Delivering Bad News

The sergeant major came into the barracks at 3:00 am and announced: “Men, I’ve got some good news for you and I’ve got some bad news. First the bad news: There’s a bad flood coming so we’ve got to fill thousands of sandbags and build a levy. Now the good news: We’ve got plenty of sand!”

When delivering feedback after a classroom observation, peer observers are often reluctant to give bad news. One fear is that negative feedback will embarrass the teacher. This, in turn, could lead to a breakdown in rapport or motivate the teacher to retaliate later on. Even professions have difficulty delivering bad news. They are often apprehensive because too much bad news can be discouraging for the teacher.

My own philosophy is this: teachers cannot change (improve) if they don’t know there is a problem in the first place. To counteract the concerns listed above, we must remember to deliver the good news first. What is the teacher doing that contributes to student learning and engagement? It is important to be as exhaustive as possible because this strengthens teachers’ confidence and willingness to improve.


Next, the consultant must prioritize what bad news gets delivered. I normally gather various sources of data, including survey questionnaires. There are times when student feedback is completely negative. Since no one is a totally “bad” teacher, I have  learned that such negativity represents a “halo” (or should I say “horns”)  effect.

Normally, one core teaching problem is causing the students to feel negative about their whole learning experience. The question for observers to discover is, what is behind this global negative response?




Posted in Observer Feedback | Leave a comment

Facilitating Change

Having perused many, many websites over the past few months, I am aghast at the number of peer and professional observers who don’t understand their role when it comes to managing the feedback session.


The feedback process starts well enough -  both the teacher and the observer realized that students were inattentive, easily distracted and not doing the work that was assigned.They agree that student engagement need to improve but how do observers/consultants  address this?

The most prevalent mistake observers make is giving teachers a number of suggestions on how to improve. Their intentions are good; they know what works and their ideas are probably helpful. So what’s wrong with giving suggestions?

As a consultant I learned very early in my career not to go leaping to the rescue. It took a couple of failures on my part before I realized what I was doing wrong. One event that comes to mind is this: the teacher was working with a class of 27 students and they were being spoon-fed, and they were bored senseless. I (mistakenly) suggested using group work to activate the learners and we discussed how this could be managed. Well, I attended the next class, where the teacher experimented with this approach and it was a disaster! Why? Because she didn’t have the necessary sub-skills to manage group work: She had no sense of time management or how to sequence instruction to avoid chaos or how to set appropriately challenging tasks, and she didn’t know how to regain control once the students started talking.

I felt dreadful – and responsible! That’s when the penny dropped: the teacher should be responsible – not the consultant. Our role is to facilitate change, which requires a far less directive approach. I now ask the teacher to think of ways to activate or to challenge learners. If they cannot think of ways to do this, I offer suggested readings and the opportunity to discuss these ideas before implementing them in a classroom setting. Every teacher is different; people change at different rates and in different ways. By taking a facilitative role, observers can encourage teachers to take control and responsibility for improving their teaching effectiveness.

Posted in Observer Feedback | Tagged | Leave a comment

Giving Balanced Feedback

Every now and then professional consultants should transcribe their post-observation feedback sessions with teachers. I can think of no better way to critique and improve one’s own performance.


Out of necessity, I once wrote all my feedback for a teacher – we were both pressed for time and our schedules conflicted.  Since timing is so crucial, I opted to provide a written copy of my observation log and my moment-by-moment impressions along with my synopsis. A few months later, I decided to critique what I had written for a journal article I was writing. It was very illuminating!

First, I read the feedback report and simply counted the number of positive and negative points contained in my comments. They seemed balanced, but then I took a second look and discovered something very important about the feedback process: it’s not just the number of items observers identify, it’s also time on task.

One of the major pitfalls of giving constructive feedback is that we tend to simply mention the positive points but we dwell on the negative ones. I think this is because the positive aspects are obvious (what more can I say about eye contact, tone of voice, gestures?) while the weaknesses need explanation.

