Observation Overview

You know that there is a need for constant monitoring of both your students and yourself, and the possibilities which this monitoring offers for self-evaluation as an educator. In this section we discuss in detail a procedure which will enable you to make the most of that monitoring and evaluation. More specifically, we will discuss:

  1. How you view evaluation

  2. The Classroom Observation form

  3. Evaluation as a positive activity that should proceed one step at a time

  4. Who is qualified to be an observer

  5. How to select a focus for observations

First, read the views expressed below by teachers and paraeducators on the subject of evaluation.

View 1

Teacher: I think I’m good at telling her the things she does well, but I don’t think I could evaluate her.

View 2

Teacher: Well, we just keep an eye out for each other: if there’s trouble or if there’s a better way of doing things.

Paraeducator: If I do something stupid, I’m sure she’ll let me know.

View 3

Teacher: I’m here to tell you about evaluation and how I treat my paraprofessionals. When they come in to me I tell them what I expect, and how they’re supposed to do it, and then I send them on their way. I don’t have time to sit down and go over all these things, because I have my job to do and I expect them to come in and do their job. When they sign their contract, when they walk into my room, I expect them to be ready to go to work. I give them the information, and they should be able to follow and do what’s expected of them. I don’t have time to sit and do their work. That’s what we hire them for: to do their job and I do mine.

Now consider: How do you view evaluation? How would you define it? Now think back on the views expressed above.

View 1

The first teacher recognized and acknowledged the positive contributions of her paraeducator. But think carefully about what evaluation meant to her. In her mind, acknowledging good practice was not evaluation. She associated evaluation only with criticism and negative comment.

View 2

The paraeducator and teacher obviously work very well together and feel confident enough to share and try out each other‘s ideas. But to their way of thinking, this had little to do with evaluation either.

View 3

The last teacher had very clear expectations for her paraeducator, and took the trouble to explain them in detail. However, she felt that she had no time. And that there was no further need to monitor the paraeducator in any way.

Now consider: How do you view evaluation? How would you define it? Take a moment to write your thoughts on evaluation as it applies to you and other adults you work with in the classroom.

So what do we mean by evaluation? The word assessment is often used interchangeably with evaluation, and that both mean measuring performance in order to make some judgment of quality. Monitoring is a closely associated word, because although it is really just another term for watching, educators often watch in order to assess quality of performance.

And you will recall the important distinction between formative and summative evaluation. Formative evaluation is the ongoing process of collecting information for instructional decision- making, whereas summative information is a statement of achievement which does not necessarily help us to know what to do next.

The basic components of the formative evaluation process we are advocating are data-collection and self-evaluation. As an educator, you take data on student performance, you evaluate the extent to which the student is progressing towards instructional goals, and you use the data to make any changes that may seem necessary to improve their knowledge and skill levels.

This same process can be applied to your own skill development, and to enhance your own performance. There are a number of ways of doing this, but ideally as teacher and paraeducator — members of the same team — you can act as data collectors for each other. You can then assess your own performance based on that data. Using this method, the assessment you make of your own teaching and classroom performance will be more systematic and based on solid data, but it will be self-determined in pace and direction. The same principles that apply to your own individual skills and performance apply to your work as a member of the education team.

The Classroom Observation Form

On the next page is a copy of the Classroom Observation form. This form is designed for taking data on what happens in the classroom. It will be your basic assessment tool.

The first section of the form is largely for record-keeping purposes. It is important to note the date of observations so you can build a chronological and comprehensive record of change and progress. It is also useful to note who is observing.

The current focus for each session is determined through discussion between the observer and the person being observed, and is based upon expressed needs and desire for change. If you have no initial concerns or specific area to focus on you will need to discuss or research possibilities, and some suggestions for this are outlined below.

As soon as possible after each observation session, a debriefing should be held to discuss observations and comments. From this discussion, a new focus can be chosen for the next observation. It is often advisable to focus on a specific area for more than one observation session, because initial observations may indicate need for changes. Those changes then need to be observed to determine whether they are in fact effective, and to allow time for skills to be fully developed.

The remainder of the form is used for recording observations. Notice that there are two columns. They are to be used for taking notes on what happens, and thoughts that occur to you as you observe things that are relevant to the focus of the observation. However, the focus is always on recording what you see, not what you think about it. The more specific you can be about what happens, the better. Any comments made in the right-hand column should just be ideas and thoughts that occur to you, but not evaluations of what you see. The completed form will be a record of what has happened in the classroom relating to the focus selected. As you continue the practice of observation, you will build a record of your instructional practices and the changes you have made over time.

Classroom Observation

Name

Date

Observer

Current area of focus

You will notice that this form is very open-ended. This is deliberate. It allows the flexibility you need to choose your own direction and set your own goals in areas important to you and to your classroom. However, do not be vague. The emphasis is on specific information in areas you have chosen to highlight. Checklists of teaching behaviors are useful, but they are not effective in changing behaviors when used alone. You need live evaluation and feedback, and this type of observation can provide the specific information you need to enhance your practice.

