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Excellent Evaluations: Practical Tips for Improving Principals' Observation, Teacher Evaluation Skills

What Do Principals Look For As They Observe And Evaluate?

Some principals are fixtures in classrooms; they get into every teacher's classroom at least a couple times a month -- even if only for a quick walk-through observation and follow-up. Other principals never seem to find time to get into classrooms until the deadline for completing evaluations looms.

Whether a principal is a fixture or a rarity in the classroom, his or her skill at observing teachers is the linchpin to effective evaluations. To get an idea of what principals look for as they evaluate teachers, we asked Education World's "Principal Files" team to share their thoughts.


"When I observe the non-tenured teachers in my school, I use a standard classroom observation approach that I call 'The Kodak Moment,'" principal Jim Thompson told Education World. "My observation takes a 'snapshot' of learning in a classroom."

Excellent Evaluations

This article is presented in six parts. Click the headlines below to link to other parts of the article.

Excellent Evaluations (Main Article Page)

It's Not a Dog-and-Pony Show: Tips for Teachers

Principal Observations Take Many "Forms"

Evaluation Advice from Principals in the Trenches

Appendice: Sample Evaluation Forms

More Articles of Interest


Walk-Throughs Are On the Move!
Principals use walk-through observations to engage teachers in conversations about student learning.

Community Evaluates Superintendent Online
Nashville's superintendent Dr. Pedro Garcia opened himself up to being evaluated online by the community.


Notice that Thompson said a snapshot of learning, not a snapshot of teaching. "Instead of observing a teacher teaching a lesson, I start out with the idea that I'm observing learning in Mrs. Smith's class. That is where I try to keep my emphasis. The more I focus on learning -- evidence of student learning in classrooms and evidence of teacher learning through the development of a collegial learning community -- the stronger my school will be."

"You can't prove anything was taught, until you have proof of learning," added Thompson, borrowing a quote from Rick DuFour . DuFour's work in the area of transforming schools into professional learning communities focuses on three essential questions:

  • What do we want students to learn?
  • How do we know students are learning?
  • What do we do when we find out students are not learning?

"Those questions are not a bad place to start off when evaluating teachers," said Thompson, who is principal at Wolcott Street School in LeRoy, New York. "When I observe a teacher I am looking to glean evidence in response to those questions, especially the last one."

One area of teacher evaluations that Thompson feels is discussed too infrequently is the quality of work in which teachers engage students. "That is a key area to give teachers feedback on," said Thompson, citing the work of Phil Schlechty in Working on the Work.

If focusing on student learning is the key to evaluating non-tenured teachers, what does Thompson think the focus of evaluating tenured teachers should be? "With experienced teachers, the key is to actively engage teachers as learners," said Thompson. "Most teacher contracts provide a menu of 'best practices' that tenured teachers can choose to focus on for their professional development and evaluation. They can be evaluated based on project learning, cooperative learning strategies, specific curriculum work, peer observation The key is that the more we engage teachers as learners, the better their classroom practices will become. The better their practices become, the higher degrees of learning we see."

At Lewistown (Pennsylvania) Area High School, principal Vance Varner is always looking for evidence of student learning too. "Has the teacher created a classroom environment that is conducive to learning? Is the classroom climate student centered? Are students engaged in the learning process? Those are some of the questions I'm considering as I observe and evaluate teachers."

"I'm looking to see that the light is going off and students are learning while they are being academically pushed," added Varner.


Closely tied to student learning are the lesson plans that teachers use to actively engage students. Their lessons should include brief explanations or mini-lessons and then segue into an activity in which students interact with one another, learning materials, or technology, with the teacher acting as facilitator, said principal Addie Gaines.

"At the start of the school year, our staff collaborated to articulate criteria that described the classroom instruction that we held as a high standard," added Gaines, principal at Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School. "We can all measure ourselves and our lessons against those criteria and look for evidence of those teaching standards to be present. Rather than picking at what is wrong, evaluating our performance with those criteria in mind creates a climate where teachers want to improve things for kids."

