What Exactly Should I Be Looking For During Class Observation?


Class observation by a coach or principal strikes fear in the hearts of many teachers and I know exactly why!  Who wants to be judged?  Better yet?  Who wants to be judged by someone who hasn’t likely been in the classroom for years and was on their cell phone during the professional development sessions?

Um.  Not me!

Principals and Coaches – we owe it to our staff to be more proactive, less scary and lurker-ish during our observations.

Let me explain.

First of all,  you have to have a focus for the instructional work you’re doing on your campus.  This is the PURPOSE behind your observations.  When teacher know, “Hey – my principal is looking for increased engagement levels from my ELL students during ELA instruction,” then two cool things happen:

  1. They tend to focus on integrating that work/technique/strategy more broadly and deeply into their everyday teaching because they know that you’ll be around to look for it.  This is a big motivator for a lot of teachers.
  2. Their anxiety lessens because they realize that they actually have a chance to meet our expectations because our expectations aren’t random, they’re focused

When we have no instructional focus at the school site, then our observations (whether it’s true or not!) seem like a “gotcha” – and that’s not a motivation that will sustain long-term growth in any staff.

Implementation due to fear is not a recommended tactic!

So, principals and coaches, you should start with a focus and let your staff know that you will be in their classrooms formally and on a drop-in basis looking for the instructional focus in action at any time of the day.

Secondly, when you go into classrooms, you should approach it as a balcony-sitter at a theater production.


Let me explain.

When you sit in the balcony, you have perspective.  You can see the other audience members, you can see the orchestra, you can see the entire width of the stage.  Sometimes you can even see into the wings of the stage and see the actors’ entrances and exits!

When the actors are on stage or the audience is situated really close to the stage, there is so much perspective that is lost.  This is the teacher’s position – the teacher is so close to the action and right in the middle of it most of the time, it’s hard to gain perspective and hard to evaluate the full orchestration of the lesson.

(Some might  argue that when you sit close you have tremendous focus, but this doesn’t necessarily serve our immediate purpose during class observation!)

When you have a PERSPECTIVE mindset during classroom observations, here’s what you should be looking for:

  • How is the teacher orchestrating the lesson?  Is it well orchestrated and smooth or choppy and disjointed?  What is the evidence that this is so?
  • What is the pacing like?  Are the students keeping up with the lesson?
  • Are the groupings benefiting the students?  How do you know?
  • Are particular students having trouble with the intensity of the lesson?  Which students?  How could you tell?
  • When in the lesson did the teacher start to “lose” students?  What did that look like?  What did the students start to do that showed you that they were less lesson-focused?
  • What percentage of the time did the teacher spend in direct instruction?  Guided practice?  Application?
  • How many re-directions (which don’t have to be a bad thing!) did the teacher do during each portion of the lesson?
  • What was the students product?  What did the teacher expect in terms of written response?  Discussion or oral responses?  Did the students use complete sentences and extended thoughts during the lesson?
  • Was it readily apparent what the goal of the lesson(s) was?  Did the teacher revisit the goal to touch-back for the kids?  When you asked a student what they were working on, could they explain the task and the purpose behind it?

You see, an observation (and the feedback given) won’t be helpful at all unless it gives teacher perspective that they cannot otherwise get when they’re right in the trenches doing the teaching.

I start my informal and formal rounds by stating to myself the response to this question: “What perspective do I want to give my teachers today that they wouldn’t get if I didn’t observe them?

Now THAT’s purpose folks!