When providing feedback about aspects that are not working well, we assume the teacher doesn’t realize there is a problem or they don’t understand how it is a problem. For example, the teacher starts the lesson by diving into the first topic. There is no link to the previous class and no introduction to what will happen in today’s session. As observers, we explain the possible effects this has on learners: they are initially disoriented and confused. We can see them flipping pages in their notebooks as they try to grasp the context of today’s lesson. Because they are destabilized, it takes a few moments to settle down; meanwhile, whatever the teacher is saying is lost because the students aren’t able to concentrate yet. (See what I mean about time on task?)

To counteract this imbalance, observers have two options. The first, and most common approach, is to simply reduce the number of items we identify as needing improvement. It is important not to overwhelm the teacher so prioritizing and identifying one to three items for improvement makes sense. The second strategy, which I now use, is to spend more time on task when discussing strengths.

Even when strengths are obvious and seemingly trivial, it is important to dwell on their effects on students and the learning process. For example: “You use eye-contact very effectively; whenever you ask a question, I notice you scan the room and look directly at students. They know you are talking to them and they can tell that you expect them to give an answer. They seem at ease because you smile as you look at them…”  The teacher probably realizes that they use eye-contact but it helps to reinforce positive behaviours by acknowledging them and highlighting why they work so well.

In other words, consultants can improve their own effectiveness by examining their time on task and how they encourage the positive aspects of a teacher’s performance.

Posted in Observer Feedback | Comments Off

Taking the Onus off the Teacher

Every day, it seems, there is another article about a “great” teacher who is able to reach out and transform the lives of the students. The key to this type of success is being able to recognize and meet the emotional and psychological needs of learners while conveying course content.

I can’t help but wonder, how can any teacher do this year after year? How many emotional attachments can we make as teachers before we can’t give as much?

My personal belief it that education isn’t just about teacher-student relationships; it’s also about student-student connections and this we can facilitate year after year without draining ourselves emotionally.

As an observer/consultant it is important to be mindful of how students are interacting. From the moment they enter the classroom, I note how they interact: are there cliques, outsiders, loners? Who are the natural leaders? Then I watch how the teacher deals with these group dynamics and whether their strategies are effective – and for whom.

Helping teachers to consider strategies that will promote a positive environment where students can build trust, respect and cooperation with one another is one of the most important aspects of observing teaching. The onus is not directly on the teacher but on creating an environment where learners feel valued by one another.

Posted in Reflections, Teachers | Tagged | Leave a comment

How Does Change Happen?

Using classroom observations with feedback to improve teaching effectiveness has been used for nearly 40 years; yet, empirical studies have done little to improve our understanding of how this process works or how we can improve consultants’ effectiveness.

The first study I was involved in had four treatment groups. Teachers presented a five-minute lesson to a video recorder (no students were present). In Group 1, each teacher reflected on their performance then retaught the lesson. In Group 2, the teachers watched the video of their performance and then retaught the lesson. In Group 3, teachers met with a consultant who provided feedback while in Group 4 the teacher and consultant watched and discussed the videotape together before the teacher retaught the lesson. Results revealed that having a consultant with whom to discuss one’s teaching was significantly more effective. In other words, Groups 3 and 4 showed greater improvement than teachers in Groups 1 and 2.

While simulated studies can help to demonstrate that meeting with a consultant is more effective than simply reflecting on one’s teaching, but what makes a consultant more or less effective?

Having worked with well over a hundred individual teachers, I’ve noticed that people change at different rates, in different ways and to different degrees.  Change is complex and multifaceted, so what guidelines can we offer consultants to help them be maximally effective?

To begin, we need to understand the process of change; in other words, what do we mean by change and how does it happen? Change can be incremental, which means we gradually improve what we are doing already. For example, I can learn to ask questions better. I can learn to phrase them to be less threatening, or more specific, or more interesting, etc.

The second type of change is more profound: transformational changes involve changing the meaning of what we are doing. The students are inattentive, they look bored. As a consultant, I prefer to interpret this as disengaged or under-challenged. What’s the difference? When we say students seem “bored”, we are implicitly suggesting that they need to be entertained (which is insulting to many teachers); however, if we say they are under-challenged, then teachers recognize the need to activate the learners, to make them think, to be involved, and to work harder. By changing the meaning (under-challenged rather than bored), observers can set off a chain reaction that stimulates the teacher to be more creative and more effective.