In order to make observations as unobtrusive as possible and cause the least disruption to the classroom routine, they should be conducted according to these simple guidelines:

  1. Sit where you have a good view of the classroom, or the part of it where the person you are observing will be.

  2. Position yourself so that you are not obstructing students’ view of the teacher, the chalkboard, etc., their path to the pencil sharpener, the water fountain, or doorways.

  3. Try to avoid making eye contact with the person you are observing, or with the students. This will make you less obvious.

  4. Make it clear to students that you are not available to help them while you are observing. This may have to be announced at the beginning of the session so that you have the minimum number of interruptions and distractions.

  5. Make sure you have all that you need before you start; pencils/pens, the observation sheet, a timer if you are using one, etc.

On the back of the form you will find some brief notes about the logistics of conducting an observation so that it causes minimal disturbance for the person you are observing and for the students.

Now that you are more familiar with the observation form, there are two important points relating to observation which you should bear in mind:

  1. Improvements are achieved one step at a time.

  2. Evaluation should be a positive activity.

One Step at a Time

First, change and improvement need to take place in small increments. This means that the focus of evaluations should always be on a very specific aspect of teaching or classroom practice. The overall goal of the education system is to produce educated and useful citizens, but that goal has to be broken down into manageable parts which are tackled at each grade level, and in turn each grade level teacher breaks those parts down into weekly and daily learning objectives. In the same way, your goal of becoming a better educator needs to be broken down into manageable parts that you can work on a weekly and even daily basis. Improving as an educator is a lifelong, professional pursuit that can be achieved one step at a time.

Evaluation is a Positive Activity

The second crucial point is that evaluation should be a positive activity. Something that may have been forgotten, but which is still a very obvious part of everyday life and reality for our students, is that mistakes are a part of learning. We actively teach this to our students by giving encouragement and saying things like: never mind, just try again, we all make mistakes, it‘s okay to make mistakes, just try to do better next time, etc. When we see ourselves or others make mistakes, or performing less well than we would like, we must consider it a learning experience and accept it as a natural part of the learning process.

Who is Qualified to Observe?

Some teachers may have serious misgivings about the idea of being observed by a paraeducator, someone who they feel is less qualified and who has less experience. This is a valid concern. But there are two things to remember:

  1. This system is based on observational data

  2. You will be your own evaluator

Teachers can evaluate their own performance in light of the observation data taken by the paraeducator or other adult. This is what is sometimes called peer-mediated self-assessment. Your peers are a means of helping you to make clearer assessments of your own performance.

Let us assume that it will be a paraeducator who takes data for the teacher. How will the paraeducator know what to observe? The teacher must specify which aspects of classroom interactions are to be observed. This will provide a useful means of raising awareness and skill level for the paraeducator because through the process of being briefed, taking observational data, and discussing the data later with a teacher, a paraeducator can increase their own knowledge of good practice. Each of you is thus given an opportunity to focus on a positive model of effective teaching. Observations need to be specific, and the instructions given by the teacher to the paraeducator must also be very specific in order to be most useful to the observed (the teacher), and easiest for the observer (the paraeducator).

If you are a paraeducator and do not feel that you have the experience to evaluate your own skill levels or recognize the areas that need improvement, your teacher can advise and guide you. But again, with the observational data taken by the teacher, you as a paraeducator can enhance your ability to evaluate and assess your own skill levels.

Teachers are accustomed to assessing their students, and it may be as much a new experience for them to observe paraeducators as it will be for the paraeducator to observe the teacher. Remember that your main role in this evaluation process is to take observational data for someone else. Your opinion with regard to that data may not even be asked for, although we encourage open discussion. The person you are observing will decide what to do about the data, and should be allowed to determine the extent to which it is discussed. We will look at that process in greater detail in the next chapter.

With the help of our peers—the other adults in the classroom— we can gain greater insights into what we are currently doing, and the ways in which we can improve or enhance skills. We will then be able to answer the questions:

  • How well am I doing in my role?

  • What strengths do my team members see that I have?

  • Is there advice that I feel I could benefit from?

And in turn, you can assist them in gaining insight and a broader perspective of the possibilities for improvement as members of a team. How well are the other team members doing? What strengths do I see in their work? Are there suggestions I can make which would help them? This exchange of opinions and advice is potentially the most challenging point so far in this discussion. It requires trust between team members. However, this trust relationship usually already exists between teachers and paraeducators who are working as members of a team, and can be further developed through working together in this purposeful way. Following the basic guidelines for use of the classroom observation form will give a good basis for building a strong education team, and each of those basics applies to both teachers and paraeducators.

Selecting a Focus for Observation

It is most important that an observer know exactly what to monitor during an observation because so much happens in a classroom that it would be impossible to record everything. We do not try to change everything at once, nor can we record everything at once. Only those things that relate directly to the focus of the observation should be recorded. This makes the observer‘s task easier, and provides the most useful information on which to base a self-evaluation. It also suggests that an observation focus needs to be chosen very carefully and rationally. In effect, you will be asking yourself these questions:

  1. What area should I identify for improvement?

  2. What specific aspect of that area will I focus on for this observation?

  3. Why have I chosen to focus on this aspect?

  4. What question about my effectiveness will it help me to answer?

  5. What pieces of information, or data, do I need to answer this question?

These questions can also be found on the Selecting a Focus for Observation form at the end of the chapter. You should use the form each time you wish to select a focus for an observation, as it will help you to clarify why you have chosen a specific area, and what you hope to gain from the observational data.

