Getting Better: Teachers Hate to Be Observed and Principals Hate to Observe Teachers, and, They’re Both Wrong.

“I’m an experienced teacher, I know what I’m doing, why don’t they just leave me alone.”

A dirty little secret: teachers hate to be observed and principals hate to do observations.

The new principal-teacher evaluation plan, which begins this school year, requires every teacher in New York City to select an observation plan from two options, a combination of formal (pre-observation, observation, post-observation conferences) and unannounced observations. A lengthy, detailed manual spells it out in excruciating detail.

In theory, the purpose of the observation process is both a normative and a summative assessment process – to work with the teacher to improve their practice and effectiveness and produce an end year grade as part of the new system. Instead of the last line in an observation report, “This was an (un)satisfactory lesson,” the rating officer will “grade” the lesson using the Danielson Frameworks as a guide – (H)ighly effective, (E)ffective, (D)eveloping or (I)effective, translating to a numerical grade from 0 to 60. The combination of the supervisor grade (60%), the growth in student test scores (20%) and the locally negotiated tool (20%), the teacher will receive a composite score which will translate into a grade on the HEDI scale.

Based on previously calculated metrics, statewide, 7% of teachers will be highly effective, 6% will be ineffective and the remaining 87% will fall in the effective/developing categories.

Back to that dirty little secret: principals spend very little time in classrooms, and the time they do spend observing lessons is mechanical and compliance drive. Ideally principals will conduct “frequent cycles of brief observations with meaningful feedback,” the “ideal” is the exception.

Teacher classroom performance will be measured against the Danielson Frameworks, a combination of domains, components and elements that describe observed classroom behaviors, divided into the four HEDI ratings.

Charlotte Danielson’s other book, Talk About Teaching, is meant as a guide to supervisors on how to engage teachers in meaningful conversations about their instructional practice, a book that should be required reading for principals.

Sitting in a yellowing folder in my file cabinet is a folder entitled “Observations,” a career of supervisory observations and various letters I received from a variety of principals and assistant principals. Each letter begins with description of the lesson, makes commendations and recommendations and concludes with the one-liner rating the lesson.

No matter how long you’ve been teaching, no matter your level of confidence in your craft, you’re nervous, the kids are nervous, and breathe a huge sigh of relief when the supervisor leaves. To the best of my memory post observation conferences were only for the newbies, a few days after the observation two copies in your mailbox, sign and return one.

Did the process make me a better teacher? No.

What I later discovered was the antipathy with which the observer, the supervisor, viewed the process. It was time consuming, potentially conflict-riven, and in many schools was reviewed by the supervisor on the next step up the ladder. The observer was being observed.

I improved as a teacher as I interacted with other teachers, shared ideas and lesson plans, debated how to turn a topic or concept into a lesson, and practiced my craft. Luckily I worked in a school in which experienced and new teachers and assistant principals worked together in a collaborative spirit. In lieu of traditional observations teachers could choose to observe each other with the notes of the post observation meeting serving as the formal observation report.

We knew who were the outstanding teachers, the ordinary teachers and the weak teachers.

Back to that teacher who argues, “I know what I’m doing,” the core question: do the kids know what you’re doing?

In theory, for the first time, the employer will be assessing both teaching and learning – observers of the actual classroom practice and the extent to which the student “learned” the subject being taught.

In reality the excruciatingly complex system and the lingering animosity between management and labor leaves a foul odor. It will take a new mayor and a chancellor to sweeten the air.

Research on the use of the Danielson Frameworks is both positive and troubling.

The well-regarded Chicago Consortium on School Researched conducted a study of principal-teacher teams who observed teachers using the Danielson Frameworks,

The findings:

* Where teachers received the highest ratings on the Danielson Frameworks … students showed the most growth in test scores, and students showed the least growth scores in classrooms where teachers received the lowest scores.

* Principals and teachers said that [post-observation] conferences were more reflective … and were focused on instructional practice and improvement, however, many principals lack the instructional coaching skills required to have deep discussions about teacher practice.

* More than half of principals were highly engaged … principals who were not engaged tended to say it was too labor intensive.

Two or three years down the road, with many bumps and potholes we will have data that identifies teachers who are consistently highly effective and ineffective.

How should we use the data?

To fire low performers, to reward high performers, to validate what experienced principals already know?

Let’s focus on the “highly effective” category.

What makes these teachers highly effective?

Have teachers moved up the HEDI ladder – from Developing to Effective, from Effective to Highly Effective, and, if so, why?

If not, why not?

Why are some teachers more effective?

A superior college preparation program? Intensive mentoring by supervisors and/or teachers? Higher intelligence? Ability to listen, reflect and respond? Or, are there genetic reasons; aka, is there a “teaching” gene?

The massive three-year Gates funded Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project is hugely disappointing. The report tells us we should use multiple measures to assess teachers, including a heavy percentage of student scores and, preferably observations by multiple supervisors and peers.

Gates (MET) does not answer: why are Mr. Smith and Miss Jones great teachers, measured by observations and student achievement?

In the sports arena the quest for the answer is ongoing. With billions of dollars at stake the motivation to “predict” success in sports has encouraged research project after research project.

David Epstein in “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance (2013)” takes a deep look at the question: why do Jamaicans from the same tiny town dominate the world of sprinting? Why do Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate the distance races? Is Malcolm Gladwell’s premise in “Outliers” correct, the 10,000 hour rule, “the magic number of greatness,” as Gladwell calls the rule, “skills that appear to be predicated on innate gifts are often nothing more than the manifestations of thousands of hours of practice”?

Maybe that grizzled veteran was right, years of teaching did make him better – the 10,000 hour rule?