Both incremental and transformational changes can have a positive influence on teaching improvement, but the latter will lead to more substantial changes.

Posted in Reflections | Leave a comment

Thou Shalt Not Rescue

It starts innocently enough. You’re in class, sitting amongst the students and you can see that they are talking, texting or being disruptive. It’s very tempting to say something or to frown in disapproval. Resist!

Maybe you’re in class and the teacher is asking questions but no one is responding. The lesson is dragging on and you know how to incite a lively discussion. Don’t speak up! Resist!

One of the biggest temptations observers often have to deal with is the urge to rescue the teacher. Do nothing! Resist! Helping teachers during a lesson will only serve to undermine their self-confidence and their authority in the classroom.

Speaking from experience, it takes a great deal of self-restraint not to intervene. Observers tend to form an emotional bond and a strong sense of loyalty with the teacher, which fuels our protective instincts. This has to be kept in check if the observer is to be maximally helpful.

Instead of jumping into the fray, observers needs to take careful notes. What was happening while the disruption or deafening silence was taking place? How did the teacher’s actions contribute to the problem? This information is more valuable than gold.


Posted in Reflections | Leave a comment

Post-observation Feedback Mistakes

The classroom observation has taken place and now you are meeting with the teacher to debrief. You know what they want to hear (there were good, you liked what they did, right?) and you know how to be diplomatic about the rest. Besides, you can think of a dozen suggestions for improvement. The debriefing session is going to be a breeze!

Alas, all too often the observers make the debriefing session more about themselves than about the teacher and student learning. When observers aren’t properly trained, these are they types of mistakes that invariably occur when giving feedback:

  1.  The feedback session begins with the observer saying, “It was good,” or “I liked it.” Don’t get me wrong, every teacher wants to hear this but it tends to be counterproductive. Why? Because it disempowers the teacher by placing the locus of control with the observer. (“You have pleased me and this is good.”).
  2. “I liked the way you handled the class and the way you answered questions.” What is meant by “the way”? In addition to being disempowered the teacher is likely to feel confused and uneasy. The observer needs to provide a specific context (example) so that the teacher understands the feedback.
  3. “You looked like you were starting to get angry when the students kept talking.” Okay, there is a context (the students were talking) but the observer assumed the teacher was feeling angry. Observers need rigorous training in order to separate outward behaviours from their own perceptions of these behaviours. For example: “You frowned and crossed your arms when the students kept talking. I thought you were starting to get angry.” This helps the teacher to understand what the observer is talking about. Moreover, the teacher is able to agree or disagree with the observer’s perception. (“Actually, I was trying to hear them because they’re my top students.”)
  4. Identifying teaching weaknesses is fraught with difficulties. Some observers prefer not to mention any problems because they don’t want to jeopardize their relationship with the teacher. (Let’s avoid unpleasantness). This makes the observation almost pointless and does nothing to help teachers improve. At the other end of the spectrum, some observers tend to overwhelm the teacher with too many suggestions for improvement. Again, it robs the teacher of ownership because the observer is devising the improvement strategies rather than the teacher.
  5. Observers get caught in the details and don’t help the teacher to understand their core strengths and unique style, which contributes to their professional identity.

Showing how smart we are as observers does little to help teachers feel confident, empowered and in control. In order for feedback to be useful, observers must control the debriefing session by controlling themselves! It takes a great deal of self-restraint not to give judgements (“I liked that.”) and not to provide solutions before the teacher has had the opportunity to devise their own improvement strategies.

Posted in Observer Feedback | Comments Off

The Anonymous Observer

I wish I had a dollar for every time a teacher asked me to observe their class without informing the students. “No one will even notice,” teachers would assure me. As the years ticked by, my presence became more obvious – especially when I worked in Hong Kong. Imagine one lone gwai po (female foreign devil) amidst an auditorium filled with young Chinese students! I’m positive they noticed me.

