Teacher to Observer

Teacher2Teacher Team

by | 11.17.16

Teacher2Teacher is a community that shares effective practices and innovations so educators can connect and grow together.

Jill Gough is the director of teaching and learning at Trinity School in Atlanta, Georgia. Thomas Benefield teaches 5th-grade language arts and social studies and Becky Holden is a math specialist at Trinity School.

#ObserveMe is a growing movement created by educator Robert Kaplinsky that encourages real-time, peer-to-peer feedback among educators. Teachers who choose to participate create an #ObserveMe sign, which is then photographed, tweeted and hung outside the classroom door. The sign invites other teachers to drop in on a lesson and share their own observations on a select set of goals.

Jill: We are an elementary school, so our teachers are teaching reading, math, writing and social studies. They’re looking for something that’s high-level about their teaching. We know from the work by [Harvard’s] Richard Elmore and Elizabeth City that the highest-quality professional development we can offer our teachers is peer-to-peer observation and feedback. So we’re always looking for ways to invite others into our classroom and to share our practices because we’re very good teachers, but we always get better by learning from each other.

#ObserveMe is growing at my school. I was invited to observe a Spanish class with our 6th graders and since [then], three more teachers have hung #ObserveMe signs and four other teachers have visited my office to talk about protocol and the types of questions they should be asking to seek feedback.

To me, the #ObserveMe sign says a few things. It says that we’re a community of risk-takers who are brave enough to say, “Here’s what I want to know about my own practice.” It also says, “We’re trying to do the best job we can on a daily basis, and at any moment, you’re welcome to drop in because this is what we’re striving for.” It says that we believe we can help each other become better by leaning in and discussing our practice.

Thomas: I follow Jill on Twitter and saw the posts that she did with #ObserveMe, so I spoke with her about it [and] later decided that it was a great way to get more feedback.

This is my third year at [our school]. This year, we started doing a reader’s and writer’s workshop and there’s a certain format for that. It’s a change in teaching style for me, [and] when you have an open discussion, it’s easier to get off topic. So I wanted to make sure that what I’m doing is most effective for my students.

Becky: Jill showed me the article online where [Robert Kaplinsky] talks about #ObserveMe and has templates that you can use as a framework. I read the suggestions and tried to think, “What if I were to do that? What would I put?”

[I asked Jill to observe] three teaching practices, so one was “posing purposeful questions.” The next one was “supporting productive struggle” and the third was “listening and using evidence of student thinking.” You want to meet kids where they are, to move them forward. [#ObserveMe] helped give me feedback that’s different from, “You did a great job” or “The kids were engaged.”

Jill: If you’re going to do a true observation, you can’t enter into the classroom experience — you’ll change the dynamic if you do that. So, I try to sit in a place where I can see, but I have my iPad and I’m busy sketching.

I just take notes around what I observe. I like sketchnotes, so I sketch what I observe (I use [the app] Paper by 53) and then I immediately tweet it. Then I’ll go over it with the teacher just so they can see what’s happening in their class — it’s very difficult to do that while you’re teaching — and they can ask me questions or bounce ideas off of me. There are two teachers that have asked me to come back and do a second observation to get additional feedback (not that it was positive or negative). It was just, “Here’s what I observed,” and if they asked, I shared my thoughts and opinions, some of which they wanted to try and put into play. So, that second invitation was just, “Okay, I’m going to make these adjustments based on feedback. Will you come and observe again and tell me what you see?”

Thomas: When I was choosing my initial three goals, I was taking a look at the way that the workshops were structured and, knowing the way that I taught, seeing where the biggest differences were between my natural style and this new strategy.

[Jill] has observed me twice. One of my goals is using the right vocabulary in the workshop, and she was able to keep track how often I’d done that. Another one of my challenges is not having a lesson go on for too long. I was able to look at Jill’s doodle notes and think, “Okay, from the start to the end of my lesson, this is the time period that elapsed. This is the number of times that kids were asking questions that might have been answered had they waited.”

[After her first observation], I did some work with my students — just going over workshop procedure — and by the second observation, I was able to increase my speed.

Becky: I was worried at first that [the goals I set] were a lot to notice — that I had too many things listed, even though I felt like they were all important. But [Jill] was able to notice all three of them and that was encouraging. [Afterward], I wanted her to do most of the talking because I knew what I’d hoped had happened during the lesson, but I wanted to see what she saw.

My hope is that #ObserveMe will help me when I’m [conferring with] other teachers after a lesson, since I can talk about what those three items are and what they looked like to Jill when she came in. It just opens up a whole new conversation.

Nate Bowling, a teacher in Washington state, tweeted a pictured that showed how he’s embraced opportunities to be observed.

The thing is, [as an observer], you’re never judging. And that’s what’s great about this experience. It’s not saying if the lesson is good or bad. It’s just, “What am I seeing?” It helps [teachers] become more aware.

Now, when I look at the signs other people made, I see that everybody approaches it differently. [The point is to] open up your practice because you’re not a vacuum. This is a non-judgmental way to do that.

Jill: [The goals] give me targets to look for and observe. I also think that when a teacher asks for specific feedback, it lowers the anxiety around having an observer because you’ve decided, “Here’s what I want to have feedback on,” as opposed to something more open-ended. Plus, [the observer] may otherwise miss whatever it is the teacher wants to know about their own practice.

Thomas: The sign is an open invitation — it’s there all the time. [As for] the goals that I’ve been working on, I’ve made some good progress. I think that I’m ready to move on to a new set. For example, social studies. I think I could come up with a few new goals that would perhaps encourage other [teachers] to drop in.

Jill: Far too often we think, “I teach math, so I need another math teacher to come and observe me.” And that’s absolutely true — you need colleagues who teach what you teach to come observe you, and you observe them so that you understand your program horizontally and vertically. However, we want divergent ideas too, because you get a different perspective and different ideas. We all love our content, that’s why we want to teach it. But perhaps hearing from somebody who doesn’t love it quite like we do can help us see how we can make small changes to attract more learners to the table.

Below, Jill, Thomas and Becky share their tips for educators new to #ObserveMe:

    • Jill: I regularly have to take all of the judgment words out, because I will write, “super,” “wow” and “awesome” in my notes. I take those words out because that’s my opinion, not what I’m seeing. As the observer, you just document what you saw during the lesson. [Thomas] wanted to know about his ability to confer with students. So, I documented the transitions, what happened during each, and I made little notes when I saw him confer one on one with students. It’s all what I saw or heard, not what I thought or felt.
    • Thomas: Maintain your natural composure. It’s all about making sure that you’re being yourself. Being well-prepared but still yourself makes it a regular classroom experience for the kids. Kids know when you’re not being yourself and they’ll react in a way that they normally wouldn’t.
    • Becky: [In terms of effectiveness], a lot has to do with what you ask people to notice. If you’ve been working hard to make sure that you touch base with everybody, and somebody is coming in to help you see how well you’ve been doing that, you want to be specific. So you might say something like, “I want to do a better job at this, so I’d like you to note how many times I do whatever that is.”

Connect with Jill on Twitter @jgough and visit her blog at jplgough.wordpress.com. Connect with Thomas on Twitter @yerlifeguard and with Becky @bholden86.
Interested in learning more about #ObserveMe and bringing it to your classroom and school? Find the template here and join the conversation using #ObserveMe.

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