5 Benefits of Mini-Observations

By Jack Zamary and Michelle Labrecque
May 2014, Volume 37, Issue 9

Time has always been a precious resource in our profession—even more so with the myriad new mandates and demands being placed upon school leaders. Principals can meet these challenges by using time efficiently and more effectively. Mini-observations, a concept that former principal Kim Marshall examines in many of his publications, including Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, can play an important role in fulfilling those ends.

While traditional observations serve a central and important role in assessing teacher quality and providing feedback, research has shown that formal observations can be superficial and ineffective. Mini-observations are short, frequent, and unannounced. They—on the other hand—can lead to a more authentic look at actual classroom practice than formal observations, and can result in feedback that is more relevant to ongoing instruction.  

Mini-Observations in Practice

In our home state of Connecticut, districts are required to implement three formal observations for all novice teachers and teachers not deemed “effective.” Feedback from pilot districts, though, indicates that many principals do not have the administrative time available to conduct those formal observations.

Administrators can conduct as many as three mini-observations during the time required for one formal observation and receive better feedback while doing so. Mini-observations are also more efficient because they are not scheduled in advance, an important aspect at a time when an increasing number of policy demands are made on administrators. Additionally, since mini-observations are unannounced, there is no pre-observation requirement, which also cuts back on the time commitment. More importantly, the 2009 Measures of Effective Teaching study (which surveyed over 3,000 teachers) showed that three mini-observations are as reliable as one formal observation. Here are a few more benefits to conducting mini-observations regularly.

Benefit #1: Rapport

Conducting mini-observations builds rapport between administrator and teachers. As Marshall notes in Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, when administrators conduct frequent, informal classroom visits, teachers begin to become more comfortable, and eventually, an honest give-and-take conversation about teaching and learning can take place. An administrator who makes frequent, unannounced visits to a classroom gets to know the teacher’s style and abilities. Thus, the administrator is better able to thoughtfully discuss best practice and how it relates to that teacher’s instruction. These benefits may help explain why teachers prefer mini-observations over formal observations, as shown in recent research conducted by one of the authors of this article in his dissertation, Mini-Observations Case Study: Assessing and Providing Feedback that can Lead to Changes in Instructional Practice.

Benefit #2: Ongoing reflection on practice

The frequent collaboration and reflection that result from the mini-observation process aids in advancing teacher effectiveness. With mini-observations, classroom teachers are required to participate more often in professional discussions on teaching and learning with an administrator. These professional discussions challenge teachers to consider questions such as: Who is learning? What is working and what is not? How will those students who are not learning be helped?

When teachers are engaged in these types of conversations, they feel included, valued, and motivated to create professional goals related to the specific needs of their students.

Benefit #3: Informed PD

Additionally, mini-observations put the administrator in an informed position about teachers’ professional development needs and how to differentiate training based on the specific needs of each teacher. Linking professional development to mini-observations allows teachers to see where new learning can fit specifically into their own instruction and enables teachers to make connections between new learning and current practice.

In addition, mini-observations that take place after professional development experiences inform the administrator about implementation and provides valuable information about what follow up training may be needed.

Benefit #4: Support for teacher-leaders

Mini-observations provide tangible evidence to inform principals’ decisions about which teachers have the talent to best lead and mentor others. Through observations, principals can identify teacher-leaders and help them use their strengths to support others who need support in that area. This can take the form of coaching, peer observations, or even leading a book discussion or ongoing professional conversations focused on the area of need.

Mini-observations also give administrators the information needed to form professional learning communities (PLCs) within their school. These groups can be need-based and can provide another opportunity for professional development and differentiated teacher learning that can then be observed during future mini-observations.

Benefit #5: Less stress

The frequent and unannounced nature of mini-observations can also lower teachers’ stress levels over time. Teachers no longer have to prepare the “dog and pony show” that typically occurs during an announced, formal observation.

In a study conducted by one of the authors of this article, middle school teachers stated that formal observations were more stressful as compared to mini-observations due to the “contrived nature” of formal observations. They also stated that knowing about formal observations in advance also contributed more to their stress.

Considering the many strengths of this approach, school leaders would be hard-pressed to not use mini-observations with teachers in some way.

Jack Zamary, a former principal in Regional School District 15, is director of educational technology and operations in Monroe, Connecticut.

Michelle Labrecque is a teacher in Regional School District 15 and an adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Southern Connecticut State University.


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