Very early in my career – when I did look young enough to be a student – I made the mistake of doing an anonymous observation. Never ever again – not even in an auditorium! I hope you can benefit from what I discovered from my experience:

  1. It’s their class too! The teacher isn’t the only one who is taking risks during a classroom observation. Students are being watched as well. Their words and actions might be recorded and this should not be done without their knowledge.
  2. Another ethical dilemma is this: students talk about the teacher and the course. Would they make the same comments if they knew that you were going to tell the teacher later? How would you feel in their place? If you found out, would you lose trust in the teacher and consultant?
  3. Being anonymous means you cannot survey or interview students to see if their perceptions are similar to your own. As an English teacher watching a physics class, you might be more confused, bored, or tired than the students feel. If observers want to provide accurate feedback, they need to ask students for their input.
  4. Observer anonymity actually sabotages the teaching improvement process. Without videotaping and without student input, how much valuable information can an observer realistically provide?

By agreeing to remain anonymous, the observer is colluding with the teacher to reduce feedback and to prevent significant change. So when a teacher suggests I go in unannounced, I focus on their discomfort and their concerns about the visitation. This step is vital if we are to make the most of any formative classroom observation.




Posted in Peer Observers | Comments Off

The Gestalt of Peer Observations


One of the fundamental principles of Gestalt psychology is this: The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. This applies not only to perception (what we see) but also to what we do. I like working in teams because two people can do the work of three – and the work is far more enjoyable!

When two teachers (peers) get together to discuss their teaching, they each have the opportunity to learn new things, to create new approaches, and to invigorate their enthusiasm for teaching.  Used correctly, peer observations are synergetic, empowering, and rewarding.

Figure-ground is another important Gestalt principle. If you look at the figure above – in this case the equation – you cannot read the information about its source (the ground)  at the same time. Conversely, while you read about the source, it’s impossible to see the equation clearly. This principle has important implications for classroom observations.

In a classroom setting, there are dozens of things to observe at any given moment.What should we focus on? The answer is, the big picture rather than details that may have little bearing on student learning.

As far as observers are concerned, the big picture does not include course content. In fact, most peer observations go awry when the teacher and consultant are from the same discipline. The teacher is the content specialist so the observer must exercise self-control and focus solely on the classroom dynamics. What is it like to be a student in this class? As a learner, when do I feel engaged? bored? confused? By focusing on the background, observers can contribute a great deal to the teachers’ understanding of students’ needs and, therefore, how to improve their instructional effectiveness.





Posted in Peer Observers | Comments Off

Why the Hierarchy?

Virtually all peer-observation programs rely upon highly experienced or “lead” teachers to be the consultant, even when observations are being used for improvement (rather than evaluative) purposes. This really isn’t necessary. Moreover, I would argue, it actually robs novice teachers of the opportunity to learn from observing, critiquing and discussing teaching with other practitioners.

The idea that beginning teachers have something valuable to offer their senior colleagues is a foreign concept in education. In fact, it’s downright threatening, which is why it merits further scrutiny.

Any time I have tried to introduce a non-hierarchical peer observation program within schools (as opposed to universities), each proposal was immediately dismissed. It can’t be done, principals already do it, the teachers are unionized so they won’t accept this, etc., etc. In other words, their minds are already made up so don’t confuse them with the facts!

But let’s take a moment and ask the Kennedy Question: Why not? What would actually happen if we assigned a junior teacher to observe and give supportive feedback to a veteran? If  the teacher is confident, they should find the exercise interesting; if the teacher does not feel comfortable, they should really ask themselves why they feel uneasy. Having one’s teaching observed for feedback purposes means we cannot hide behind seniority, secrecy, nor the privileges of an institutional hierarchy.

Given that the observer’s role is simply to serve as a link between the teacher’s actions and the students’ reactions, it really does not matter how much teaching experience the observer has. They need to identify with the learners and identify what helps and hinders student engagement during a given lesson.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to work in a school where teachers freely supported one another without the shackles of seniority and pseudo-superiority. Imagine allowing staff to be treated as professionals who can contribute to making their institution a vibrant learning community for teachers as well as students!



Posted in Reflections | Comments Off

Observing Unconventional Teachers

I was lucky. The first school I worked in allowed teachers to be themselves. In fact, one English teacher frequently wore roller skates to class! Those of us who preferred walking, were still free to teach by any method that appealed to us.  It was liberating!


Now that classroom observations are being used for all kinds of purposes, I wonder how observers deal with unconventional teachers and teaching styles.

