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Professional Development: Nail Your Next Evaluation Observation

Jordan Catapano

A typical professional development teacher evaluation involves a classroom observation, and this can make the typical teacher rather nervous. I recently saw a picture of a cat clinging rigidly to a tree with a caption that read: “Me when another teacher comes to observe my class.” I chuckled, realizing that so much of what we do in our own classrooms is private, personal, and “Our thing.” When a teacher or administrator visits – not just for any reason but to evaluate our teaching – it feels rather nerve-wracking. I can’t take away those stomach butterflies, but I can offer you a few professional development tips that may help the process go a little more comfortably for you.

Professional Development: Before the Evaluation Observation

Be Your True Self

First and foremost, don’t feel like you have to be someone other than yourself. Believe in your abilities as an educator, act like you normally would, and trust your gut. Other teachers may have expertise with one technique or other, but you don’t have to be them. Just show your evaluator yourself, with all your strengths and even your flaws (yes, even your flaws … more on this ahead).

Plan and Prepare Ahead

The typical lesson comes with its share of bumps, audibles, and surprises, but strong planning and preparation can help to limit or anticipate these. Take your time in advance to plan a strong lesson that plays to your strengths and the strengths of your students. Picture in your mind how each phase of the lesson will go. Write down what you plan on saying, doing, and having students do and say. Estimate how much time each phase will take, and predict what could go awry. Running through your plans in your head in detail will help you feel much more comfortable when the observation day arrives. But you probably do this on a daily basis anyhow, right?

Make sure that you also have your materials needed for the lesson set aside at least 24 hours in advance. You don’t want to have to scramble at the last minute.

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Focus on Student-Centered Learning

Unless your evaluator tells you exactly what he or she will be looking for, just focus on your students. Your lesson shouldn’t be about how much you know or how big of a song and dance you can give in front of a class. It should be about what your students are doing. In fact, evaluations are much more about learning than teaching.

So take some of the pressure off of yourself and think instead, “What are my students going to be doing?”

Your Classroom Environment Should Look Nice

How does your classroom look? One of the elements evaluators often take note of is the physical environment you’ve maintained for your class. You don’t have to make radical changes to your classroom, but it should look like an environment that best enables student learning. Everything in your room should at least look neat and organized. Garbage or unused materials should be removed. All decorations and posters should be relevant to your classroom. And your classroom materials – like desks, supplies, cabinets, computers – ought to be organized.

Tell Your Students in Advance

This one is optional, but sometimes it could help put you at ease if your students know in advance they’ll have a guest in the class the next day. I explain to them who will be visiting our classroom, that they’re there to evaluate my teaching, and that students should just ignore them and act normally.

I never ask students to act differently or “Be on their best behavior” due to an evaluation. It’s unfair to place undue pressure on students to put on a show specifically for the evaluator’s presence.

During the Evaluation Observation

Oh no! The day has finally arrived and you’re about to be evaluated! You’ve planned, you’ve prepared, now you just need to stay calm and do your thing. It’s going to be OK.

Stay Calm and Be Yourself

I know I mentioned this in the “Before” section above, but it bears repeating. Just be your best self. Don’t worry about trying to be a different teacher. Let your style, your personality, your habits, your humor, and your reactions come through.

Clarify the Learning Objectives for the Day

What are students going to learn today? Clarify what the learning objectives are by both verbally stating them and displaying them up front. Make sure your activities actually reflect those objectives, and return to them at the end.

Move Around

You should move around on a typical day, but especially make sure you’re not stationed behind your teacher desk or marooned in a desolate corner of the room. Be physically engaged with what’s going on.

Nail the Transitions

One of the shakiest times of any lesson is the shift from one activity to the next. Make sure that during your planning you think through these transition periods, and during your lesson you are extra clear regarding what students should be transitioning to.

After the Evaluation Observation

The observation is done – you made it! But remember that the evaluation continues after your lesson has ended. Here are some reasonable follow up steps to make sure you make the most out of your evaluation experience.

Be Honest

You don’t have to dress up how things went. Your evaluator was there and saw the whole thing. Just be honest about your lesson, sharing what you thought were the strengths and the weaknesses, the successes and the disappointments.

Demonstrate Reflection

This, above all else, is what can make the experience so valuable. The evaluation doesn’t just have to be an annoying item on a list of to-dos you can now cross off. You just had an experienced professional inside of your classroom – talk to them about what they saw! I mentioned above that it’s OK to show your flaws, and that’s true as long as you’re honest about them and willing to improve. Your evaluation isn’t checking to make sure you’re the perfect teacher. Is there such a person?

There’s No Such Thing as a Perfect Lesson

Finally, remember that just like there’s no such thing as a perfect student, there’s no such thing as a perfect lesson. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be flawless. Embrace challenges, mistakes, and surprises. Demonstrate a willingness to learn. Do your best with the observation, but also open-mindedly receive feedback and look for ways to improve.

Observations Shouldn’t Be the Exception

There’s something funny about the evaluation observation: We feel like we need to be at our best when someone is watching. But then again, don’t our students deserve the best from us every day?

Your evaluator may evaluate your teaching, but your students are the ones who are enriched by it. Imagine if every day were an observation – free yourself from the anxiety, prepare to do your best every day, and jump in!

What advice would you add for teachers about to be evaluated? Share your thoughts with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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