The term evokes so many mixed emotions. Teachers often find them useless at best and fear-inducting at worst. And principals often see them as just another item to check off a list.
In my work with leaders during this challenging time, many are wondering how they will fulfill this essential job function in these new and strange times. Some feel the pressure from their state or district to get a required number of evaluations completed by a certain date. Some wonder if they should just stop altogether for at least the time being.
Now, of course, there’s another layer of complexity as teaching and learning takes place with cameras, in Google Meets or Zoom rooms or with some hybrid approach. Teachers are understandably nervous about observations–especially if they haven’t seen any benefit to the process before we entered this new reality.
So, the principal who wants to create or maintain a culture of deep and joyful learning might keep the following points in mind.
Start by asking yourself why you are engaged in the evaluation process at all? How will teaching and learning be served by this particular observation? How does the entire “evaluation” process help the teachers and students in my building? How will you use each interaction to celebrate strengths and build trust. (By the way, if you’re wondering what that looks like, you might check out Craig Randall’s forthcoming book, Trust-Based Observations.)
If your responses are about making sure you collect enough data to upload to the district and/or state platform, take a few steps back. Sure, that’s an important component of your job, but you’re missing a chance to support deep and joyful learning if you go in with a checklist mentality.
Instead, you might remind yourself–and your teachers that your presence in classrooms (in whatever form that takes) allows you to be a:
The processes, protocols and even the framework we’ve used thus far for setting professional goals just may not work right now. Ask your teachers to tell you where they believe they should focus, what led them to that area and what evidence they will call upon to check on their progress.
Ask them, too, if they can think of alternatives to the current structures that would allow you to fulfill your obligations while also allowing for a “coloring outside the lines” mentality. They might ask for a way to substitute peer observations for principal observations. Or, they might suggest recording themselves, sharing the recording with you and then coming together to discuss. (Video is great–you both see the same thing and the good stuff can’t be missed!)
Let this be a brainstorm where there are NO bad ideas!
For all that is wrong and painful about this time of pandemic, there are a few bright spots. One of those is the gift of uninterrupted one on one time. It is rare that principals ever have time to fully give their attention to one person for an uninterrupted hour. Now, we have an opportunity to engage–over zoom- with a teacher for 30 or 60 minutes without interruption.
In addition, a zoom meeting can provide a level of comfort for teachers–especially newer teachers. Instead of meeting in the principal’s office, they can sit in their own home. (Alternatively, if you don’t do this already, meeting in the teacher’s classroom can provide him or her with a sense of confidence.)
Ask your teachers to show you something new or share a new idea. This may be a new tool they have or plan to use with their students or it may be something they’ve read. After they’ve shared, ask if they’d be comfortable sharing with others in a virtual staff meeting. While many teachers don’t like the spotlight, they do love supporting their colleagues.
You might also ask if you can highlight what you observed in a newsletter to families or with your district leadership team.
Yes, there have already been some horror stories about “unannounced observations” as evidenced in this Twitter thread. While many of the replies urged administrators to stop conducting observations, I disagree. It’s the principal’s job to make sure each and every student is learning deeply and joyfully–and to see to it that teachers have the resources and support to make that happen.
So, make your why clear to your teachers, be open and flexible to when and where observations happen, ask for innovative ways to connect, celebrate and report the great stuff that’s happening while being honest about challenges.
Oh, and then ask your teachers for regular feedback about your own work. It will go a long way toward building the trust necessary for deep and joyful learning…even during a pandemic.