A Beginner’s Guide for Practicing Diversity: Build Community Relationships by Having Teachers Regularly Observe Each Other

A teacher observes another teacher reading to young students.
A teacher observes another teacher reading to young students.

Teachers who cultivate personal, authentic relationships with their students have the most significant impact on academic achievement and overall development. Relationship-building is especially important when working with children who have experienced trauma, of which a disproportionate number come from low-income families and underrepresented racial groups. 

Unfortunately, it is difficult to teach educators how to better relate to their students in traditional professional development settings, where information is typically presented to a room full of adults. Relational skills are best developed through experience. 

Fortunately, there is a highly effective professional development strategy that allows for ongoing experiential learning. It involves teachers observing each other throughout the school year in their respective classrooms, and then reflecting together on what is and isn’t working.

Building Trust
For this strategy to work, administrators first need to establish a collaborative school climate that recognizes the assets of all teachers — both new and highly experienced — so participants understand they can all learn from each other. 

“It’s a risky thing to have your professional practice scrutinized by colleagues,” Dennis Sparks told Education World magazine. Sparks is the former executive director of professional development organization National Staff Development Council, now known as Learning Forward.

“A teacher needs to have some level of trust in [the observer’s] motives,” he said.

It also helps if school leaders frame teaching excellence as a skill that unfolds over time and requires ongoing reflection and trial and error. Leaders could start the program by calling for volunteers who are already comfortable being observed. 

Being Intentional
Sally Blake, PhD, professor and chair of the department of curriculum and instruction at Northern Illinois University’s (NIU) College of Education, suggests the following steps for implementing a teacher observation program: 

● Both teachers determine a focal point for the observation, for example, how to redirect distracted students or how to provide effective praise.

● A teacher observes their colleague for a short period of time. 

● The two teachers debrief as soon as possible.

● The observer reflects on how they can apply what they saw in their own classroom.

● Teachers flip roles so that the initial observer can implement these new strategies and receive feedback from the teacher who originally demonstrated them.  

While the logistics of establishing a teacher observation schedule can be tricky, doing so is well worth the effort. Students see that their educators are a unified team and take their craft seriously, administrators benefit from a more collaborative and self-sufficient school community, and teachers gain confidence in and enthusiasm for their work.

More information about how to successfully implement peer observations is available on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s (ASCD) website: http://bit.ly/2K7Y0En

Ginger O’Donnell is a senior staff writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the fall 2019 issue.