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March 4, 2021

Five Strategies for Peer Observation To Improve Practice

“We cannot create what we can’t imagine.” – Lucille Clifton

One of my main roles as an elementary math coach is to open up teachers’ minds to what’s possible in their classrooms with their kids. Teaching in the United States is an isolating profession. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, teaching the same things in the same way with the same results, year after year.

The Common Core is shaking up what we teach, but it doesn’t delineate what the standards look like in the classroom. Videos of exemplary lessons and teaching practices, like those found on Teaching Channel, are one way for teachers to reimagine what is possible in the classroom. As coaches, we also have an opportunity to break through teacher isolation and bring lessons to life through peer observation. Below are five structures for peer observation that I have tried this year in my coaching practice. I have listed them in order from simplest to implement, to the more complex.

Demo Lessons

This year we had a school-wide focus on number talks, a 10-15 minute math routine. With the teachers that I coached in number talks, we followed an “I do, we do, you do” format. I led a few number talks in their classrooms, while they observed. Then we planned a couple of number talks together and co-led them. Finally, the teachers planned and led their own number talks while I observed and gave feedback. This was a quick and easy way to get the number talk routine happening in their classrooms.

Observe a Colleague

It’s amazing how I could teach in the same building with other teachers for years and never see them teach. Releasing a teacher to observe another teacher, even for fifteen minutes, can lead to a wealth of new ideas and inspiration. Ideally, as a coach, you would join the observation to highlight key instructional practices.

Visit Another School

Not only can teachers get stuck in a rut doing the same things in the same way, but so can schools. I was lucky to be able to take a group of teachers to observe a master math teacher at a school twenty minutes away. We visited for two hours, then grabbed lunch to debrief afterward. The ideas that came from this visit have transformed these teachers’ classroom spaces and routines, which in turn have permeated throughout our school. And what teacher isn’t thrilled about a trip off campus?

Lab Classrooms

The most powerful professional development tool for our school this year in math has been lab classrooms, when one classroom serves as a demonstration room (or “lab”) for a team of teachers. We’ve used lab classrooms for number talks and math problem solving lessons. In facilitated groups, teachers preview, observe, and debrief a lesson taught in a classroom on site. As a follow up, teachers can observe each other implementing what they took away from the lab classroom. Lab classrooms are useful when there is a school-wide focus or teachers are learning a new lesson structure.

Lesson Study Groups

Lesson study is a form of professional development, created in Japan and adopted in some U.S. schools, in which a group of teachers plan and teach the same lesson. They observe, debrief, then revise and teach that lesson again, which addresses their goals for students. Our lesson study group met throughout the year to plan two cycles of research lessons related to math discourse. Diving deeply into one lesson allowed us to be thoughtful, curious, and observant in our work. Teaching is such a fast-paced and busy job, that slowing down and engaging in meaningful dialogue with colleagues regarding student learning has been a gift.

Peer observation not only helps the coach, it also helps teachers being observed step up their game and share their best practices. Students also benefit from seeing teachers in their school collaborate, a skill students are often asked to master. Unfortunately, many of our schools are not set up for this kind of peer observation. As coaches, we can start to break through the isolation and set up systems for teachers to get into each other’s classrooms. The rewards are great!


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