Tony Gurr

Why do we still have so many MISFIRES with classroom observation? (Part 02)

In Classroom Teaching, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness, Teacher Training on 26/02/2012 at 2:01 am

Almost as soon as I had added the very last full stop to my last post – Why do we still have so many MISFIRES with classroom observation? (Part 01) I realised I might have bitten off more than I could chew!

Let me elaborate.


If, as I so foolishly (but correctly) pointed out:


…the obvious follow-up question is “What the hell do we do about it, Tony?”


I guess I could simply say “improve” your CULTURE and CLIMATE, and you’ll be alright, mate! But, I doubt if that would inspire many of you to drop in and check out Part 03!

Clearly, drawing up a list of problems is a lot easier than coming up with solutions for all of them – maybe, that’s why so many people like checklists!

The importance of organisational culture and climate to designing, planning and implementing an effective classroom observation process was really brought home to me a few years back.

Yes, you were right – you did smell “true teaching story” on the way!


I was working on a train-the-trainer programme a while back – I loved the group and we’d done some great work on a wide range of teaching and learning areas over the weeks before. Over time, I watched them grow as “reflective practitioners”, “critical questioners” and “peer mentors”.

The time came for us to look at “classroom observation” – they were a bit worried about stepping out of their comfort zones. So, I spent a long time thinking about ways to “ease” them all in and make sure they got really comfortable – before “throwing them in at the deep end”. To help get them there, I’d developed a really great set (well, I thought so) of case studies, discussion themes and activities.

I was gonna LEARN them so well…

The first of these was based on a discussion about the type of “observer” everyone wanted to be (when they “grew up”). I used something like this to kick things off:

Everyone chose number 03 (of course, and even told me how they would use number 02 to get number 03)! We were soon talking about the role of teacher LEARNing, reflection, non-judgmental feedback, sounding boards!

Then, we moved on to design posters including all the adjectives that described the way we would all “do business” (always a fun activity), we reviewed our own experiences of “good” and “not-so-good observations” (drawing on background knowledge – always cool, too) and developed some great lists of “dos” and “donts” (establishing a framework for action), we reviewed all the case studies and picked out all the “best practices” we would use (incorporating “standards” even)…

Christ, we were on fire! 

I was so happy…all my “train-the-trainer padawans” hit the mark every time…I was such a proud “Training Jedi”!

Until we came to “getting our hands dirty”…with a few role-plays!


In almost every single scenario and roleplay, my darling padawans (and they were) “tore” each other to pieces. It was almost as if they transformed into Sith Lords in front of my very eyes – not only were they experts and finding every single “problem” (while ignoring the strentghs), it was as if they took pleasure in telling their “observees” not only “what to fix” …“how to fix them”…but even “when to fix them”!

So, what the hell happened? 


Culture happened!

…and, when push-came-to-shove – my trainees went straight back to what they “knew” (and had experienced) or what others had “LEARNed them observation was all about”! They had “heard” the things I shared with them (heck, they even co-created these things with me) and they were “talking-the-talk” – but what they had been LEARNed (over time and in a very “subtle” manner) guided their “actions”.

Many of them did not even notice – until one brave soul stood up and said “we really screwed up, didn’t we?

Remember that also this all happened despite the fact that these “guys” were “dedicated”, “smart” and had really bonded as a group (and cared for each other). They simply forgot that “TEACHing is emotional work” and that “observation” and (more importantly) “observation feedback” is deeply “personal”.

In a nutshell – they did the “job” and forgot about the “person”!


The culture and climate of an institution tend to shape just about every process and system it creates.

The problem is that both of these powerful forces are largely based on the stockpiles of underlying assumptions, attitudes and mind-sets that are collected over time – in a largely “unconscious” way. Indeed, many individuals within organisations remain “blind” to what many of these elements are (and the impact they have on how people “do business”).

Things like this ain’t gonna change overnight – or even in a few weeks or months!

For example, if an educational institution tends to favour a more top-down (or, dare I saymore authoritarian) approach and also lacks trust in its people, it’s probably going to produce a more top-down and “controlling” approach to teacher evaluation and classroom observation.

The sad thing is – most of us, in education, know the road this takes us down:


However, institutions (like people) are not inherently “evil” (OK, with the exception of one or two of them) and most educational institutions want to do the best for their students and teachers – they just “screw up” from time to time and need a bit of help.

The good news is…this type of change is actually a lot easier than it used to be. Today, most individuals in our schools, colleges and universities “know” and can “talk-the-talk” of effective institutional or organisational “culture”.

This talk, not surprisingly, is very similar to the things teachers say they need from observation processes – TRANSPARENCY, CLARITY, FAIRNESS, TRUST and FEEDBACK.


The central challenge today is getting an institution (and its people) to really walk-its-talk – by making “the talk” explicit and “evidencing” the levels of alignment with “the walk”.

Creating the conditions for the kind of LEARNing opportunity (or “a-ha moment”) that the participants on my train-the-trainer programme had, for example, can really help grease the wheels. We can then build on this when we start to “get conscious” and also “get real” vis-à-vis the “purpose” of what we are trying to build (we’ll get to this in Part 03 of this series, promise).

And, looking at a couple of questions really does not hurt that process at all:

  • What type of broader culture do we want to drive our institution / observation process? Why?
  • What type of culture do we have as an institution / in our current observation process right now? How do we know this?
  • What matters to us as an institution / in our observation process? How do we reflect this in the ways we “do business”?
  • What needs to change for us to get closer to the type of culture / observation process we want?

You might ask what these types of questions really have to do with classroom observation (I told you I was worried about biting off more than I could chew). I also hinted that it would be totally foolish of me (or anyone for that matter) to suggest that an institution should “change its culture” or “improve its climate” – BEFORE it tries to put an observation process in place.

BUT, these types of questions can help create the kind of climate conducive to more creative (and caring) thinking. Some of that thinking might even break the vicious cycles we see so often associated with classroom observation:


Indeed, they can also help with a lot more than classroom observation processes!

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