May 20, 2014 by

Cultivating a Culture for Peer Observations

Dolci Grim How ToBy Emily Dolci Grimm, Trent Kaufman, & Dave Doty

Emily Dolci Grimm, Trent Kaufman, and Dave Doty outline four ways school leaders can help teachers become comfortable using peer observation—and being observed themselves—to fuel their professional learning. Read their article “Rethinking Peer Observation” in the May 2014 Educational Leadership.

Unlike traditional approaches to PD, peer observation places learning in the context in which teachers work each day: in the classrooms, among students, and about the content. In our article, we discuss practices at the heart of effective peer observation.

Educators often cite the existing culture in their schools as an obstacle to trying peer observation, primarily because observations are typically associated with evaluation. Teachers ask us, “How can we reduce anxiety and develop a culture of open practice in our building?” Here are four behaviors that can reduce teachers’ anxiety, pique interest, break down isolation, and increase professional dialogue in schools.

  • Reposition the role of the observed teacher. Placing the reins of leadership in the hands of the observed teacher—rather than the observers—enables teachers to direct their own learning. When an educator invites his or her colleagues into the classroom as observers, the observation should reflect a genuine area of interest to that teacher. This will allow authenticity, participation, and the teacher’s excitement to grow.
  • Focus the observation. Without a focus for the observation, observers are more likely to observe things that interest them rather than what interests the observed teacher. Equipped with a narrow focus, observers are prepared to collect data on a specific element of teaching and learning.
  • Examine the data. Conversations are most effective when they begin with what observers saw and heard in a classroom, rather than with the conclusions observers have drawn. Imagine the difference in conversation that would result from the statement, “Half of your students were not engaged” versus “Twelve of your students did not participate in the class discussion.” A structured protocol—which sets times for sharing the data and then making sense of it—can propel the value of these conversations.
  • Explore the relationship between teaching and learning. After the teacher has been observed and the observers have shared the descriptive data they collected, the group is well positioned to examine the relationship between teaching and learning. When the conversation focuses on this relationship—rather than on the teacher as an individual—teachers’ comfort with the process will grow.

These practices develop a culture of open practice, in which peer observations can become a process teachers deeply value.