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The Power of the (Informal) Peer Observation

Posted by on in Professional Development
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classroom observation eye

A powerful professional development tool exists that may be underutilized in your school: Peer observations. That is, the practice of teachers observing teachers with the goal of improving their own teaching. 

When I started a new teaching position mid-year, peer observation played a crucial role in my integration because it gave me insight into the school culture. Through the simple act of sitting in a colleague's classroom and taking notes (well, six different classrooms with six different colleagues), I was able to see a range of teaching styles and classroom management techniques. I got a clearer glimpse of my students' daily experience, and I saw new opportunities for collaboration across disciplines.

Here is a simple process that educators can use to refine their own teaching practices and engage in free professional development during the school week:

  1. Form a question or focus for your observation. What do you want to get out of this observation?
  2. As a colleague if you can sit in on their class; branch out to different departments if possible. If they say yes, then pick a time and agree on protocols.
  3. Be a fly on the wall and take notes (doc): What classroom management strategies do you notice? How does your colleague organize his/her lessons? How are they using technology in the classroom? What do they do to motivate students? Note: Try sitting with your back to groups of students; they may be more authentic when they don't feel observed. 
  4. Thank your colleague.
  5. Keep it confidential: Don't discuss your colleague's lesson with others.
  6. Reflect & plan: What's something new that you saw that you'd like to try out in your classroom?
  7. Try something new in your classroom! Let your colleague know what tool or strategy you learned from them.
  8. If your colleague wants your feedback, offer it - but with caution. Remember that you observed one lesson, on one day, in one school year. Avoid offering "quick fix" solutions and avoid passing judgments.

What administrators can do facilitate peer-to-peer learning:

  1. Create time. Teachers can't observe their peers if they only have breaks in their schedules for lunch.
  2. Make it voluntary and separate from evaluation: Teachers need to be able to drive their own learning. Teachers may see mandates to observe their peers as an example of unwelcome micromanaging or as "just one more thing" that they need to do. And as Peter DeWitt observes, teachers and observers may be less likely to be honest when peer evaluations are high stakes.
  3. Work to create a culture of collaboration and trust so that teachers can feel comfortable inviting peers into their classrooms.

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Amy Williams holds Masters degrees in English and teaching. She was a New York Educator Voice Resident Fellow in the 2014-15 school year, and was a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Grant recipient in 2014. Her writing and lesson plans have appeared on ReadWriteThink, EdWeek Teacher, and in other publications. Amy was a tenured educator in New York where she taught grades 10, 12, English electives like Mass Media & Society and dual-enrollment courses with Tompkins Cortland Community College. She now teaches at an IB World School in Germany.

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Guest Saturday, 22 October 2016