What if I told you that I had the secret to improve your teaching practice? Not only that, but it is free and you have access to it immediately? Would you be interested?

I’m talking about focused peer observations. I know, I know, I just put a bunch of eduspeak (education verbiage) in that last phrase. Focused peer observations in a nutshell is getting out of your own classroom and seeing what others are doing. 

The great thing about this particular professional and personal development is that you can do it today, in your own school, during your prep period. Sidenote–in my administrative experience, there is not a single principal that I’ve worked with that DIDN’T support this type of PD. They have always been willing to pay for substitutes and even arrange the experiences if a teacher was interested.

Today I’m going to share with you what focused peer observations are, why they are so powerful to improve your teaching practice, and how to get the most return on your time while you do them.

Before we get started on focused peer observations, I want to remind you to check out my Workbook for Determining Essential Standards. In this workbook, you discover what the focus should be for each of your courses. By doing this, you can narrow down what your students should be learning and how to assess whether they have learned those skills. Get the Workbook for Determining Essential Standards.

What Exactly are Focused Peer Observations

Are you familiar with the phrase, “You don’t know what you don’t know”? Typically we spend our entire day in our own classrooms. Teaching the way we have always taught and also the way our teachers taught. This can sometimes be called the “silo effect.” We are in our own silo separate from everyone else.

Focused peer observations get us out of our classrooms to see what is going on in other places. The great thing is that we can start today (or tomorrow depending on when you are reading this) during our prep period. 

Focused peer observations are not content-specific. You can get valuable information from observing ANY teacher–yes, this includes maybe your less-than-stellar teachers as well. 

It wasn’t until I left my own classroom that I learned how to start a class effectively with bell-ringers and a review from the previous day. Sure, I’d been told that I needed to do it, but I had never been in a classroom where it was modeled as to “how” this actually looked.

I also learned a lot about transitions, attention-getters, and classroom organization by being in other classrooms. Once again, I could observe “how” teachers were actually utilizing these strategies.

Besides not being content-specific (you can go into ANY class), it also doesn’t need to take a lot of time. Have 5 minutes at the beginning of your prep? Go see how the teacher next door starts their class. Finish prepping earlier than you thought? Check out how the teacher down the hall transitions to clean up and finish the class.

Why Focused Observations is #1 for Improving Your Teaching

Now that you have a better understanding of the “what,” let’s go over the “why.”

The best way for me to describe this is through a story.

A couple years ago, I was the mentor for new CTE teachers in our district. Some came from traditional teacher preparation programs, but most came from industry.

I set up a day where we went to several classrooms–some middle school/junior high and some high school. I think there was only one class that we observed that any of the observing teachers actually taught. The skill level and styles of the teachers varied as well. 

One of the teachers that was with our group was at the end of his second year of teaching. At the end of the day, he told me (and later the principal), that this was the single-best experience he’s had since he started teaching. 

He learned more from that one day than he had from all the mentoring, coaching cycles, and required secondary education courses he had participated in.

While it was difficult for him to leave his classes for an entire day. He was eager to participate in the next round of focused observations.

The simple act of leaving one’s classroom with the intent that one can learn and improve by observing others is what makes this #1 for improving your teaching.

How to Get the Most Out of Focused Peer Observations to Improve Your Teaching

Sounds easy, right? It generally is, but I want to share with you how you can get the most out of these observations.

Focus On Being “Focused”

With focused peer observations, the key is the “focused” part. Before you go into anyone else’s classroom, you need to have an idea of what you would like to learn from the experience.

Is it routines? Classroom management? Classroom organization? Transitions? Questioning? Use of technology? Being very specific will help you hone in and not be overwhelmed or get side-tracked. It also helps when you are setting up the observations. 

It is much easier for you to go to a colleague and ask if you can observe their class to see how they use attention-getters than it is to ask if you can observe. Teachers are nervous about getting evaluated–by admin or peers. It helps if you let the teacher know what you are wanting to see when you come in. This makes it more about you and your learning than it is about what they are doing.

Look for Learning

Another option is to go into a class with the following three questions in mind:

  1. What are the students supposed to be learning?
  2. How do the students “know” when they’ve learned it?
  3. How will the teacher know that the students have learned it?

Sidenote: as an administrator, I am asking myself these questions EVERY time I am in a classroom. You should be able to identify these at any point during a lesson. If you cannot, then what is the one thing that needs to change?

Now, this last example is more about the teacher and their teaching and can seem more evaluative. Since you are there to improve your teaching, I would caution you that you won’t be making any friends if you go into a colleague’s classroom and then tell them how to improve their teaching. That is not your job.

Bring Someone Along

Yet another way to get more out of focused peer observations is to do them with another teacher or mentor. Adding someone else to the conversation allows you to reflect and implement it quickly. 

In my previous story about taking the group to observe, we would watch about 15-20 minutes of a given class. We would then go and “debrief.” We would talk about things we liked, didn’t like, and how what we observed applied to what we were looking for. 

This also allows for some accountability. You can set a goal or decide to make a small change based on what you observed. Telling someone else what your plans are will make it more likely to happen. That other person can then also follow-up with you and see how it is going.

On a final note, sometimes it can be easier to observe teachers outside of your building. If you are nervous about observing your colleagues, talk to your principal about taking a half day or an entire day to visit classrooms at another school. I am sure that they will be supportive and help you out any way they can.

Now that we talked about the what, why, and the how of focused peer observations, I want to challenge you to visit one class this week. Remember, it doesn’t need to be for the entire period–5 minutes will do. 

Please let me know how it goes with a DM on Instagram or send me a message on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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