Peer observations and professional learning communities

Purpose and potential of peer observations

08/09/2011  |  Daniel R. Venables
Professional Development

(Adapted from “The Practice of Authentic PLCs: A Guide to Effective Teacher Teams,” Corwin Press, 2011)

In the early 1980s, as a third-year teacher, I was asked to teach math in a rigorous summer program at one of the nation’s leading private schools in Connecticut. There, I was struck by many things, not the least of which was the prevalence of visits by colleagues to my classroom. Nary a day went by in which someone wasn’t observing my teaching.

It was not because I was a beginning teacher; every faculty member could have made the same claim. It was because of the school’s culture, established long before my arrival to the beautiful New England campus. Teachers there routinely observed one another. It was a professional obligation to observe and a professional expectation to be observed. I learned a great deal from that experience, both as observer and as the one being observed.

Peer observations are an avenue for looking at teacher work, and they are also one of the hardest things for schools to fully embrace. Yet they are one thing that can skyrocket the collective level of team unity and the individual learning curves of the teachers who comprise the team. At their least, they provide teachers with firsthand knowledge of what their colleagues do in the classroom; at their best, they afford teachers the opportunity to learn from each other in a way that cannot be realized by teacher talk at even the most productive PLC meetings. If PLCs are to truly break down the walls of teacher isolation, they must step out of the meeting room and into each other’s classrooms.

Plausibility of peer observations

The most compelling reason for the fact that peer observations are not widespread in many schools is one of time and scheduling. In most schools with which I work, there is simply no time for teachers to observe one another. Teachers have one coveted planning period each day and the demands of team planning, department meetings, and PLC meetings prohibit them from getting their own work done — correcting papers, planning individual lessons, etc. — let alone observing a colleague. In most cases, neither the teachers themselves nor their administrators have placed peer observation terribly high on crowded priority lists. To be sure, even administrators often relegate their own observations of their faculties low on their lists and many have all they can do to make their rather obligatory annual rounds of visits to classrooms. The absence of peer observations in our schools today may well be the last bastion of teacher isolation that permeates even the most collaborative school cultures.

For schools that prioritize peer observation as a viable means toward team unity and individual teacher growth, there are ways to make this happen. The least disruptive way to do so is to hire a “floating substitute” who is assigned to cover classes of different teachers during different periods throughout the school day. For each class “freed up” by the substitute, a classroom teacher can observe two colleagues, each for a half of a period. In two days’ time, on a four-by-four schedule, eight teachers can observe 16 classes. If this were to happen on a monthly basis throughout the school year, 80 teachers can observe 160 classes. That means, for example, each eight-member PLC from five different departments can observe 32 classes, with each individual member observing four colleagues, all the while being absent from her own classroom only twice throughout the school year. After a single school year, the culture of peer observation would be fairly well established among the faculty and this last wall of isolation would start to crumble. The Fusion Model for teacher professional development, developed at Osmond Elementary School in Lincoln County, Wyoming, is centered on teachers observing and learning from other teachers. The model is implemented with on-staff, full-time substitutes whose job it is each day to cover classes of observing teachers (Semadeni, 2010).

After visits have taken place, it can be the focus of scheduled PLC meeting times to use protocols to discuss the observations, so that each observation is a learning experience for the observer and the observed, as well as for the entire PLC. It is essential that the mindset be that both the observer and the observed can gain valuable insights during peer observations and that the presupposition is not one of evaluation or judgment on the part of the observing teacher.

A second option for overcoming the time and scheduling constraints that often accompany the prospect of peer observation is for PLCs to use their regular PLC meeting time for observations. For these meetings, PLC members scatter throughout the building and each observe two teachers. Since in grades six–twelve PLCs are most often configured by subjects, this option assumes that teachers will be unable to observe teachers in their own PLC and instead visit classroom teachers outside their subject areas. While there may be content gaps for the observer, it has been my personal experience that this nonetheless proves to be very enlightening for the observer — and somewhat less nerve-racking for the teacher observed. The multitude of student-teacher interactions that occur in a single period — or half a period — transcends subject matter content in most instances. It tends not to matter that an algebra teacher is observing — quite possibly some of her same — students as they struggle to interpret and understand the Bill of Rights in a social studies class. And there can be prearranged reciprocation, at which time the social studies teachers observe the math classrooms.

As a third option, in some faculties with whom I have worked, we elected to videotape classroom teachers and then use the excerpts of the footage in a PLC Tuning Protocol or Notice and Wonder Protocol to offer feedback and share insights from having viewed the class. This requires a high level of trust in the PLC and by the classroom teacher whose class will be examined. While this technique can be significantly beneficial for the whole PLC, it may be ill-advised for PLCs not yet ready to open up in this way. Teachers are generally not comfortable with the camera, at least initially, and its presence can sometimes make for disingenuous responses on the part of students. PLCs can also view classroom footage from National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) on staff who were required to videotape a lesson as part of the NBCT application process. Videotaping teachers is no substitute for having the eyes and ears of a colleague present during the lesson, but it has the potential to provide important discourse about teaching and learning at subsequent PLC meetings.

If peer observation is a priority for PLCs and their administrators, there are ways to make it a painless, productive reality for faculties. The aspects of good teaching — and even not so good teaching — can be witnessed, discussed, and improved by experiencing inter- or intra-PLC peer observations. No matter which option is pursued, peer observations stand to add an essential ingredient to looking at teacher work toward the goal of examining our practice and improving the quality and quantity of our students’ learning.

(For references contact [email protected].) Daniel R. Venables is an education consultant and Founding Director of the Center for Authentic PLCs ( He is author of “The Practice of Authentic PLCs: A Guide to Effective Teacher Teams” (Corwin, 2011). He may be contacted at (803) 206-3578 or [email protected].
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