Area identified as needing improvement (such as questioning techniques):

Specific aspect of that area as a focus for observation (such as whether I ask boys or girls):

Why have I chosen to focus on this aspect?

What questions about my effectiveness will it help me answer?

Am I providing equal opportunities for boys and girls to answer questions in class?

What pieces of information (data) do I need to answer this question?

Who answers my questions when I don‘t direct them to anyone in particular?

Which students do I call on to answer direct questions?

Other Comments:

Here is another sample form, which has only partially been completed. Fill in those parts which have been left blank, as if you were planning this observation in your own classroom. Carefully consider what exactly you are trying to investigate about and what you do and what effect it may have on your students.

Area identified as needing improvement (such as questioning techniques):

Specific aspect of that area as a focus for observation (such as whether I ask boys or girls):

Why have I chosen to focus on this aspect?

What questions about my effectiveness will it help me answer?

Am I providing equal opportunities for boys and girls to answer questions in class?

What pieces of information (data) do I need to answer this question?

Who answers my questions when I don‘t direct them to anyone in particular?

Which students do I call on to answer direct questions?

Other Comments:

Summary

  • How you view evaluation

  • Use of the classroom observation form

  • Evaluation as a positive activity that should proceed one step at a time

  • Who is qualified to be an observer

  • How to select a focus for observations

We have introduced you to the Classroom Observation form, and you should have begun to consider areas in which you feel you have strengths, as well as those in which you feel improvements can be made. The assignment for this chapter will help you focus on a very specific aspect of an area that you have identified for improvement, and guide you through the questions you need to ask in order to gain the most benefit from conducting an observation.

These are professional development activities which, if properly followed up, will enable you to enhance your skills as an educator in order to better meet the needs of the students with whom you work. They will also enhance your teamwork skills as you work together to identify and gather data on areas that you have each chosen to focus on for improvement.

Practical Applications

Your assignment now is to complete the form entitled Selecting a Focus for Observation as it relates to the next observation you are planning. You may wish to photocopy this form before starting the assignment so you have copies for use when setting a focus for future assignments. The blank copy of the form is on the next page.

Following the assignment page is a list of Classroom Applications which offers suggestions of ways to apply the concepts. Finally there is a list of things to remember when observing.

Material is free to copy and use but please give credit to the authors and note the website. The full training program printed package is available for $25.00 plus shipping. Contact Betty Ashbaker by clicking on the “Contact Us” button on the home page.

Assignment

Area identified as needing improvement:

Specific aspect of that area as a focus for observation:

Why have I chosen to focus on this aspect?

What question about my effectiveness will it help me answer?

What pieces of information (data) do I need in order to answer this question?

After the observation, consider these additional questions:

Do I have the information needed to answer my question? Yes / No

If not, what was missing that I must make sure to collect next time?

(Ashbaker and Morgan, 1999)

Things to Remember about Observation

If you are the observer:

  • The focus is on the adult, rather than the students

  • Write down only what you see (do not add an interpretation of what you see)

  • If you make comments they should be factual not judgmental, for example: "you asked 10 questions", not "you did a good job asking so many questions."

If you are being observed:

  • Decide on a focus before the observation

  • Keep it small and very specific

  • Explain the focus and the data you want collected to your observer

Classroom Applications

Ask the person you are to observe exactly what they want from the observation. This will give you a clear idea of the sort of things to record, reduce the amount that you actually write, and provide them with focused observations.

Plan ahead for observation sessions. Put them on your schedule and make them a regular part of your work.

Be aware of the language you use when describing or requesting observation data - focus on the activity and the apparent result. For example, say "When you asked the question that way, the students seemed to understand it best" rather than making a personal judgment such as "You were really good at asking questions."

If you want ideas about what to focus on, talk to your colleagues (teachers and paraeducators) about their work, what they are doing, and what they think is particularly effective. There is a tendency to think that everyone does things in the same way, but we rarely know the details of what others do and can benefit from their ideas — as they can from ours.

When you are observing, agree on a shorthand in advance. This will make your job as an observer easier. For example, use T for teacher, S for student, Q for question, etc.

Use concerns about students as areas of focus for observation. If a particular student isn't progressing well, or a system in the classroom doesn‘t seem to work quite right, have your fellow team member observe the situation and make notes on what happens. This should give you some insight into more specific practices and techniques to focus on for future observations.

Use the Classroom Observation Form to choose a focus, take observational data, and discuss setting a next focus. Remember that this type of anecdotal evidence is most meaningful and useful because it relates directly to what you do, rather than dealing with teaching at just the theoretical level.

Conduct observations at your convenience, but at least once every two weeks, so that you keep track of what is happening in the classroom. Regularly monitor your own progress.

Don't forget that when you plan an observation, you also need to set a time for following it up with a debriefing or post-observation conference.