José Luis Curiel is the director of a private preK-8 school in Mexico, and from its inception they have invited parents to conduct classroom observations once a year. “We knew it was the right thing to do,” he explains.
When I pressed him to explain why it was the right decision for their school, he gave me four reasons:
1. Parents can see the curriculum in action.
Parents are on the front lines of the homework battle. But many of them have really no idea what is expected from their students. Coming into the classroom can give them a better idea of what you, as educators, are asking of kids.
2. You can find out what your parents know and don’t know.
The way the 21st century classroom works is very different from the way that classrooms were run when your students’ parents attended school. They probably have some questions about how things are done now.
Curiel explains that parent observations can help surface those questions and give you, the educators, a chance to explain and inform parents instead of assuming that they know what you are trying to do.
In his case, the parents at his school were confused why they were teaching math a new way. By inviting them to see it in action and then following up with a parent meeting to talk through the differences, he was able to get parents onboard with the changes.
3. Inviting constructive criticism can stop unnecessary criticism.
For Curiel this is a major reason to invite parents into the classroom. At some point, most parents are going to complain about their child’s school. Even great schools have their critics. And when they complain somewhere out of your sight — like Facebook or to other parents at the park, there is nothing you can do about it. But if you invite the criticism and help the parents give it to you in a constructive way, then you can diffuse it and more importantly, use it to improve.
4. The atmosphere of the school can change.
As Curiel says, “When you invite parents to do observations the whole climate of the school changes from a closed door atmosphere to an open partnership based on mutual respect.”
And research has shown that a lack of mutual respect and social trust can be a major obstacle for a school that is working to improve. Opening the door to the classroom is one way to begin building that respect and trust.
So how does a school implement classroom observations?
Invite all parents to do it.
The truth is, not many parents are going to be able to get off work to come in and do an observation. For those parents, consider having a recorded classroom for them to observe.
Schedule them in pairs. For many parents, it would be useful to discuss with a partner after the observation so they can gather their thoughts.
Keep the observation windows short, around 10 to 15 minutes. This way parents won’t be intimidated by the time commitment involved.
Help the parents give specific, helpful feedback by giving them a form.
Set the parents up for success. Give them some context for the class and what type of feedback you’re looking for.
Treat them like a guest and be the host. Have someone on staff walk them to the classroom and/or give them the context they might need. Don’t send them in cold.
Focus the feedback on what the parents understand best — the kids. Don’t ask them if they think a teacher is addressing a standard or teaching fractions efficiently. Instead ask them to observe how the children are reacting to the teacher.
Be careful your form does not contain a lot of "teacher-ese." Think less, “Describe the focusing protocols the teacher used,” and more, “What did you see the teachers do to help the students stay interested in the material?” Bonus points if you can have the form in the parents’ home languages!
Take the feedback seriously and publicly show that you do.
After the observations, publicize your gratitude and what specific ways you are using the feedback. Consider these examples:
“During observation week, we read a lot of questions about the agenda we use in our school so we’ve put together a simple explanation. Look for it in your child’s backpack and we will discuss any questions at the PTA meeting."
“Look at this list of positive things parents are saying about teachers at Eagle Elementary. Thanks for noticing. We will keep building on these strengths!”
Make it less scary for teachers.
Of course, opening up your classroom puts teachers in a very vulnerable situation. So make it voluntary, always.
Schedule it, but remind teachers they don’t need to do anything special. It should be a typical day.
Assure teachers that the parent observations are not tied to their performance portfolios or formal observations (unless they want them to be!)