Speaking Out: Mistaking Change for Progress

By Wendy Crawford
Principal, January/February 2016

When I first became a principal 21 years ago, one of the first trainings I attended was on observation. It involved scripting a lesson. We were taught that you could only comment on what you actually saw during the observation and that any commendations or recommendations at the bottom of the form had to relate directly to the script portion at the top of the document.

During the training, we discussed what to look for in a good lesson, signs of student engagement, and understanding and indications of differentiated instruction. We also spoke about the key points of a lesson, such as having a clear learning objective, and having students clearly close and restate the learning. The importance and purpose of the post-observation conference were addressed, with the goal always to improve instruction—the only reason for the observation process. We watched tapes, read scripts, and role-played. I left the full-day workshop feeling ready to get my feet wet.

At first I handwrote my observations, and then read them into a Dictaphone for the secretary to type. It was time consuming, but worth it. I asked the teachers to invite me in, and we had a brief preconference. I left a form with them so they could reflect on the lesson—what went well, what they would do differently if they were to repeat the lesson, and any questions they had for me.

The whole process was very rewarding. I felt I was accomplishing what the interview process had indicated to me was the heart of the principalship: improving instruction to support learning for students, working collegially with staff, and sharing great ideas from great teachers with other teachers in a safe and trusting environment. Over the years I typed the lessons on a PowerBook, eliminating the Dictaphone and the actual mechanics of capturing the lesson were made easier because of the changing technology. Typically, I emailed a draft to the teacher almost immediately and we discussed it right away. I continued to do some observations where I was invited and others that were impromptu. I offered the reflection form as an option to facilitate the post-conference.

Fast forward 21 years. I am a seasoned principal in another progressive district attending summer training in observation. The workshop takes place over several weeks, a day or two at a time, each with a different presenter. The focus is on learning how an expert in the field defines the individual elements of instruction. The technology has advanced; I now use an iPad, and the entire process is done online. No more printing and copying observations. I send a draft quickly to the teacher and we have a post-conference. There is a pre- and post-conference form, based on the elements or map associated with the commercial program we are using. The verbiage is new to the teachers and to me; we were all trained but it is not yet automatic. The emphasis is on how part of the learning process was observed (previewing, new information, deepening learning, etc.) and the teacher’s presentation of such.

Student engagement is also evaluated. I use the touch screen to jump in and out of the elements and score the observation based on a predetermined rubric. Pre- and post-conferences are full of the elements and the rubric. It isn’t difficult. We were extensively trained and we did a great deal of inter-reliability practice. But it all fits neatly into a computer system, a package if you will. Good teaching still looks like good teaching and great teachers still distinguish themselves from average teachers. We continue to learn how all of this will tally in the system to become the annual performance review, or summative. Everyone looks for the positive components of the system, administrators and teachers alike. We discuss how our post-conferences are rich with the new terms and we are having a different level of conversation than ever before.

I think we are all trying very hard to see the Emperor’s new clothes, and someone needs to just stand up and admit that the Emperor is naked.

I long for the days when pre- and post-observations were focused more on the learner and we discussed how children learn and what we can do to enhance the learning. I marvel at those who say this is driving conversations to be more about instruction; what else were the conversations about in the past? I miss capturing the lesson in a script that allowed not only for targeted post-observation discussions but presented ample opportunity for self-reflection. I miss the opportunity to decide whether the observation is announced or unannounced based on the teacher’s preference or individual needs.

Our forms and process are scripted and it has been my experience that the best teachable moments and observable moments are rarely scripted. But mostly, I miss the rich conversations about best practice, developmentally appropriate strategies, and the current literature. I miss sharing an article and discussing in informal language how this information applies to the lesson.

Blessed with a professional and talented staff, we still focus on student achievement and developmentally appropriate instruction, but it is not as embedded in the observation process as it was in the past.

Sometimes change is truly progress; the changes in technology are a good example. Other times change is just change and it diverts our energies and attention from the heart of the principalship, which never changes: improving instruction to support learning for students, working collegially with staff, and sharing great ideas from great teachers with other teachers in a safe and trusting environment.

It is time we confront the emperor with the bare facts.

Wendy Crawford is principal of the Early Childhood Center in Washington Township, Gloucester County, New Jersey.

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