10 Keys to a Successful Peer Observation Program

Peer observation can be used as free, ongoing, effective professional development—and can draw faculty closer together.

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Me, learning to sew a button in family and consumer science

Note: A version of this article first appeared on Edutopia here.

We’ve probably all sat through a professional development day like this: The school hires a professional speaker to come teach its faculty a new instructional strategy. The speaker arrives on an in-service day, the faculty gather in an auditorium, and the speaker stands in front of everyone, microphone in hand, going over the strategy outlined in a presentation being projected behind them.

This kind of “dump-and-run” professional development promotes the counterproductive idea that PD should be neatly confined to a handful of days a year. It’s also costly and ineffective, and most teachers find it “totally useless.”

Creating a peer observation program where staff members can visit other classrooms any day of the school year and utilize teachers as professional development resources is an easy alternative to traditional PD strategies. Inspired by an idea in the book Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School, we created a schedule at our school where teachers could post any lessons they were willing to allow other teachers to observe. Then, if others had a prep period or free time, they could check the schedule and get quick, free professional development by seeing a fellow colleague at work.

A program like this has many benefits:

  • The observer gets to pick up strategies both big and small.
  • The observer gets to see students in a different learning environment.
  • Students see teachers as collaborative learners.
  • It strengthens collegiality between professionals.

Here are 10 tips that allowed this peer observation program to be successful at our school:

1. Recruit Early Adopters

Get the program off on the right foot. Before launching the program, recruit two groups of amenable colleagues – one to invite others into their classrooms and one to go observe lessons for the first few weeks. This will provide the program with a kickstart until it gains momentum.

2. Make It Accessible

Putting the schedule of lessons onto a shared Google Doc that anyone in the school community can access and edit will reduce the number of barriers to participation. With a shared document, everyone can see at a moment’s notice which lessons are available to observe and they can post lessons on the schedule at any time and from anywhere.  

3. Don’t Attach Mandates

Mandates and accountability measures might be good for compliance and participation, but they tend to stifle teacher buy-in. If there are no sign ups, no paperwork, and no formal requirements, the focus of the program will be on picking up new ideas, connecting with other educators, and gaining a deeper understanding of the students and school. In other words, the focus will be exactly where it should be.

4. Make It Inclusive

The more staff that are participating, the better. Administrators, faculty from other buildings, teachers from various content areas and grade levels, and support staff will all gain something from observing a variety of classrooms and contribute to the cross-pollination of ideas.

5. Build Trust

In our world of high-stakes evaluations, teachers are understandably wary of others coming into their classrooms. Still others might just be a bit self-conscious with another adult watching them and their class. In both cases, it’s vital to build trust with teachers and reinforce the idea that others are not coming in to judge, but to learn and improve their own practice.

6. Incentivize It

Even great programs need to provide a little extra motivation. Consider encouraging participation by creating incentives like:

  • Excusal from a PD half day
  • Allowing teachers to leave on prep periods
  • Random drawings for gift cards
  • Free dress-down days

7. Promote It

The peer observation program requires little maintenance, but it helps to promote the great things that are happening to encourage more participation. Writing a quick weekly email to staff detailing great lessons from the past week and highlighting upcoming lessons available to observe will keep interest stoked and the program growing.

8. Expand It

There are countless ways that peer observation could be expanded beyond just observations:

  • Consider adding the option for those opening up their classrooms to voluntarily request feedback from their classroom visitors.
  • “Flip” the program. At our school, we’re currently applying for a grant to buy a 360-degree camera, film lessons with it, and make the videos available as a resource to be accessed anytime.
  • Allow staff to take the Shadow a Student Challenge and shadow a student for a school day. The School Retool Network provides lots of great resources to do this.

9. Encourage Teachers to Make It Their Own

Teachers can do more than just open their doors for staff to observe lessons. At our school, an art teacher opened her studio to any staff member who wanted to come make art alongside her students. And two special education teachers ran an informative workshop during a prep period for Autism Awareness month. The options to hack the format are endless.

10. