Successful Supervision: Three Perspectives
Caroline Gear , Rebecca Shiffron, Steve Kurtz
Lutheran Social Servcies, Springfield, MA &
International Language Institute, Northampton, MA
I have always looked for the perfect
tool to use when observing teachers, and I have tried many different
ones. What has become clear to me in the past year is that what
matters most is not so much finding the "perfect tool", but how
one uses it and adapts it to one's own program and purpose for observation.
For years I would take copious notes while observing a teacher
and afterwards, I would type up the notes into a report form divided
into the three categories of 1) time of activity, 2) description
of the activity and 3) general comments. My biggest complaint in
conducting observations in this way was that it was extremely time
consuming. I spent more time writing the report then I did discussing
the class with the teacher. After the follow-up meetings I would
wonder how effective they really were. Were teachers using the observations
and follow-up meetings as ways to improve their teaching? Or was
this just a tool for me to evaluate teachers in the classroom and
all the teachers got out of it was an evaluation in their file?
As I look back at the way I used to conduct evaluations, I realize
the process was too one-sided, not allowing a lot of teacher reflection.
My observation and follow-up with teachers changed dramatically
in January of 1999 when I became involved in the School for International
Training's (SIT) TESOL Certificate Program. In partnership with
SIT, the International Language Institute now provides both intensive
and part-time TESOL Certificate Programs.
An integral part of the SIT TESOL Certificate Program is giving
the participants in the program a hands-on opportunity to teach
followed by an in-depth feedback on the class. The form that SIT
uses for its teacher observations is simple (see attached form).
I liked the form immediately.
It takes the three categories that I was using in my previous observations
and puts them in a format that is clear. Most importantly, in the
"comments" category, the emphasis is on posing questions rather
than writing possibly critical statements on what is going on in
After using this assessment tool a few times, I began to realize
that how I had previously been observing teachers was more "observer
centered". My observations and follow-up meetings were not set up
to allow the teachers time to reflect on the class that they had
taught, and I was the one who would initiate the discussion about
Under the SIT model, I now give the instructor a copy of the form
I filled out while observing the class as soon as the class is over.
We then make an appointment within the next few days to discuss
the class. Teachers have the opportunity between the observation
and the follow-up meetings to really think about specific questions
or issues, rather than wonder what comments the observer had about
the class. Discussions during the follow-up meetings are initiated
more by the teacher as s/he responds to the questions that were
posed to her/him on the observation form rather than a one-sided
conversation with the observer telling the teacher about what worked
or did not work in the classroom.
I do not think any assessment tool works perfectly the first time
that it is used. When using the SIT Observation Form, the more the
observer becomes familiar with the process of asking the right questions
for teacher reflection, the better the follow-up meetings will be.
For me, the best follow-up meetings are when there is truly a dialogue
between observer and teacher. The playing field has been leveled
and both parties strategize together on ways to improve the class.
Obviously, this type of dialogue can never happen if the observations
are handled by administrators who have very little teaching experience
and whose purpose is only to evaluate the teacher. This assessment
tool works best when the observer has a lot of classroom instruction
experience along with the ability of highlighting the strengths
and posing questions when there are weaknesses. The purpose of the
observation tool is focused more on giving the teacher support and
providing an arena for reflection and growth rather than just evaluating
Just as I was changing my method of observing teachers, Rebecca
Schiffren from Lutheran Social Services called me with concerns
about her observations of teachers. The International Language Institute
and Lutheran Social Services of West Springfield are funded together
to provide ESOL services both in Northampton and West Springfield.
Rebecca and I met to discuss the tool and then both used the tool
to observe a teacher who was teaching a practice class. (As part
of the hiring process at ILI, applicants have to teach a 30-minute
practice class.) We found that the assessment tool was difficult
to use in a practice class, but it allowed Rebecca and me to talk
about what questions we would have asked the teacher about the class
and a hands-on opportunity to evaluate how this tool would work
with other teacher trainers.
What follows is how Rebecca used the tool with one of her teachers,
Steve Kurtz, and Steve's reaction to the observation and follow-up
I was hired as an ESL teacher at Lutheran Social Services (LSS)
September, 1995. (I had been teaching
ESL for six years before that.) In March, 1999 I was given the position
of ESL Coordinator and part of my job was to observe and coach other
teachers in our program.
I had never done this before and began by using a format that had
been helpful to me when a supervisor used it while observing my
class the previous year. That method was to describe the activities
in detail and give positive feedback and constructive suggestions
as to how to improve the lesson.
When I used this approach with one relatively new teacher, she
said the critique and suggestions were helpful. With another teacher,
however, the technique was not so successful. This was a relatively
inexperienced teacher whose class attendance was slipping. I felt,
after observing him, that there was a lot of room for improvement.
I made many suggestions but sensed as the critique went on, that
he became more and more defensive. In the end, I wasn't convinced
he would be able to take in the feedback and improve his teaching.
At this point, I met with Caroline Gear, who introduced me to a
new technique she had learned working with The School for International
Training (SIT). This approach was to use three columns: one for
the time, the next for a running account of what was happening in
the class, and the third for comments posed as questions. At the
end of the lesson, the observer would pose more general questions
that considered the lesson as a whole. The idea was for the input
not to be critical but to give teachers room to think about ways
of solving problems that made sense to them. I wondered whether
this would work since raising a question, in my mind, implied a
Coincidentally, the meeting with Caroline happened just before
my next scheduled observation of Steve so I had a perfect place
to try out the new method. When students hadn't written in journals
as assigned, I wrote, "Why do you think they aren't writing?" "How
can you get them more interested in writing?" When students had
trouble remembering and pronouncing past tense verb forms, I asked,
"What other ways could you practice irregular past tense forms?"
