When I visit classrooms with the principals I coach in urban, suburban, and private schools, it’s obvious how hard most teachers are working, how much care they put into setting up their classrooms, and how much gumption it takes to work with young people six hours a day. I see lots of effective teaching—practices that one might rate as level 3 or 4 on a four-point rating scale—and very little that’s horrible, or level 1. But I do see a fair amount of mediocre, level 2 practices—for example, teachers giving out low-rigor, fill-in-the-blanks worksheets, calling only on students who raise their hands, or failing to answer kids’ unspoken question, “Why are we learning this?”

Human behavior naturally falls on a bell-shaped curve, so every school will have some variance in classroom performance. But that inevitably produces inequitable results. Effective practices are especially beneficial to students who walk into school with any kind of disadvantage, and these same students are disproportionately harmed by mediocre and ineffective practices—kids who don’t raise their hands when the teacher asks, “Any questions?”; who haven’t yet learned how to work around their disabilities; who are dealing with a family breakup or other trauma; who are openly defiant or sit in sullen silence.

Truly bad teaching obviously needs to be addressed immediately, but so do mediocre practices, which all too often fly under the radar, and are also not okay. Lesson by lesson, day by day, month by month, denying these kids quality instruction widens the achievement gap and robs them of the American dream.

We know what doesn’t improve sub-optimal classroom practices: school leaders making once-a-year announced-in-advance observations with copious documentation; superficial “walk-throughs” to fill out checklists; interrupting teachers midstream to show how a lesson should be taught; using student survey data as a high-stakes cudgel; mounting cameras in classrooms; and worst of all, using student test scores and value-added data to judge teachers’ performance—a practice that is now thoroughly discredited. We shouldn’t be surprised that these and other practices driven by distrust and compliance have never shown up in the research on effective schools. That dog hasn’t barked.

School board members, superintendents, and union leaders should demand much more of their evaluation policies and rethink their collective bargaining language, driven by these questions: How often are teachers observed each year? Are supervisory visits announced or unannounced; in other words, are visitors seeing daily classroom reality or a dog-and-pony show? How long do supervisors stay, and what are they looking for? Do they check in with students and look at what they’re working on, and afterward is there a conversation with the teacher? Is the process of documenting visits overly burdensome? Are supervisors themselves supervised and coached in a meaningful way, not only on classroom observations, but also on how well they orchestrate teacher teamwork, another key driver of instructional improvement? And what goes in a teachers’ personnel files at the end of each school year, summing up performance on all aspects of their work?

I’ve grappled with these questions over my five decades as a teacher, central office administrator, principal, leadership coach, and research reader, and I’ve concluded that there’s a far better way of supervising, coaching, and evaluating teachers. Here are the key elements:

  • Short, frequent, unannounced classroom visits—at least ten a year for each teacher—replacing traditional formal observations;
  • A humble, curious, low-tech approach to visits: observing carefully, looking for learning outcomes, jotting a few notes, chatting with kids using simple questions like, “What are you working on?”;
  • A face-to-face conversation shortly after each visit in which the teacher can explain context, choices, and the bigger picture;
  • Hearing this, a supervisor’s decision on what’s appropriate praise and one “leverage point”;
  • A brief narrative summary sent afterward, perhaps approximately 1,000 characters long;
  • Administrator drop-ins on teacher team meetings to monitor the all-important process of planning curriculum units and looking together at student work for insights on what’s working and what’s not; and
  • The use of an evaluation rubric just three times each year: in September, the teacher self-assesses and sets two to three goals; in January, the teacher and supervisor compare scores and discuss any disagreements; at the end of the school year, this comparison/discussion process is repeated and the evaluation is finalized, signed, and put in the teacher’s file.

This approach takes about the same number of educator hours as traditional evaluations, but is vastly more authentic and effective at understanding and improving teaching and learning. (A number of other educators have developed similar approaches.)

It’s also important that teachers feel safe with frequent, unannounced visits. I’ve found that most teachers trust this system if the following are in place:

  • Observers make at least monthly visits to sample the year’s instruction;
  • They stay long enough to get a meaningful snapshot, which can be accomplished in as little as ten to fifteen minutes;
  • They schedule visits to see the teacher in all relevant contexts—different subjects at elementary schools, different student groups at secondary schools, in the morning and afternoon, all five days of the week, all the months of the school year, and the beginning, middle, and end of lessons;
  • There’s an agreement on what the observer is looking for, such as what students are supposed to be learning, and evidence that all students are learning it;
  • Observers have a good eye for instruction and aren’t intrusive, which means that regular supervision of their work is essential;
  • There’s a face-to-face conversation every time, during which the observer really listens;
  • There are other points of contact—such as team meetings, parents, and other activities—to grasp the bigger picture of the teacher’s work;
  • Teachers have input on rubric scoring;
  • Fair notice is given of unsatisfactory performance; and
  • All parties understand that the process is about improving teaching and learning, not about playing “gotcha.”

Principals need to be prime observers, perhaps taking on the most challenging classrooms and orchestrating the work of instructional coaches and peer observers to see high-performing teachers, where a “softer,” more collegial approach would be appropriate. The more observers there are, the better the observer-teacher ratio will be, and the more frequent visits and follow-up conversations will be. The goal is meeting the three essential needs of every front-line professional, which are, according to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback: appreciation, continuous improvement, and knowing where they stand.

Because this system is structured in a way that avoids bureaucratic nonsense and liberates and develops the skills observers already have, administrators, instructional coaches, and peer observers will, in most cases, have the chops to do these mini-observations well. Here’s why:

  • A low-tech, looking-over-kids’-shoulders approach brings out the natural curiosity in observers who’ve had classroom experience.
  • A lot happens during ten-to-fifteen-minute visits, providing a number of talking points, sometimes including mediocre practices.
  • Focusing on one leverage point per visit makes feedback conversations more manageable for observers.
  • Teachers are less defensive in face-to-face conversations, especially if they take place in their classrooms (when students aren’t there).
  • The conversations give teachers a chance to inform administrators of instructional decisions and educate them on the finer points of their curricula.
  • Frequent visits give administrators multiple at-bats with each teacher, which is helpful since not every conversation will be a home run; this gives them a more complete pictures and a better chance of successfully improving classroom practices.

For educators who are new to this approach, there will be a learning curve. But the good news is that the mini-observation and feedback skills are eminently coachable by superintendents or their designees through the use of co-observations and discussions of case studies and write-ups in leadership meetings.

In my work in a wide variety of schools, I’ve found that this process brings out the best in observers, helping them continuously grow as coaches of effective instruction. The result: more good teaching in more classrooms more of the time. And that is the key to raising the next generation of well-educated Americans and closing our social-class and racial achievement gaps

Kim Marshall, formerly a Boston teacher and administrator, coaches principals, consults and speaks on school leadership and evaluation, and publishes the weekly Marshall Memo: www.marshallmemo.com.