Classroom Observation - Dilemmas and Opportunities

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 11 November 2016
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

I have written in my previous articles in this series about the fact that school leaders often find themselves “between a rock and a hard place” in their quest to run a successful school. This is particularly true in the case of the vexed question of classroom observation. In this age of increasing accountability, the Department of Education and the Inspectorate are clear in their expectation that schools must show evidence of monitoring and evaluation of teaching and learning and ensure consistency of pupil experience in every classroom. The reality in Northern Ireland can be that strict interpretation of current local arrangements with teaching unions makes the kind of monitoring which is routine in England difficult in some schools. Under the agreed TNC protocol 2011/6 between Management Side and Teaching unions, the principal is expected to monitor, evaluate and review classroom practice and to promote improvement strategies. The Performance Review and Staff Development Scheme TNC 2009/10 provides for two formal observations focussed on previously agreed objectives. The procedures for dealing with a teacher whose work is unsatisfactory also provides for formal observation. The linkage between these two types of observation is problematic however as success by a teacher in achieving PRSD defined specific objectives can undermine genuine attempts to address unsatisfactory performance later.

The teaching unions are clear in their resistance of any type of performance judgement making during other classroom visits such as “learning walks” or curriculum coordinator visits. While principals have the right to drop in to classes at any time there are warnings in the TNC protocol for them to exercise professional judgement. Experience has shown however that using this approach to discharge their monitoring obligations can expose principals to the risk of harassment allegations.

It is interesting to look at parallels between Northern Ireland and the USA on this issue. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded research entitled Measures of Effective Teaching. It reported that teacher quality there affects student achievement in school more than any other factor. They raise a concern that we share here in Northern Ireland about comparisons of school and teacher performance and ask the following underlying question. Are effective teachers better than other teachers because they have higher ability pupils? The research tries to answer this question by suggesting classroom observation to evaluate teacher performance but at the same time cautions against the adverse impact ‘surprise observations’ might have in regard to heightened anxiety and reinforcement of the impression that teacher evaluation is about teacher accountability and not improvement.

In the Journal Education Next, Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, Matthew M. Chingos and Katharine M. Lindquist argue that it is widely understood that there are vast differences in the quality of teachers:  Until relatively recently they say, teachers were deemed qualified, and were compensated, solely according to academic credentials and years of experience. Classroom performance was not considered but in the last decade in the USA, researchers have used student achievement data to quantify teacher performance and thereby measure differences in teacher quality. Among the findings is evidence that having a better teacher not only has a substantial impact on students’ test scores at the end of the school year, but also increases their chances of attending college and their earnings as adults.

They make the following recommendations: Teacher performance management should include two to three annual classroom observations, with at least one of those observations being conducted by a trained observer from outside the teacher’s school.  They suggest that classroom observations that make meaningful distinctions among teachers should carry at least as much weight as examination results in determining a teacher’s overall evaluation score when both are available.  Most interestingly perhaps they argue that teachers’ classroom-observation scores should be adjusted for the background characteristics of their students.

Certainly this last comment echoes with school leader concerns here about the lack of value added factors in school performance calibration and questions the effectiveness of using classroom observation to gauge the quality of teaching and learning.  

There is an alternative view evident in American research about how effective robust classroom appraisal by line managers can really be? More and more schools in the USA are using peer observation -- teachers observing teachers -- as a form of professional development that improves teaching practices and student performance. In an article, in the journal Education World Michele Israel talks about the benefits of this emerging professional development strategy, including the benefits for the teacher of learning by observing good practice. Being observed in the classroom can rattle any teacher's nerves, but this approach is showing that teacher observations can serve as vehicles for professional growth rather than performance evaluations and have multiple benefits -- for teachers, administrators, and the school.

At the core of this question is the natural sense of autonomy that teachers feel in their own classrooms and the understandable annoyance at having someone apparently challenge their professional expertise. Opponents of this type of monitoring in schools point to the fact that other professions do not do this. At the same time common sense dictates too that it is worth reminding ourselves that teaching is the most public of activities with thirty pairs of eyes observing every lesson ever taught.

So where do we go with this problem? As mentioned already classroom observation in England is much more widely used than in our schools. This has generated some examples of great practice. I very much like the approach by Rachel Crickmore Head of Mathematics, City Academy Norwich and 2014 Teaching Leaders Fellow who definitely leads by example. It certainly clarifies within departments what good teaching should look like and allows open discussion of the obstacles to effective teaching as a team of professionals working together.

“One example of a system I have introduced is around lesson observation. My team knows that I observe lessons daily, so they expect the feedback and are now in the habit of reflecting on their practice automatically with me afterwards. I’ve also introduced a system whereby all staff observe me. Beforehand, I will give the observer a list of questions eg, ‘How am I ensuring children make progress in this lesson? How am I dealing with low-level behavior? What activities provide challenge and pace? We will then have a detailed conversation following the observation, led by the teacher observing me. The process of going through this list of questions helps scaffold thinking, makes the implicit explicit and provides a good platform for discussion”

She quotes Aristotle and it underlines a long held belief of mine that effective middle leaders are the key to school improvement. “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choices, not chance, determines your destiny.”


If you found this article useful and you would like to recieve more education articles via email (two per month), please subscribe below:

Subscribe to our NI Schools mailing list


*indicates required
Marketing by
This article is correct at 11/11/2016

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email

View all articles by Frank Cassidy