Wednesday, October 23, 2019

One of the gedolim of American day school education was Alvin Schiff, Ph.D. During his long and distinguished career he served as the head of the Board of Jewish Education in New York and as a professor and chairman of the graduate program in Jewish education at Yeshiva University. He trained many principals and Jewish educators. What distinguished him from many professors was that his pedagogy was practical and not theoretical. I doubt that some professors of Jewish education today could actually handle a fifth-grade class.

One of his core beliefs was that a principal has to be an educational leader, not a CEO. In order to do that, principals have to know what is happening in every classroom and be able to correctly evaluate what is happening and to offer constructive criticism when necessary. This is no simple task given the multiplicity of tasks required of today’s principals. However, since schools are often top heavy with administrative staff anyway, the staff should be tasked with the non-educational administrivia, allowing the principal to visit classes as often as possible.

There are two kinds of teacher observations, formal and informal. The formal, or clinical, observation is an annual classroom visit that usually becomes part of a teacher’s record. The informal visits happen spontaneously and with sufficient frequency that it does not interrupt the flow of classroom activity nor does it generate any nervousness on the part of the teacher. The education process is enhanced when everyone is on the same page methodologically and lessons follow the curriculum.

Some principals follow a rigid checklist or point system for their formal observations. Regardless of the methodology, it is to say the least disconcerting for a teacher to teach while the principal is busy taking notes or checking off a list. Unless the frequency of informal visits creates a comfort zone, these formal visits will generate nervousness. Is the classroom neat? Are students behaving? Will that student act up or call out? Will all students participate? Will my frontal teaching demonstrate that they are learning? Is the lesson curriculum-based? Did I keep to the lesson plan?

What is crucial to every visit is that it be preceded and followed by a meaningful conversation with the teacher. Teachers and principals need to be in sync with their goals and how best to reach them. Pre- and post-visit meetings will allay teachers’ fears and will allow for the principal to be supportive. Again, this is time consuming, but that should be the principal’s primary function.

Often, what happens in small groups is more significant than observing a frontal lesson.  Watching a teacher interact with students while they do a math assignment, practice penmanship, play a word game, decipher a Rashi or write a short composition is often the best way to gauge teacher effectiveness. Actually talking to students while they do group work gives the principal a sense of how they are learning and progressing. It is also an opportunity to get to know the students.

The real key to any observation is the conversation that takes place between two professionals about how to be the most effective in conveying not just content, but how to think, how to ask questions and how to stimulate independent thinking. It is not necessary for every principal to be an expert in every subject. That is what the pre-observation meeting is all about. A conductor may not know how to play every instrument, but he knows when someone is out of tune.

Years ago, when video technology was in its infancy, I positioned a video camera in the classroom and let it run for a while. When I reviewed it with the teacher it was not necessary to indicate that the teacher was favoring one side of the room, or speaking too quickly, or not allowing sufficient response time to questions, or not speaking Hebrew consistently etc. If it was a sensational lesson, I would keep it to show novice teachers. If it was not the best lesson, it would be erased.

The crucial element was the conversation we had. Today, many schools have video feeds from classrooms for security reasons. This can be used effectively (with the teacher’s knowledge) to observe the classroom and the learning environment.

Appraisals of teaching are deeply personal. It’s not just professional competence that’s reflected in an observation, but a sense of a teacher’s worth as a human being. There is no perfect day of teaching. Even the best teachers experience failure, frustration, multiple mistakes and moments when their students are either maddeningly unruly or so bored they look catatonic. However, this can be avoided by pre-planned and scheduled observations as well as informal visits.

There are two central questions in teacher observations: As a principal, what did you learn from the teacher, and what did the teacher learn from you? Observations can be something to get done or something to get done right.


Rabbi Wallace Greene was a pioneer in the field of video recording teacher observations. Back in the day it was highlighted at several educational conferences.

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