Informal Observations: It’s Not a Gotcha Tactic

As Director of Teaching, Learning and Development at Learning Sciences, I receive many questions from leaders and teachers on best practices and general advice about teacher evaluation.

A teacher in Indiana expressed concern about unannounced informal observations as a way for principals to catch teachers off guard. She also wanted my feedback on the role teachers should have in scheduling, and my thoughts on unannounced classroom visits as a whole. I felt it would be a topic worth sharing.

What is Informal Observation?
The teacher was referring to what is commonly known as an informal observation, which typically lasts anywhere from 10 minutes to a full class period. Informal observations can be announced or unannounced. Often when a district or school is revisiting their teacher evaluation process, they determine if evaluations (both formal and informal) and/or walkthroughs will be used to gather evidence about a teacher’s classroom practice as part of its evaluation system. Currently, many teachers view observation as the same thing as evaluation when in fact these structures (informal, formal and walkthrough observations) provide a means for gathering what Dr. Robert Marzano and others experts refer to as a preponderance of evidence in order to make a reasoned judgment about a teacher’s overall practice.

A Complex Practice Requires a Variety of Assessments
Because teaching is so complex, it is important to gather information through a variety of means. Formal observations that include a pre- and post-conference provide an opportunity for a teacher and an administrator to have a conversation about teaching and learning, to learn from each other and to make adjustments accordingly as a result of their conversation. Because these are scheduled and planned, both the teacher and the administrator have a scheduled time to talk about the instructional decision-making. Informal observations provide an administrator a glance at the teacher’s daily practice. This is not a “gotcha” opportunity but rather a chance to see the teacher in the daily routines of teaching. Feedback is often informal via notes to the teacher, emails, and brief conversations.

Announce a Schedule
It is always a good idea to set a schedule in which teachers can sign up for their pre-conference, post-conference and formal and informal observations. This should be mutually decided by the teacher and the principal. In my building, I blocked certain weeks throughout the school year and requested that teachers make it their responsibility to schedule the pre- and post- conferences and the observation according to the district guidelines and timelines.

To ease any anxiety about informal observations (particularly if this is a new practice) I recommend that an observer begin by announcing the day or the week these will be taking place. For example, this week I will be visiting all primary classrooms or the social studies wing or all 6th grade teachers. Once teachers are comfortable with having an administrator in their rooms, observers can move to unannounced informal observations.

Create a Pacing Guide
Schools or districts should identify the number of formal and informal observations and walkthroughs to gather evidence and create a “pacing guide” with approximate completion dates. In other words, a new teacher who is supposed to have four observations, two informal observations and several walkthroughs should not be subject to having these squeezed into the last month of school. A quarterly or semester schedule is recommended to principals not only as best practice in terms of providing feedback to teachers across the year, but also from a time management perspective.

Remember that the primary responsibility of the principal is instructional leadership. Principals have a responsibility to visit classrooms regularly, announced and unannounced, provide feedback to teachers, assess trends and patterns, and provide opportunities for professional development.

The most powerful evaluation systems involve teachers, teacher unions, and administrators in the design.

Watch a video of elementary teacher Frances Homme discussing informal observations and How Feedback Improves Teaching.

For more about how formal and informal observations help create an aligned system, see Dr. Marzano’s white paper. Or see more information about observer accuracy and certification trainings.

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