Principal Ron Tibbets recognizes the complexity of lesson planning. "The teaching act is so interwoven with different threads that it is impossible to identify one strand that holds the entire tapestry together," said Tibbets, principal at the Henry Barnard Laboratory School of Rhode Island College in Providence. The following are among the aspects of a lesson that Tibbetts thinks are most important:

  • Is there a logic to the lesson and material being taught? Is the material connected to previous lessons? Does this lesson have an introduction, a middle that includes guided work and independent work, and an end that includes student assessment and a conclusion?
  • Are students meaningfully engaged in the lesson -- time on task -- and, when students are not engaged, how much time elapses before the teacher brings them back on task?
  • Are students equitably "called-on" by the teacher? That includes gender representation and minority representation. When a teacher questions students, are the questions a mixture of divergent and convergent questions? Do students have an opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas?

"A good teacher makes it very clear to students why the lesson is being taught," said principal Karen Mink of O.C. Allen School in Aurora, Illinois. "I look for the components of a lesson that demonstrate that the teacher knows why she is teaching it."

Principal Duane Kline agreed. "Too often I'm left with the perception that the kids don't really know what they are supposed to be learning," he said, "so I ask all teachers to post on the board the essential questions for each lesson. Those questions help students define what they are to be learning. Questions engage students much more than simply posting a lesson objective."


Principal Michelle Gayle examines every lesson she observes to be certain it addresses standards and benchmarks. Her observation instrument includes a place where she records that information as well as evidence of low, mid-level, and higher-order questioning and learning.

"We are a Florida Reading Initiative (FRI) School," said Gayle, "so I look for aspects of our FRI plan in every classroom -- things such as active word walls and students who are using text marking and other strategies that enable them to learn as they read."

In addition, Gayle, who is principal at Griffin Middle School in Tallahassee, looks for evidence of research-based instructional strategies; infusion of technology within the lesson; the use of manipulatives and other resource materials; classroom displays; and "target boards" that display examples of high-quality work so students know what it looks like.

Looking at Lessons

At Whitebead Elementary School in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, principal Mary Smith looks for lots of things when observing a classroom lesson.
--- Is everyone on task during the presentation of the lesson?
--- Does the lesson flow smoothly?
--- Is the teacher organized?
--- How does the teacher handle distractions?
--- Is the lesson grade-appropriate?
--- How does the teacher "wrap up" the lesson?

Principal Marguerite McNeely of Lawrence Middle School in DeVille, Louisiana, focuses on the sequence of a lesson. "I want to see that the lesson supports yesterday's lesson, illustrates today's objectives, and opens the door for tomorrow's learning."

"I'm not sure it is the most important thing, but when I observe a teacher lesson I look for good use of time," said principal Brian Hazeltine of Airdrie (Alberta) Koinonia Christian School in Canada. "Master teachers make use of every minute. When the bell rings, things start happening. Because the teacher is so organized and efficient, students are always busy and engaged and classroom management largely takes care of itself."

Gwendolyn McClinton, principal at Florence B. Price Elementary School in Chicago, also focuses her observations on student engagement. "You'll see the students' enthusiasm for learning if the lesson is an interactive one. The teacher is energized too -- a moving target. A good teacher never sits down."

When principal Brenda Hedden observes a lesson at the Park City (Utah) Learning Center she's looking to see if instruction is appropriate for students. "I want to see if the teacher is pitching where the student can hit," Hedden explained.

Before observing a teacher, principal Tim Messick always asks to review the lesson he will observe. "I want to see that the teacher has written clear objectives about what will be taught," said Messick, principal at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. "In addition, I want to see that teachers have looked for ways to make their lessons practical and relevant to students. I want to see that they are engaging students through hands-on activities. And, finally, I want to see that the lesson plan includes a place for post-lesson reflection -- a place where teachers will answer questions such as Did I meet my objectives?, What were some highlights from my lesson?, What would I do differently next time?, and What have I learned about my teaching as a result of my assessment of the lesson?"