As a student, I enjoyed the diversity of personalities and instructional methods – including lectures, group work, and experiential exercises. Each method produced different learning outcomes, which contributed to a broader educational experience and opportunity to learn through different modalities.

The observer’s role should not be simply to safeguard “standards”, especially when standards are not clearly defined. Rather, the observer must celebrate individual differences and help teachers to make the most of their personal strengths and creativity.  This is why we must throw away behavioural checklists and pay attention to teacher-student and student-student interactions.

The one question to focus on during a classroom observation is: How well is this [style/method] working? Perhaps, for example, the teacher is giving a lecture on doodads. The observer needs to focus on how students respond: Are they paying attention? Are some students confused? Is the teaching speaking too quickly? And so on.

By focusing on how well a teacher uses a particular method, the observer can help the teacher to improve in their own way. Observers also benefit, especially if the teacher is using methods that are very different from their own. It’s an opportunity to watch and learn by critiquing the effectiveness of other instructional approaches.


Posted in Reflections | Comments Off

Observer Beware!

In many parts of the world classroom observations are becoming a mandatory in an effort to control teaching quality. However, using observations to evaluate classroom performance is fraught with difficulties, especially if it is being done for personnel decision making. By examining the underlying assumptions of this activity, we can understand why it is really a waste of time and effort.

False Assumptions:

  1. The observer can be objective. In reality, this is impossible. As humans we react to one another automatically and unconsciously; we are drawn to some people while others make us feel uncomfortable. If the observer and teacher already know one another, this will serve as a filter throughout the observation. We are more apt to overlook the mistakes of people we like and we are more apt to focus on the shortcomings of people we don’t like.  Observers need to be very mindful of their personal biases.
  2. The teacher will behave normally. The minute an evaluator enters the classroom the dynamics change. The teacher will be (understandably) nervous, which means they will be less spontaneous, less confident, less relaxed than normal. They will probably stick to safe activities. For example, when I was given a tour in China, all the students (irrespective of grade level) were busy practicing calligraphy! In the west, teachers tend to revert to lecturing.
  3. Student behaviour will be typical. While practice teaching I discovered how differently students behave when there is a supervisor present. They suddenly looked awake, they sat upright and they readily responded to my questions. They were helping me to look good in front of my evaluator!
  4. A sample is ample. I find it appalling that many summative observations last only 15 to 20 minutes. Can you imagine a movie critique giving a review after dropping into the cinema for only that amount of time? Would the review be credible or useful? Of course not. The observer owes it to the teacher and the students to see a lesson in its entirely.
  5. More observers more often will do the trick!  Some educators realize that observations need to happen several times in order to get a representative sample of teachers’ performance. Some institutions even use 3-5 different observers to offset personal biases. However, this is not really cost-effective or  productive.

At the very core of the problem is this: observations should not be used for quality control purposes. Simply eliminating imperfections (or poor performing teachers) will not encourage all teachers to develop themselves professionally. Instead, it will produce a climate of fear and defensiveness.

Observations should be used to promote peer support and the sharing of best practice. Until everyone is involved in observing teaching for formative purposes, educational quality can  not significantly improve.





Posted in Peer Observers | Comments Off

Benefitting From Being Observed

Classroom observations can be a threatening experience for teachers, especially if the visitation is non-voluntary. To make matters worse, most of the time the situation is mishandled because:

  1. The observation is just for evaluation purposes;
  2. There is no pre-observation meeting to prepare for the visitation;
  3. The teacher does not know what the observer is looking for;
  4. The students are not informed in advance;
  5. The observer does not stay for entire lesson;
  6. There is no debriefing after the observation or it does not help the teacher to understand his/her core strengths as well as weaknesses; and
  7. There is no ongoing follow up to help with the change process.

So if you are a teacher placed in such a situation, there are steps you can take that will help you to restore your sense of control (and professionalism) and to make the observation productive.

Steps to Take

First, prepare yourself mentally. Think about your teaching: what do you do well? Be specific and comprehensive as possible. This is not a time for modesty, but for accuracy. Are there things you are specially proud of? In other words, reaffirm yourself and find things to be positive about.

