Rethinking Classroom Observations: An Instructional Coach’s Bold Take on Best Practices

The increasing popularity of my previous article, “Starting a New Role as an Instructional Coach: Your First 30 Days,” particularly the discussion on classroom observations, highlights the need for a deeper exploration into this foundational coaching activity:

“Observe classrooms with a learning lens: Observe at least 2-3 times of each teacher you will be coaching over the next few months. Maintain a learning stance – don’t go in with a coach/evaluator mindset yet. Ask for permission to come into their classroom and ask when would be a good time. Look for positive moments to point out to teachers later. Ask clarifying questions rather than making suggestions.

After observing, follow up with simple appreciation such as “Thank you for letting me observe. I noticed how welcoming your classroom culture felt.” Praise small positives before diving into coaching cycles.”

This approach has traditionally been seen as a cornerstone of effective instructional coaching. However, my views have evolved, not only from witnessing the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on educational practices but also from my experiences under an administrator who equated frequent classroom visits with coaching success. This perspective, which prioritized quantity of observations over quality of interactions, did not align with the data. It often led to increased stress among teachers due to constant, unscheduled pop-ins that seldom culminated in meaningful feedback, whether positive or negative. Such practices felt more akin to surveillance than genuine support, undermining the foundational goal of fostering an encouraging learning environment.

Moreover, stepping away from public education and observing how businesses and corporations manage employee supervision and evaluation provided a fresh perspective. In many professional settings outside education, success is measured not by the frequency of oversight but by the quality of outcomes and the efficiency of processes. This shift in viewpoint has reinforced my belief that instructional coaching should focus on building trust and providing targeted support, rather than maintaining a constant presence in classrooms simply for the sake of visibility.

Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear that the instructional cycle should be driven by teachers, not imposed upon them by coaches or administrators. Teachers should be empowered to initiate and direct collaboration with coaches, choosing when and how they engage based on their specific needs and professional judgment. They are highly trained professionals, and the traditional approach to coaching can sometimes undermine this by treating educators as if they require constant supervision. This empowerment respects their professional expertise and contributes to a more authentic and effective developmental process.

 

The Reality of Traditional Observations

My early endorsement of unsolicited classroom observations was rooted in established coaching practices. However, reflection and experience have shifted my perspective due to several critical factors:

1. Limited Impact on Long-Term Change: Constant classroom visits often led to temporary, superficial adjustments in teaching methods rather than sustainable improvements.
2. Potential for Resentment: Teachers sometimes perceived these observations as intrusive, which could erode trust rather than build collaborative relationships.
3. Inefficient Use of Time: Frequent observations took time away from supporting teachers who were actively seeking to engage and improve through coaching.

A New Approach to Observations

Based on these reflections, I advocate for a revised strategy for engaging with classroom observations:

  • By Invitation Only: Enter classrooms only when invited by teachers, which respects their autonomy and transforms the observation process into a collaborative, welcomed activity.
  • Focused on Specific Teacher Goals: Tailor observations to areas that teachers want to develop, ensuring feedback is relevant and actionable.
  • Shift from Observer to Collaborator: Emphasize collaborative planning and reflection rather than traditional observation, using tools like The Short Data Cycle for focused, data-informed discussions.

Recommendations for New Coaches

For coaches navigating their first 30 days, consider these revised approaches to foster a supportive and empowering environment:

  • Support Over Surveillance: Clarify your role as a support rather than an overseer, which can help build trust and openness from the start.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Focus on recognizing and reinforcing what teachers are doing well. In a profession often riddled with criticism, a positive focus can be incredibly empowering.
  • Alignment With Administrative Goals: Ensure your coaching approach aligns with the broader educational goals of your institution, which helps clarify your role and the value you add.

 

As we reconsider traditional practices around classroom observations, it is crucial for instructional coaches, especially those just starting out, to adopt approaches that respect teacher autonomy and foster genuine collaboration. Emphasizing invitation-only observations, focusing on specific teacher-requested feedback, and shifting from a passive observer to an active collaborator are not just recommendations—they are essential strategies for building trust and driving meaningful change.

The journey of an instructional coach is one of continuous learning and adaptation. To effectively support this journey, I recommend The Instructional Coach Handbook: How to Thrive Your First Year, available on Teachers Pay Teachers. This handbook is designed not only to guide you through your initial steps into coaching but also to serve as a lasting resource throughout your coaching career. It covers a wide range of topics, from developing effective coaching techniques and utilizing data-driven strategies to navigating challenges and fostering continuous professional growth. Whether you are facing uncertainties about how to approach observations or seeking strategies to enhance your coaching impact, this handbook provides practical advice and real-world solutions.

To equip yourself with the tools and insights necessary for a successful coaching career, visit Teachers Pay Teachers and purchase The Instructional Coach Handbook: How to Thrive Your First Year. Embrace the opportunity to transform educational practices and enrich your professional journey with proven strategies and supportive guidance. Let this handbook be your companion in fostering an environment where both teachers and students thrive under your coaching.