students timely, specific feedback because only five- to 18- year-olds learn best this way, but because all people learn best this way. Frequent adult feedback, alongside student performance data from tailored assignments and feedback directly from the kids, helps teachers get the best read on their performance. And having a minimum of six guaranteed observations means six guaranteed opportunities to maintain a feedback loop and have a real conversation about what good teaching and learning look like. This is the strength of frequent visits and is something all educators should want.

Informal observations are more authentic

Teachers might want to know in advance when they’ll be observed, but we think it’s actually better not to know.

If we’re going to be able to use feedback to actually change the way we teach and thereby improve our students’ learning, it needs to be based on the daily life and routine of our classrooms. The problem with formal observations, for which teachers are given the date in advance, is that the practice can easily slip into an inauthentic display of pedagogical practice — more like a performance than window into a teacher’s classroom.

Our students might remark on our penchant for showmanship when we do things like wear wigs while helping them break down a complex writing task during their study of the American Revolution. We do this to make history more concrete for students, but we do not have time to put on a song and dance for administrators. While some educators might argue that this one-time performance could inform future instruction, we fear teachers would simply give administrators what they want to see in order to receive a high rating — in other words, that they would focus on creating a single impressive lesson without actually incorporating it into the routine of their classrooms or meeting the same bar on a day when they aren’t being observed.

Classroom observations are not a means to an end or attempts at the acting careers we never hoped to have, but a way of collecting information to help us do better work every day. While we do want our administrators to know how well we do our jobs, which could be demonstrated by an over-planned, arranged observation, we also want them to belly crawl through the muck of our worst lessons and, once on the other side, say what they think can be improved and then work with us to figure out how to do that. That could happen during a formal, full-length observation, but it’s more likely to happen when visits are informal and more frequent.

On the flip side, a lesson that counts as a teacher’s formal observation could go wrong for unforeseen reasons, even if it’s well planned. In that case, the teacher would also be better off with six informal evaluations. Many teachers dislike standardized exams in part because they are administered over the course of a single day (or two). If a student has a bad day because of factors out of their control and out of the teachers’ control, which happens often where we work, their scores reflect poorly on the both student and teachers. The same thing could happen with formal evaluations. The more lessons our administrators see, the clearer the window they get into our strengths and weaknesses, and the better positioned they are to give us feedback in the areas we most need it.

Relationships are built through frequent conversation

We know that learners value feedback from those with whom they already have a strong relationship and that relationships are forged through shared experiences and real dialogue. We’re fortunate to have worked in the same school for six years and built relationships with our administrators.

We realize that not everyone has that kind of relationship. Some teachers have a valid concern that principals who have the opportunity to pop in and out of classrooms may try to use this system to get rid of teachers or play “gotcha.” Between us, we have experienced or know teachers who experienced principals who were incompetent, racist, and tried to run teachers out of their buildings. In those cases, even if teachers at those schools are being given these two evaluation choices, it will likely not matter; hence, the phrase Clifford used, “pick your poison,” rings true.

But for teachers whose concern is not malice, but rather principals who are simply not trained to give good feedback to teachers, or teachers who haven’t yet built relationships with their administrators, six informal observations represent an important opportunity.

If teachers do not trust that their principals are able to give helpful, authentic feedback, they should try to open a dialogue with their administrators by selecting the six observations. Even in our current positions, we have not defaulted to trusting the judgment of all of our administrators, but instead built — and continue to build — relationships with them over time through a conversations in numerous settings about what good teaching and learning look like. Just as we hope a feedback system will improve teacher quality, we hope principals’ ability to give feedback will also improve through the teacher and principal evaluation systems. And just as new teachers need to learn how to apply grading rubrics fairly in their classrooms, principals need to learn how to implement the Danielson rubric and evaluate the rubric’s 22 core competencies fairly and consistently in their schools.

There are, of course, larger issues involved in how useful the evaluation system is for teachers. For example, principals need to be properly trained on how to use the rubric for evaluation and to give that feedback to teachers. Within a single school, it is possible for administrators to interpret Danielson in disparate ways and thereby give teachers mixed signals about what good teacher looks like. That would be a failure in a system that we, as teachers, can’t control regardless of which observation option we choose. But we can choose the observation option that supports us as we work to maintain open dialogue with all of our administrators.

Nick Lawrence and Erick Odom teach at East Bronx Academy for the Future.

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