What would you like to improve? If you come up with a list a mile long, you’re overdoing it. Pick one to three important things that you think need improvement. What change, in your opinion, would really help to improve your teaching?  Once you’ve got that you’re ready for the next step.

Step two:  Contact the person who is going to observe you and ask to meet them one or two days before the scheduled observation. Professionals are proactive, so be proactive!  Discuss three things: (1) what is the purpose of the observation? What are they looking for? How will your performance be judged? (2) Talk about your self-assessment. What do you want feedback on? Are you open to suggestions for improvement? and (3) Work out the logistics of the observation. Who will announce the observer to the class and explain the purpose of the observation to them? Which class will be visited? Will the observer be interviewing students after the lesson? These details help to reduce confusion for students as well as the teacher.

Step three: After the observation, reflect on the lesson that was observed. How do you think it went? List the strengths and weaknesses and identify how you thought it could be improved. (This should be a part of your daily routine anyway).

Step four: Ask to meet with the observer within two days of the observation. Timing is important because memory fades fast! Meet in a private, neutral location (to reduce power differences). Begin by giving your self-appraisal and then ask the observer for their input. Try to be open, listen non-defensively to their impressions and ask for clarification if you do not understand any comments or suggestions.

By being proactive, self-reflective and professional, teachers can really benefit from classroom observation, whether they were mandated or voluntary.

Posted in Teachers | Comments Off

The Perils of Observational Checklists

If there was only one piece of advice I could give to observers who are watching a class in progress, it would be: Stay away from behavioral checklists!


When I was a practice teacher, my university supervisor attended one (and only one) of my classes. Later he showed me my scores on a one-page checklist. I was relieved that I received top marks on all items but it told me nothing useful about my teaching. I had survived the evaluation (whew) but what was I like as a teacher? What was I doing well? Where could I improve?

The problem with using observational checklists are worth noting. First, they focus on a number of discrete teacher behaviors (e.g., asks questions clearly, ties things together at the end of class, etc.) without explaining how these actions impact on learners.

Another problem with checklists is that all items appear to be equally important. What if the teacher doesn’t ask questions? Is that necessarily wrong?  There is a context to teachers’ decisions and actions, which checklists cannot take into account.

On the surface checklists appear to be objective. But the items themselves are inherently biased in favor of one instructional style over another. No checklist is comprehensive enough to accommodate the style and strengths of an individual teacher interacting with a particular group of students. So little can be gained by forcing a checklist on a highly personal and interpersonal activity like classroom teaching.

Another consideration is that checklists are distracting! The observer is so preoccupied by watching for the specific items that they miss the big picture. What’s it like to be a learner in this class? What does this teacher offer that is unique to students’ educational experience? What difference would make a difference? No checklist can help to answer these questions.

If we want teachers and observers to learn from classroom observations, then we need to focus on how students experience the teacher and learning activities that occur during a lesson. This is how to watch and learn.



Posted in Peer Observers | Comments Off

Watch and Learn

In order to learn from observing a class in action, it is important to know what to look for.

Although there is not much research regarding this issue, university studies (e.g., Centra, 1987) have shown that one dreadful mistake peer observers typically make is judging the teacher in comparison to themselves (Like me = effective;  Not like me = ineffective).  Clearly, neither the teacher nor the observer will learn very much from this approach.

A second classic mistake is using a behavioral checklist to observe a teacher in action. There are even phone apps for this! However, once you consider the perils of using such instruments, it will soon become apparent that checklists are counterproductive for all concerned.

Normally, student teachers are assigned to watch an experienced practitioner at work – someone who is teaching a subject at the grade level for which the student is aspiring. This helps prepare trainees for the types of situations they are likely to encounter once they start their practice; However, watching someone teach in their subject area can be distracting because the observer tends to focus on content rather than its delivery.

One advantage of critiquing a teacher who is dealing with a different subject is that the observer can be more attuned to the needs of the learners. They can watch for signs of confusion, discomfort, frustration or boredom as well as signs of engagement, excitement and curiosity. By noting the relationship between teacher actions and students’ reactions, a great deal can be learned about the components of effective teaching.

Posted in Peer Observers | Comments Off