Typically evaluative by nature, teacher observation is usually linked to classroom performance. More and more schools, however, are using observation -- teachers observing teachers -- as a form of professional development that improves teaching practices and student performance. In this article, Education World's Michele Israel talks with experts about the benefits of this emerging professional development strategy. Included: The benefits of learning by observing -- for the teacher, administrator, and school, plus five observation models.
Being observed in the classroom can rattle any teacher's nerves. But, teacher observations that serve as vehicles for professional growth rather than performance evaluations have multiple benefits -- for teachers, administrators, and the school. [See sidebar.]
More and more, administrators and teachers are viewing peer observation as a form of collaborative professional development. This kind of observation can yield its greatest benefits when used as a means of sharing instructional techniques and ideologies between and among teachers.
"The intention of teacher-to-teacher observation is that it be a tool for professional development and, in turn, for student learning," Colleen Meaney, dean of faculty at Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire, told Education World.
LEARNING FROM COLLEAGUES
Teacher observation is one model of professional learning that "is key to supporting a new vision for professional development," explained Stephanie Hirsh, deputy executive director of the National Staff Development Council (NSDC). The new vision, according to Hirsh, involves teacher teams that meet daily to study standards, plan joint lessons, examine student work, and solve common problems. Team members then apply that learning in the classroom, watching each other teach and providing regular feedback."The most positive benefit of teacher-to-teacher observation," said Hirsh, "is that it makes teaching a public rather than a private act."
Cristi Alberino echoed those thoughts. Teachers should "use one another for professional development," said Alberino, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and a former New York City teacher. For example, she notes, a teacher struggling with classroom management can improve his or her skills by observing a peer in a safe and inclusive learning environment. Being observed by the same peer leads to suggestions about how to handle behavior problems, as well as opportunities to share successful teaching approaches with the observer.
Teacher observation often has been built into familiar activities, such as mentoring, noted Trish Brasslow, a media specialist and mentor at Fred C. Wescott Junior High School in Westbrook, Maine. "Being a mentor and observing my peers is truly enlightening," Brasslow told Education World. "I see many different learning styles and I love watching student/teacher interactions. I learn a lot about teaching and what makes for a successful teacher."
"This, to me, is a very important form of professional development," emphasized Brasslow.
ESTABLISHING A CULTURE
It is essential to effective use of the "teachers observing teachers" strategies that school administrators enable a culture that nurtures a collegial exchange of ideas and promotes a certain level of trust, explained Dennis Sparks, NSDC's executive director. That culture is often absent when observation is associated with performance rather than professional growth.
"It's a risky thing to have your professional practice scrutinized by colleagues," said Sparks. "A teacher needs to have some level of trust in [the observer's] motivestrust that the purpose of the observation is not to make the teacher look bad or to place blame, but to help."
Most important to effective teacher observation is that it be student-focused. The emphasis needs to be on how things can be done differently in the classroom to ensure that students succeed academically, added Sparks.
Souhegan High School is an environment where a teachers-observing-teachers strategy thrives. A culture exists "where people report with pride that they push' one another professionally," according to Meaney. Both new and veteran teachers "value collegial relationships as a means to professional development," she said.
EXTENDED PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Teacher observation should be part of a pool of professional development opportunities, Sparks told Education World. One way in which peer observation can be very effective is when teachers acquire new skills or ideas at conferences and then model those new approaches for their colleagues. That is best done through observation, said Sparks, who advocates learning in the school, rather than through "pull-out" training, such as workshops. Professional development should be job-embedded, he emphasized. That is one of the greatest benefits of teachers observing other teachers.
Joellen Killion, NSDC's director of special projects, added that a solid repertoire of professional learning is focused on student results -- standards-based, school-based, and content-specific -- and includes training, study groups, action research, and observation. "Any program dependent on one delivery mode alone is not likely to produce long-term results," she explained.
"The professional development that a teacher values depends on what he or she needs at any given time," said Meaney. "Generally," she added, "newcomers report greater value in peer observation than do more experienced teachers."
"I think that I learn more from observation than from any other kind of professional development," added Alberino, noting that reading about a particular instructional theory does not mean it can be easily applied. Observation brings actual practice to the forefront.
Dr. William Roberson, co-director of the Center of Effective Teaching and Learning concurred: "Easily, peer observation is more valuable than other forms of professional development, if the proper context is created. If done well, it is carried out in a real, practical, immediately relevant situation. Compare that to attending workshops or conferences in which participants remain at a certain level of abstraction from their own classrooms."
There is no one right approach to teacher observation but, according to Dr. Sally Blake, professor of teacher education at the University of Texas at El Paso, teacher observation is most successful when the teacher and observer work together and reflect on the teaching behavior. Teacher observation is least successful when the observer spends hours watching without analysis or dialogue with the teacher. Blake suggested the following sequence of events for effective teachers-observing-teachers programs:
NSDC's Hirsh agrees that there is no single approach to teacher observation, but, says that it is least successful when a peer observes a struggling teacher who doesn't know how to benefit from the process, especially if the observer isn't adept at identifying his or her colleagues' needs. Teacher observation works best when expectations are clear and participants understand how to use and benefit from the process, she added.