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Classroom Observations

classroom observation

While the literature proposes several types of teacher evaluation frameworks, classroom observation remains one of the primary evaluative approaches used by school leaders. It is typically conducted by principals or middle leaders as a form of assessment of teachers’ performance and classroom practices. As a long-term goal, classroom observations are also regarded as an instrument for the planned process of school improvement.

Research on classroom observation addresses the importance of teacher evaluation, feedback, and reflection for student achievement and school improvement. As a diagnostic tool, the principal (observer) must plan classroom observations with three questions in mind to increase the credibility of observation and support teachers in embracing feedback and reflecting on their instructional practices.

  1. What do I want to observe during this session?

The principal usually completes an observation form to be shared with the teacher during the post-observation meeting for feedback and reflection. The observation form is used to assess certain features of the classroom environment and identifies what the observer wants to evaluate during the observation session.

However, a classroom observation protocol and its associated criteria do not mirror classroom reality. Standardized observation forms generally miss some parameters that are imperative aspects for evaluating the teaching and learning atmosphere in a classroom such as the number of students in a class (class size) or the presence of a teacher’s assistant (child-adult ratio). It is unreasonable to use a single undifferentiated form for every teaching setting.

A nuanced and rigorous observation report that provides rich and descriptive information, despite it being idiosyncratic, about teachers’ practices and students’ experiences in the classroom must replace forms with checklists of readily assessable features. Evaluating multiple dimensions of teaching would give more reliable results, also signaling to the observer the multifaceted complexity of teaching when assessing a teacher’s performance.

  1. How should I conduct my classroom observation?

Developing principal capacity is imperative. To avoid the ‘observer bias’, school leaders should receive training on how to conduct classroom observations.

There is no consensus in educational literature on what good teaching is. It is a subjective measure that is impacted by several factors related to the school context, grade level, and student body, to list a few. An observer might expect a certain way of teaching and deviating from this way might be interpreted as ‘deficient’. Students’ backgrounds, academic content, instructional plans, and the classroom climate are distinct, yet interrelated elements. What is being measured is only a small segment of the broad teaching construct.

Principals and middle leaders must receive training and support to reduce the subjective biases that they might bring to the observation, which in turn may impact the value of the feedback provided.

  1. When should I observe the class?

A single observation is unlikely to reflect a teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge or repertoire of practices. Research recommends that principals conduct multiple observation cycles in multiple classrooms during the course of an academic year.

Observing a segment of a lesson is not representative of the whole session and it might unfairly judge the teaching and learning taking place in class. Differentiating instruction and diversifying the teaching methods could not be observed in a short time frame. The resulting feedback might be inaccurate, might provide misinformation on the quality of teaching, and might misidentify the strengths and areas that need improvement. Classroom observation thereby fails its purpose.

Additionally, the observer must expect fluctuation in classroom interactions over any given school day.  Within-day variability also exists. Observing a class at the beginning of the day is different than observing a class at the end of a school day. Generally speaking, the first five to ten minutes of a class are considered a settling-in period and usually show few instructional strategies. Depending on the length of the session, student and teacher fatigue may kick in towards the end of class.

Teaching quality might change as the academic year progresses and as familiarity grows between teachers and students. A cycle of observations conducted on multiple days during the school year and analyzed systemically would likely serve as a better assessment of instructional quality.

Additional aspects to consider

  • Leadership content knowledge: For principals to give robust feedback and suggest instructional changes to teachers, they need to have a basic understanding of the academic subject or content area they are evaluating. Unlike elementary classrooms, leadership content knowledge is particularly pertinent to high school classes where teachers have subject matter expertise. This might pose unique challenges to principals as they evaluate teaching and learning in a content area that they lack expertise in. For example, the classroom structure during an Algebra lesson might be more structured compared to an art lesson.
  • Instructional quality is contextual: Instructional quality of a classroom is inherently situated and depends on several contextual factors such as school leadership, curricula, collaboration, collegial support, and student population (English language learners, special education students). For instance, most elementary classrooms generally have one homeroom teacher and the same group of students for the whole academic year. This suggests a degree of stability and similarity in instructional quality and classroom interactions that the observer may consider, despite the dynamic, social, and complex nature of any classroom.


Research shows optimism about the potential value of evaluative observations as levers for improving instruction and student achievement and promoting school improvement.

Yet, a regrettable fact of post-observation feedback is that it is often not implemented and remains underappreciated. Teachers may interpret classroom observations as a controlling measure which induces negative feelings such as stress, nervousness, fear, and resistance to feedback post-observation.

It is the school leader’s responsibility to reduce teachers’ fear of being observed and evaluated by familiarizing teachers with evaluations and changing the process into an incentive that incites motivation. A regularly implemented informal evaluation culture at the school level can support teachers and prepare them for formal classroom observations to translate timely and actionable feedback into meaningful improvements.

Co-teaching and peer observations might also be useful. Instead of teaching behind closed doors, the school leadership must foster an ‘open culture’ where teachers take risks and share what has worked and what needs improvement without fear of being labeled incompetent.

Written by Elissar Gerges, Education World Contributing Writer

Elissar has more than 10 years of experience as an AP and IBDP Biology teacher and Biology head of department. She holds a Master of Science in Education from Walden University, a Master of Education in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development from the University of Toronto, and a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership, K-12 from Western University, Canada.

Elissar’s research focus is on learning communities, team leadership, instructional leadership, and integrating citizenship in science education. She is a strong advocate of science media literacy to enable all students, as active citizens, to critically evaluate science in the media to make informed decisions.

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