Most of us have been subject to one. Many of us have performed one. All of us want to improve and act upon it. It’s the classroom observation. The classroom observation tool is rooted in educational reform and the musings of such thinkers as Frederick Taylor and Edward Thorndike. This scientific view of measuring teaching has survived decades of thought-leadership and, if executed well, can be a formative tool for teaching development and improvement. One should note that I deliberately used the word “formative” in that last sentence. As an administrator we should be viewing the action of performing an observation just like we do when we administer a formative assessment to a student—with the goal of assessing and improving teaching mastery. I am not advocating that
observations should not be used for performance evaluation, which I would view as a more summative action, but I would argue that they be one of many measurements used. I would also argue that a system of observations be used to evaluate faculty—such that we are not using just one observation to assess teaching efficacy.
Turning our attention to how an administrator might use an observation as a formative assessment, I offer these ideas:
The rubric. In short, have one. I would recommend that the rubric for classroom observations be faculty-driven and based on peer institution models with proven results. I would also recommend that in addition to objective criteria with rankings that a fair amount of the observation rubric allows for subjective commentary as well. This balance allows for textured and actionable feedback given to faculty and also allows the observer to use their experience as educators to coach. Once the rubric is developed, please do send it to your faculty in advance of them teaching the course(s) that will be observed.
The lead-up. Communication of an observation system is critical. Formally and informally communicating the importance of observations is important to gain faculty buy-in. I would also recommend that faculty be informed of their observations—whether as a range or a specific date. This is a professional courtesy and not intended for them to perform differently just for you.
Observe early. New faculty are just like new students—they are in a vulnerable state as they acclimate to a new institution and its distinct culture, processes and procedures. We owe it to new faculty to observe them in their first term to help them align to the institution’s teaching philosophy. This first observation is an opportunity for an administrator to get to know this new faculty member in a way that is difficult to in an interview and/or teaching demonstration. The true purpose of this first observation is merely to coach.
Observe veterans. I do not believe that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. To assume that length of employment is an indicator of good teaching is a flawed assumption. Depending on the culture of the institution, peer observations may be a good first step in reinvigorating an observation program. An administrator with great rapport with their faculty could also offer observations that are carefully explained.
The follow-up. The delivery of the observation is perhaps as important as the observation itself. I strongly recommend that observations be delivered in-person and/or via web conferencing, as appropriate, but never simply emailed. This is where the magic happens and where the true formative nature of observations is demonstrated. A bi-directional conversation about the findings and recommendations is a great way to establish rapport, build relationships, and improve. These meetings should be viewed not only as an opportunity to deliver findings, but to collect more data and learn from each faculty member as well. It should be capped with an action plan and later follow-up as the findings would recommend.
Outside of everything I have written so far, my biggest pieces of advice are, 1) be objective, and 2) be kind. I would hope we can all accomplish the first area; being objective is tantamount to being a good administrator, but being kind? Sometimes that does not always come naturally to us, especially if we observed behaviors we do not appreciate. I would argue, no matter what, find the positive and use a coaching mindset when delivering your findings. I am sure some folks get into education for the money (not!), but most of us are just trying to make an impact on this world—sometimes it is misguided and we need the help of others with more experience in certain areas to deepen this impact.