For principal Teri Stokes at Weatherly Heights Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama, the most important thing she looks for when observing a teacher is the overall climate of the room. "That includes the seriousness of the learning environment, the physical appearance of the classroom, and the consideration and respect that are 'felt' when I walk into the room."

Brenda Hedden agreed. "I can learn a lot about teachers' abilities by watching student interactions with them."

"I look for respect from the teacher toward the students," said Karen Mink. "I look for the teacher to have a genuine interest in what the students have to offer."

Principal Gretchen Schlie looks for a teacher's 'connectedness' with students. "Are they getting students involved and interacting? Is the teacher interacting on a personal level, or is she or he more standoffish?"

"Children don't learn or listen if they sense you are not invested in what you are teaching," added Schlie, principal at the International Christian School in Seoul, Korea. "If you don't deem a lesson important, why should they?"

Bonita Henderson, assistant principal at Central Fairmount School in Cincinnati, looks first for signs of rapport between the teacher and the student. "The trust factor must be evident," she said. "I don't want the teacher to give me what they think I want to see. I want to see the natural interaction between a teacher and students. I want to see a classroom where the teacher and all the students are learning from one another."

"If there is a good rapport between a teacher and students, learning will happen," added Karen Mink.


Principal Michael Miller always holds a pre-conference with teachers before doing an observation at Saturn Elementary School in Cocoa, Florida. They discuss the lesson that Miller will observe. Each year, Miller also includes a special "look-for" in his observation. This year's special emphasis relates to the LCD projectors that were installed in all classrooms. "I've asked all teachers to incorporate our new LCD projectors into their lessons," said Miller. "That way, I get to ensure teachers are using our new technology to aid in their teaching."

Concern for the

Aurelie Bush, assistant principal at Lisbon (Maine) Community School looks for teachers who have been able to grow in their efforts to provide an environment where students are involved in their own learning. Some of the things she hopes to see include

Teachers who
--- develop lessons tied to state standards.
--- elicit participation among their students.
--- respond positively to appropriate student responses.
--- give students the opportunity to reflect on what is being taught.
--- are passionate about teaching.

Students who are
--- aware of what the learning goals are and what is expected of them.
--- motivated and challenged at their individual levels.
--- working hard in a classroom that has an upbeat and positive feel.
--- enthusiastically engaged in a discussion or group investigation.
--- able to evaluate their own and each other's work in a positive and respectful manner.


At Edenrose Public School in Mississauga, Ontario (Canada), principal Deepi Kang-Weiscz focuses her observations on the affective domain. "Since the affective domain sets the tone for teaching and learning, I first look for evidence of a positive classroom environment; strong teacher rapport with students -- all students, including the challenging ones; student engagement; the appropriate cognitive level of the lesson; and evidence of differentiation of instruction."

When he is doing an observation, principal Larry Davis of Doctors Inlet Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida, makes a special point to look around the classroom. He looks to see that teachers have posted the classroom rules, discipline plan, and emergency routes. He looks to be sure there are plenty of signs of a literature-rich environment and clear evidences of the school-wide emphasis on reading instruction. He looks for word walls and student portfolios too. He also looks for evidence of a good classroom management plan, but he admits that most of his visits are announced and that "the teachers will usually bribe the students to behave when Mr. D comes to watch the class."

"I look around the classroom environment for signs of a teacher's creativity," said Gwendolyn McClinton. "Is the classroom inviting? Are learning centers set up around the classroom? Is the classroom set up so that students can work in small groups? Is there dialogue going on between students as they help each other? Does the teacher seem to have control of the classroom? Is there a fair amount of student work posted?"

Bonita Henderson looks closely at student work that is displayed too. "I want to see that because, to me, it shows that the teacher values students' work."

Every classroom teacher knows that lessons -- even great lessons -- don't always go according to plan. When Phil Shaman observes the teachers at Canada's Neepawa (Manitoba) Area Collegiate School, one of the things he looks for is a teacher's ability to shift gears when things are not going according to plan. "If a teacher is struggling with a lesson," Shaman said, "I want to see if he continues to go with the planned lesson or if he is able to shift gears midway thru and try something different."

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2006 Education World