Thursday, October 29, 2015

Observations Aren't Enough

Although I have been an elementary school principal for almost ten years it didn't occur to me until recently that formal classroom observations and informal walk-throughs of classrooms aren't enough to provide us with a complete picture of what is happening in our schools... we must also be engaging in conversations too! 

My Pitfalls

You see, what I have come to understand is that the formal observations and informal walk-throughs have led me to certain pitfalls. Either I am making assumptions that everything is great based on a snapshot; or I am trying to generalize what I watched over a 40 minute period to make broad stroke statements about the whole year; or I am overreacting to something I saw; I start to think that certain teachers only eat snack and pack up. But that is not the reality. That is not the complete picture because observations are not enough. 

Not Just Any Talking

I know this sounds like a no brainer and many would argue that they engage in a lot of conversations on a daily basis but, I am not talking about exchanging pleasantries or chatting in passing. I am not even talking about visiting classrooms and watching what is going on for a few minutes and then offering some feedback. Yes, those conversations and exchanges are important but they are not enough. We, as the educational leaders in the space, need to spend more time talking with those around us than just talking in passing or after an observation. In fact, we need to be talking and sharing with intentionality. Observations, pre-observations and post-observation conferences are not enough.   

Intentional Conversations

I am referring to setting aside "sacred" time to talk about learning. I am referring to the importance of scheduling time to discuss the instructional practices that are unfolding within our classrooms. I am referring to discussing the readiness levels of our students and what we are doing to best meet their needs. Up until this year it never occurred to me how important it was to set up this time to meet with our teachers and just talk without distractions. Just talk about learning. Just talk about teaching. Just talk about the successes and failures within our schools. Just talk... but with focus and intentionality. 

Literacy Check-Ins

At the start of the school year we bought each classroom teacher a set of the new Teacher's College Reading and Writing Units of Study and although we are not officially a TC school, we were offering our teachers PD opportunities with the amazing JoEllen McCarthy. These PD opportunities and new resources have led to a shift in the instructional practices unfolding in our classrooms, which has been impressive but, as we know, any shifts present their own challenges and concerns. So, in an effort to better support our teachers, I scheduled 30 minute "Literacy Check-In Meetings" with each grade level at the end of September just to talk, share and check in to see how the literacy learning was unfolding in our school. I set a timer at the beginning of the meeting, which took place during a common prep time, because I wanted to keep the discussions to 30 minutes and wanted to be respectful of our teachers' valuable time. As we kicked off the meeting, I took on the role of facilitator and recorder and set up a Google Doc for each grade level to track our thoughts. I started the meetings by asking each team how they were doing, what they were trying and how it was going... and then I did less talking and more listening.  

The Bottom Line

Well, the flow of conversation and exchange of ideas that ensued during these literacy check-in meetings was awesome to observe and even better to participate in. I learned so much about our students and teachers from these conversations. For example, I learned that what TC suggested takes one day, takes us about 3 or 4 days. I learned that our teachers really know our kids and their readiness levels and that serves as the impetus for every instructional decision. I learned that our teachers do a lot of self-assessing and engage the students in a lot of self-assessment. I learned that student voice matters at Cantiague as we develop lifelong readers and authors. I learned that our teachers are really thoughtful about the work they challenge our students to complete within the reading and writing workshop experiences. 

The list can go on and on but the point is, I learned so much from these conversations about what was going on in our school that for the first time ever, I felt like I was getting a more complete picture of what our teachers were doing and why they were making certain choices! It also helped me realize that observations aren't enough... we need to be intentional about our work and as a result, we need to spend time facilitating conversations because talking (and more importantly listening) is not only enlightening but it can help us fill in the picture of what is going on in our buildings and help us best meet the needs of our learners.  


  1. Tony,
    Thank you for sharing! I think the point of being "intentional" in our conversations is so important. Yes, I talk with my teachers every day, but am I talking with them daily about what good instruction and learning looks like? Am I giving them the opportunity to talk with peers about learning? I need to set aside time for targeted conversations on learning. Great post!

  2. Thanks for sharing your insights Tony. Do you have ideas about how often you hope to engage in this type of dialog with your teams?

  3. Tony-
    As a teacher of 20 years I appreciated your open and honest reflection about the limited value of "snapshot" walk-throughs and classroom observations. They do have value yet there is so much more that is happening in our classrooms, with our students and with our teachers. You are giving your teachers a precious gift when you carve out dedicated time just for them - to talk about learning, to talk about teaching, to just listen. I encourage you try carving out time for each individual teacher-time consuming but worth it. My principal does this and as a teacher this means so much to me. As a result I have started carving out time to talk with my students, real time, 1:1 time, to talk about their learning, to talk about teaching, to just listen. It has been an amazing experience!
    So in conclusion I want to thank you for writing and sharing this post. I am hopeful that many administrators will read this and follow your example.

  4. Love the process yo describe... it's obvious the high level of trust that exists in your school culture!