Observing a teacher for a 20-minute block of time does not provide an accurate picture of who that teacher is or what she accomplishes in the classroom.

Behind the Classroom Door

Observing a teacher for a 20-minute block of time does not provide an accurate picture of who that teacher is or what she accomplishes in the classroom.

By Diane Landis

“Teacher Evaluation Day will be next week” was the heading on the note from the Headmaster. “Either I or Mrs. Ryan, our Assistant Headmaster, will observe your teaching for 20 minutes on Tuesday or Wednesday.” 

As teachers read the note, they exchanged surprised and worried looks.  Never before had their teaching been observed.  Christine, a third grade teacher in her sixth year at the school,  wondered why they were suddenly being evaluated and was worried that she wouldn’t measure up.  “If only I could know the day and time of my observation,” she said.  “I could design a killer lesson plan over the weekend.”

I was in my fourth year teaching second grade at this independent school. Christine had often offered unsolicited advice to me and was a stickler for the rules.  “When the administrators say jump,” she said, “I jump.”

My initial reaction to the Headmaster’s note was similar to that of other teachers.  Soon, however, my reaction changed.

The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Observing and evaluating a teacher for 20 minutes on one day out of the school year is unfair.  It’s impossible to obtain a true assessment of a teacher’s abilities during one observation.  Every school day has many unforeseen occurrences – a student not feeling well, arguments and hurt feelings among students, a parent’s unpleasant remarks before the school day began, a student crying because he forgot his lunch, along with the occasional day that goes smoothly.  No day is like any other.

My anger was fueled by the knowledge that neither the headmaster, Mr. George, nor the assistant headmaster, Mrs. Ryan, had taught in a classroom.  They didn’t have a clue what it’s like teaching a classroom of students for six hours a day, trying to get their attention, giving extra help when needed, breaking up squabbles, injecting humor when the work is dull, dealing with parents’ queries, and, most important to the administration at this school, getting the students ready for the upcoming spring achievement tests.  The administration and the parents enjoyed basking in the high scores of the students.

Over the weekend, I put the job of coming up with a solution on my mind’s back burner. But by Sunday evening, I had a plan in place.

After my students had settled into their seats Monday morning, I spoke in a low, soft voice.  “Listen up, guys, I have something important to tell you.”  All eyes looked at mine as I continued in a conspiratorial whisper.  “I know you all want to come back to this school next year, right?”  Heads nodded.  “Well, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I think you should know.  Either Mr. George or Mrs. Ryan will come into our classroom on Tuesday or Wednesday and sit in the back of our room to observe.  As you probably know, there is a waiting list to get admitted to this school. I want all of you to be able to come back next year.”  All ears were listening.

“When Mr. George or Mrs. Ryan comes in,” I continued, “be sure to sit up straight and look at me.  When I ask a question, raise your hand.  When I ask who wants to come to the board to solve a math problem, raise your hand. When I ask who wants to read aloud, raise your hand.  Don’t worry!  I will know if you don’t want me to call on you!  I know you want to come back next year, so sit up straight, pay attention, and raise your hand, OK?” Heads nodded vigorously.

Ten o’clock Wednesday morning, Mrs. Ryan slipped into our classroom and sat in the back.  I tried not to smile as every student slowly sat up straight and focused on me.  I continued with our math lesson, writing examples on the board.  I wrote a problem on the board and asked who would like to come up.  Every hand shot up!  I called on a math whiz.  She quickly solved the problem.  I wrote three additional problems and three more students quickly solved them. I asked what we had learned.  Twenty-six hands waved in the air!

I told the students to take out the book we were reading and asked who would like to read aloud. All arms flew up!  I called on several good readers and each read effortlessly.

After observing for 20 minutes while making notes on her legal pad, Mrs. Ryan quietly left our room.  The students looked at me.  “You were GREAT!”  I told them.  “You have nothing to worry about – you will all be coming back next year.”  Big smiles broke out all around as they slumped back into their casual sitting style for the rest of the day.

After dismissal that day, Christine came to my classroom.  She said she had been observed by Mrs. Ryan and was worried about her performance. She talked with Mrs. Ryan after the students had left.  Mrs. Ryan said, “You did OK.  But you should have seen Ms. Landis’ class! Every student was paying attention, they all raised their hand to go to the board, read aloud, and answer questions.  It was a textbook perfect classroom!”

Christine’s eyes were asking what my secret was.  I smiled as I said,  “Yeah, they were a good group today.”


About the Author

Diane Landis is a retired first and second grade teacher, currently substitute teaching. She was born in Boston a year and a day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She worked as a medical transcriptionist while raising her son and attending Greenfield Community, then Smith College, where she earned a BA in Education and Child Study and received a teaching license. She taught in public and independent schools in California. Her youth was spent riding a bike, roller skating, and watching Howdy Doody on a black and white TV with no remote control. She never owned a car until at age 40 she got a driver’s license and bought a car so that she could move to California for a teaching job. In California, she experienced thick valley fog, the Santa Ana winds, and the intoxicating fragrance of eucalyptus trees. Nostalgia for New England drew her back to Massachusetts where she now resides.