The Power of Peer Observation: Part I, The Rationale

An administrator who wants to save money, increase staff morale, and provide authentic professional development  needs to look no further than her own faculty roster. Peer observation is one of the most under-utilized tools in the professional development world.

Teaching is an occupation that takes years of experience, failure, and recalibration to master. Great teachers learn from others, reflect on their practice, and seek out personal development.  One of the easiest, cheapest, most convenient forms of authentic professional growth is to observe another teacher on the job.   The numerous hours of observation required for pre-service teachers, I believe, are a waste of time because, frankly, until you’ve managed a classroom of your own, you don’t know what you’re looking for. You’re still looking at the teacher from the perspective of a student.   It’s not until you have a classroom of your own that you understand how valuable, say, an efficient and effective filing system is. 

To observe a teacher who has hit her stride is to sit front row at a professional development blockbuster.  For this kind of rich, embedded professional development, a teacher doesn’t have to travel to another city, endure the hassle of a conference or the kind of sit-and-get sessions that mark most professional offerings. Teachers can just walk across the hall and get some live action, authentic professional tips.

When I was a district curriculum specialist for a brief time, I attempted, as often as I could, to relieve young teachers of their teaching duties for one or two class periods, so they could observe a veteran educator for an entire class period.  Often I would debrief them afterwards and ask the kinds of questions I hoped they were already posing to themselves:  How did the teacher start class?  How did he set the tone? What procedures did you see already in place in the classroom? What kinds of formative assessments were in place? What kind of transition did the teacher use to move students from one segment of the lesson into the next? How did she handle discipline?  How does she keep time? What is his method of calling on students? How did you know her objectives?  In a single class period of observation, the young teachers invariably came back to their classrooms with a half dozen or more different teaching hacks they could implement immediately to improve their own practice.

Here are a few thoughts about the power of peer observations:

  1. Observing a peer demystifies the teaching practice.  In the hyperbolic days of yore, teachers stood silently in the halls during class changes, then withdrew in a cloud of smoke to hold court in the closed-door sanctuary of their classroom.   When I started teaching in 1990, I don’t remember a single veteran teacher offering to help me sort out the gnarly issues of classroom management, discipline, planning and preparation.  Sink or swim.  This mentality has changed drastically in the last few decades, and the profession has benefitted greatly from the growing transparency that is becoming the standard.  When you observe a peer, you see his class is not all Stand and Deliver. However, a veteran teacher probably has five or six tricks up her sleeve that she can effortlessly whip out when an activity doesn’t go as planned or the technology doesn’t work, or when the girl in the back won’t shut up.  What a relief to know that we are all in this thing together, that we all have the same problems, and that we can be honest and open with our challenges and successes.
  2. Observing a teacher creates an opportunity to share your professional difficulties.  No teacher alive is going to raise her hand in the middle of a faculty meeting and ask for help controlling her classroom.  No teacher discloses, even in the smaller arena of a department meeting, that she is having trouble with planning and preparation.  The growing trend of professional learning communities has mitigated some of this hesitancy to share shortcomings, but even within the safest, most supportive communities, a teacher can still talk a good game and keep his difficulties hidden from everyone.  Until the day comes, of course, when he locks himself in the supply closet and refuses to come out.  Young teachers should not be the only ones observing; veteran teachers should also be observing young teachers and offering them encouragement, support, hacks, tips, techniques.  Even if it’s just a pat on the shoulder and an “I liked the way you handled that Williams kid when he didn’t want to do his work” – that’s absolute gold to a struggling teacher.
  3. Observing a peer opens a door for collaboration.  One of the great disappointment of most high school schedules is that teachers don’t have enough planning time with other disciplines. If a department is able to have common planning within the discipline, that’s often a major victory.  But what a boon to the students and the larger school culture, if a Social Studies teacher, a Humanities teacher, an Agriculture teacher and a Science teacher could observe one another’s classrooms on a rotating basis, and then collaboratively plan a unit or lesson that would showcase connectivity, creativity and cross-discipline communication?  Often peer observation can open those doors.   What a loss when the only people to observe a teacher are administrators who don’t have a use for any of the great lessons, units, and strategies they see.
  4. Peer observation creates a “we’re-all-in-this-together” mentality schoolwide.  Creating a culture of trust and group identity within a school can improve morale and heighten positive and professional partnership among the faculty.  When teachers observe one another in action, mentorships and other professional relationships are born.  To expose your classroom with all its warts and glories to another member of the staff takes vulnerability and courage.  Peer observation often serves as a catalyst for burgeoning “I’ve got your back” relationships where none may have existed before.   Peer observation promotes trust among faculty and staff because all parties are willing to expose their own soft underbelly of insecurity to one another.

Bottom line:  An administrator who wants to save money, increase staff morale, and provide authentic embedded professional development needs to look no further than her own faculty. This year, I decided to take peer observation to the next level. I’m actually taking a class from one of my peers, and it’s one of the greatest experiences of my professional career.