Then again, are children of teachers more effective teachers themselves – that stubborn nature – nurture controversy?

Teachers, and principals, have a moral obligation to strive to get better, from year one to the year they retire. We should be lifelong learners, lifelong searchers, the challenge never ends, nor should it.

9 responses to “Getting Better: Teachers Hate to Be Observed and Principals Hate to Observe Teachers, and, They’re Both Wrong.

  1. Dirtier little secret: no consensus on what good or great teaching is like; no
    clear plans on how to end abject poverty in major urban areas or on how to teach the children of abject poverty.
    Teachers and principals hate to jump through extraneous hoops that DO NOT
    help either get better. Almost no one in the system at this point still has that leave me alone, I know what’s best attitude; though many do have a leave me alone, unless you can actually help me attitude.
    I find your attitude in repeating that bad old attitude over and over in your pieces to be highly suspect. You should strive to do better than that. It’s a straw man flat on his back, and you know it. Who does that without an agenda?


  2. I taught severely emotionally disturbed adolescents (SIE 8, in BOE parlance) and I was left alone because the supervisors wer afraid of my students. I learned about teaching from my co-teachers and from the students. The latter were the harshest critics of my work because if I didn’t meet them where they were and lead them forward, chaos could ensue.

    I received a written evaluation (Satisfactory) for one lesson only because I sent a student to get the principal to “see what a good job the class was doing” but really because he couldn’t stand the smell of the formaldehyde that preserved the specimens they were dissecting for a comparative zoology class. His recommendation for “improvement” in the formal observation, “Next time find formaldehyde that doesn’t smell bad.” When questioned about this, he told me that the lesson was exemplary but he had to recommend something and that was the student I sent to him suggested.

    Ed is right that too many observations are “pro forma” including, as in my case, recommendations that are not helpful because they were pulled out of texts and unrelated to the students or context of that class. What Ed is too diplomatic to say, although it is hinted at in the Chicago Consortium report is that many of the current crop of principals, especially those coming out of the Leadership Academy not oly lack the “coaching skills,” they lack the teaching experience necessary to really understand what is happening in the classroom. They can’t model better teaching and they can only repeat the words from Danielson or some other text and hope the teacher gets it.

    There is nothing wrong with the Danielson Frameworks other than that they are too vague in many instances; the skills are not concretely and objectively defined (operationalized), They are a good starting point. In the first edition of the Frameworks she suggested they be used by teachers for self and peer evaluations.

    The problem is that they cannot be applied by rote. They are not a recipe for good teaching and all the skills will not be, and should not be for valid reasons, visible in any single lesson. What will novice supervisors with little or no teaching experience do when they have to rate a teacher who exhibited highly skilled behavior in some areas but did not demonstrate other skills in that lesson (or ten minute fly by) because of how the teacher chose to approach the lesson based on his/her knowledge of the class.

    The key to evaluating teachers (and we should be evaluated) is the post observation conference that explores the thinking that informed the planning and elivery of the lesson that day to those students. The Danielson Frameworks can help to focus those discussions, but only those kind of discussions can help teachers improve. Only those kind of discussions can generate evaluations that will be seen as fair and meaningful.

    The real dirty little secret is that these kind of conversations don’t need to be managed by a principal or a supervisor. Teachers, given time and a modicum of training, can coach themselves more effectively than the current top down supervisory model can, That was Ed’s experience in his years of teahcing, mine and that of countless other teachers.


  3. Eric Nadelstern

    “We knew who were the outstanding teachers, the ordinary teachers and the weak teachers.”

    Every school community, from students to parents to teachers to supervisors, has the same knowledge. The true measure of any external evaluation scheme is whether it effectively surfaces what every school already knows about its teachers.

    I have little confidence that the current framework imposed by the Commissioner will be able to do that.


  4. [“We knew who were the outstanding teachers, the ordinary teachers and the weak teachers.”

    Every school community, from students to parents to teachers to supervisors, has the same knowledge. ]

    Well, not exactly. Students often think the teachers they like as people are good, and those who go out of their way to help them are great. Parents hear mainly from their kids, don’t usually know the materials or techniques being used, and often they love any teacher that seems to be allowing their kid to shine (get better grades than before, regardless of whether they were earned). Teachers often know other teachers’ work by their materials and some of their techniques, yet they are often left to wonder about how students perceive these things, as they are so wrapped up in that debate about their own materials, techniques and student reactions. Admin often has huge bias toward those who appear to be on board with them and other teachers, hard working, liked by students and parents, etc.


    • Both Akademos and Nadelstern reflect reasons for a more transparent (and objective) evaluation system. If it only “surfaces what we already know,” however, it is merely a very expensive (time and money) redundancy. The real purpose has to be to improve the work of the teachers being evaluated and, ultimately, help those who cannot improve see the need to seek other work. I share the concern that the current system will not be able to do that.


  5. Improved pupil performance, regardless of the flavor of the month of evaluation, is the sole purpose of staff development. Observation is only one strategy. It comes as part of the total climate and culture of the school. If that is built on the foundation of trust combined with tools. techniques, and time then teacher effectiveness and student achievement will improve. There must be the unity in and of community!


    • Well said, Paul! So the question remains does the evaluation framework the State has imposed generate the conditions necessary to create that kind of community? Is that even possible in the “gotcha” culture that NCLB and Tweed have institutionalized in our schools?


  6. I think it is not a good idea to have someone else except your students in the class. I suggested my principal to watch from cameras any time he wants to. Neither teacher or the student are original when someone else is present in the class, so the evaluation done about the class and the teacher is not the one that would be if just teacher and students were present in the class.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s