In the review session after the lesson, Steve reflected on these
and other questions and came up with some new ways of approaching
problems. When he was finished thinking about a question, I shared
some of my experiences with the same issue. I felt that Steve was
much more involved in this session. He thought about his teaching
and was more enthusiastic and less defensive.
When I observed him again about a month later, he had made real
strides in his teaching. He was much more assertive, had a plan
and followed it. His students' attendance during the month had noticeably
improved and they gave me positive feedback about his teaching (as
opposed to earlier, when all I heard were complaints).
This method of observation and coaching proved to be extremely
successful for Steve. It encourages reflection and exploration that
is meaningful and empowering because it comes from the teacher's
own experience. The method does require skill on the part of the
observer - you must be aware of classroom dynamics and pose meaningful
questions - but it gives teachers the responsibility (and power)
to be actively involved in their own development.
I have worked for twelve years as a teacher. Before my current position
as an ESOL instructor, I was in the public schools, initially as
a Spanish teacher and then as a bilingual social studies teacher.
I have been in my current position as an ESOL instructor for two
Throughout my teaching career, supervisors have observed me between
eight and ten times. In my current job, I have been observed on
four different occasions by supervisors. I have made progress in
improving my teaching style and classroom management; however my
progress has been rather slow for the better part of a year. I struggled
with important teaching areas and I began to wonder about my suitability
for the profession.
My current supervisor began her official duties approximately six
months ago. She has observed me four times, the first observation
having occurred on April 14, 1999 and the most recent, on October
13, 1999. Each of the observations consisted of an observation of
me in the classroom and a feedback session, which followed. In this
paper I want to describe how I have experienced these sessions and
how the changes in my supervisor's feedback approach have impacted
on my teaching.
After the first observation my supervisor and I met. She shared
her notes and we discussed the lesson. Her notes consisted of six
comments. For each comment she had written suggestions for ways
to improve or modify my teaching. I felt somewhat deflated and discouraged
during the above-described meeting. I listened to my supervisor,
tried to act like a good adult professional, yet I felt like very
much the opposite. My feelings of discouragement continued for a
while after the session. I knew the suggestions were good. Now I
had to "deliver."
Before the second observation/feedback session (July 7, 1999)
my supervisor informed me that she was going to change her approach.
She briefly described the new approach and how it would differ from
the first observation in April. She asked me if I wanted her to
focus on any particular aspect of my teaching.
In the July 7 feedback session my supervisor included clock times
for her observations. After each comment she posed a question. For
Comment: 6:25 Students talked about fireworks, not seeing
Question: "How could you have extended the talk about fireworks?
They were interested and it was 'real' talk."
I then offered my response to the question. "I could have encouraged
them to talk about fireworks in their own countries and how they
compare with fireworks in the USA."
During the July 7 class I had planned a session in which students
would practice question formation using the July 4 weekend as a
stimulus. Students were very involved in discussing the fireworks
theme in their conversation partners, when I ended this activity
and began another activity involving story writing with numbered
pictures. The abrupt move from an activity in which students were
very engaged to another activity with little transition or preparation
confused the students. Moreover, this new activity was unrelated
to its predecessor. At the end of this session (and subsequent sessions)
my supervisor included comments which were more global in scope.
These comments helped me come away from the session with a kind
of quiet "mantra," which would apply to a broader range of situations.
Also, in the second and subsequent feedback sessions, my supervisor
posed her questions and waited for my response. This waiting or
pause was an invitation for me to offer a thoughtful response. I
was given real time. My response was important.
My feelings during both the first and second classroom observations
were similar: anxiety, nervousness, awkwardness, embarrassment and
During the third and fourth observations, I continued to be anxious
and felt high adrenaline flowing through me. The difference was
that I felt more energetic, more in control and, in general, more
positive about my teaching. I'm not certain how much of this improvement
can be attributed to the new observation procedures. Perhaps, the
good results have come from both the new procedures and from the
increased trust I have for my supervisor.
During this process my feelings about my work have changed. I feel
more hopeful and more positive. I am still very much a teacher who
needs to improve his performance. The difference is in the kind
of clarity of thought that I have now. "Clarity" for me means that
I'm focusing more on what I am doing and less on what I'm failing
to do. The question is "Why?"
First, by presenting information and observations and following
each observation with a question, my supervisor is inviting me to
participate. She is implying that I have the ability to be analytical.
The question is still a form of criticism but it is a form of criticism
in which I offer my own analysis. The analysis is mine.
Second, the process of observation and question invites me to focus
on a solution. Since I am invited to answer a question, to respond
to that question, I am further empowered to design a solution and
implement it. I am focusing on what I need to do to improve and
not on what I haven't done or on what I have been failing to do.
Certificate Program Observation Sheet
Number of Students:
__ Level:__ Observer:_____________
Originally published in Adventures in Assessment,
Volume 12 (Winter 2000),
SABES/World Education, Boston, MA, Copyright 2000.
Funding support for the publication of this document
on the Web provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource
Center as part of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.