Tony Gurr

Why do we still have so many MISFIRES with classroom observation? (Part 03)

In Classroom Teaching, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness, Teacher Training on 27/02/2012 at 12:51 pm

As I noted in Part 01 and Part 02, classroom observation is an amazingly complex animal – and an animal that is frequently “engineered” for “misfire”!

Despite this “fact”, a lot of institutions still do a far better job than others, many observers do a “great” job of helping teachers really grow – and loads of teachers (working in those institutions, with those observers) do not seem to have the “fears” and “negative reactions” to the observation process that their less fortunate colleagues seem to have.

This suggests, to me at least, that these observers and institutions know “something” – and “do” something with what they know. They not only recognise that TEACHing is “emotional work” – but also that to get observation “right” you have to focus on the “people” involved and “do” a whole lot of “systemic alignment”.


We could say they “know” the ABC’s of classroom observation:

But, I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s backtrack for a second or two.


We’ve already talked about the importance of institutional culture and trust.

Classroom observation just works “better” in institutions that have a “healthy climate” based on collaborative relationships, transparency and an improvement-orientated ethos.

Perhaps, if we look more closely at some of the other “misfires” (the ones I suggested were at the heart of all our “observation woes”), we might be able to see more of the “bigger picture”:


Now, remember I also noted that I was inspired to put my “observation thunking cap” back on by a couple of recent posts that caught my imagination:

So, I’d like to pick up on a couple of things they mentioned – just to contextualise my own thunks – as some of their points highlight the complexity I was talking about, as well as the misfires.

Some of these misfires left Dave calling for “a complete change in the way observations are done”.

I’m guessing there are many out there who’d agree with him. However, as I tracked the “comments” to Dave’s post, I began to see that his central frustration was with the whole “hierarchical structure” of the “I’m the expert and I’m going to tell you what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong” approach to classroom observation.

He’s right to feel this way – and I’m sure even more teachers would agree with that!


That having been said, I couldn’t help feeling that what he was really talking about was ineffective observers” working with “ineffective processes. The kind of observer Dave was describing clearly lacks the both the “talent” and “experience” to get the best from any teacher – but seems to make up for these deficiencies in “ego”.

Those might seem like harsh words – but it does not take 10,000 hours of studying rocket-science to see how this take on “being an observer” can create a pretty “negative mind-set” in those teachers who are at the sharp end of it. It also does not require Master NLP Certification to see how the “words” that kind of observer might use would use instil “fear” into even the most confident of teachers.

I’m building up to something here – stick with me!


In the second post, Chris, using his own reflections as an observer, offered some very solid suggestions – suggestions that many of these “less effective observers” would do very well to heed…Chris was also pretty clear in his understanding that classroom observations “are there to help teachers develop” – and, I can see how many teachers would strongly agree with this, too.

I really enjoyed his post – but (again) I couldn’t help feeling that this was not the whole story – and it also suggested (to me) that what he was saying could perhaps be the “missing link” between misfires 02, 03 and 04.


The thing is… classroom observation – in an institutional context – is not only used to help teachers “develop”. Institutions use classroom observation for a wide range of purposes – all over the world:

  • Uncover (and describe, when required) how teachers “do the business” of LEARNing and TEACHing at the chalkface.
  • Identify (and hopefully tackle) any challenges that the institution may be facing with its LEARNing and TEACHing strategies.
  • Look into any LEARNing “imbalances” that may have become evident – within or between the various “classes” or “sections” the institution uses to “group” students.
  • Make decisions about “probation” or “renewal” of its TEACHing staff – perhaps as part of a wider “performance management or improvement system”.
  • Improve the “quality” of classroom TEACHing – and hopefully, as a consequence, the “quality” of student LEARNing.
  • Plan, implement and evaluate various improvement and training initiatives for teachers.
  • Provide teachers with “input” and, one would hope, information that that help them “see” things that they might have “missed” about their own classroom behaviour and ability-set – and help them reflect and grow.
  • Evaluate the success (or otherwise) of major “investments” across the organisation (e.g. in EdTech or new facilities).

There’s probably a few more that you could add to this list! But, as you’ll have gathered, some of these purposes impact teachers directly, others relate more to an instıtution’s broader aims – some even touch on student LEARNingThe bottom line isfrom an institutional perspectiveall of them make total sense (if an institution wants to do a better job).

Now, I won’t try and kid youmany teachers do not like the idea of many of these purposes (especially, when they involve “high-stakes decision-making” and “unannounced supervisor drop-ins”). Fair enough!

As “individual” teachers, we do not always see (or want to see) the importance of all these purposes – until we go through the experience of sharing a class with a teacher who “cares” far less than we do, when students really start complaining about our teaching partner and their lack of LEARNing or when we end up going “head-to-head” because she is not carrying her weight (and “administration” do nothing about all this).

Just because we don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not important. Equally, just because we don’t like something doesn’t mean we can’t make it work – for everyone involved.

How is it that some schools (not many, have to be honest) in the UK and US have managed to make even the 15-minute, unannounced classroom drop-in by senior principals “work” – for teachers?


A lot of the misfires we see with classroom observation occur because institutions do not make their purposes for using classroom observations clear – leaving both observers and observees to fall back on what they think they know is best (remember, my darling padawans?). To make matters worse, institutions frequently fail to come up with processes that are fit-for-purpose or provide the right kind of training – for both observers and observees.

All Institutions should use classroom observation to support the development of teachers (as one tool from a very big tool box) – and should take steps to ensure that teachers are supported by skilled, professional and caring observers.

But, they also need to be very clear at those times when they are using classroom observation for purposes other than teacher developmentand perhaps explain how the “technology” (the processes, protocols and “rules of the game” may differ because of this).

More importantly they have to use “common sense” when aligning their purposes, their technology and the people involved in the process:

For example, a large number of schools still require that their senior administrators conduct most classroom observationswithout regard to whether these people have any observation training or not. These administrators frequently do not have the time to provide teachers with effective feedback – let alone hold meaningful conversations on professional growth (thx Cristina). In these situations, it not hard to see how many teachers become cynical about classroom observation systems supposedly set up to “improve the quality of classroom teaching and enhance student LEARNing”.

Another one…a lot of people these days are looking at ways of promoting “peer observation” across their campuses – great idea! However, if this involves colleagues gathering data on each other – data that is then used to make “judgments about performance” (or, even worse, “renewal decisions” or allocating “merit pay”), you can see how we might be setting ourselves up for something more than simply an “observation misfire”.



This is fitness-for-purposeknowing why you are doing something and making sure that is aligned with the processes you have chosen to use. Oh, yes – and getting people informed, involved and inspired!


The ABC’s of classroom observation are not rocket science:

  • The PUPOSES of any observations need to be both clear and transparent – and be guided by fairness, professionalism and care
  • The “TECHNOLOGY” used needs to be fit-for-purpose – as do the ground rules and protocols that are associated with classroom visits and the expected follow-up and anticipated results (hey, it’s even better when both parties have been involved in “co-creating” whatever processes are used)
  • Both OBSERVER and OBSERVEE need to recognise that it is relationships that make processes work – and that relationships work best when grounded on mutual respect, growth and LEARNing

…about it! Maybe we can do a bit more…tomorrow!

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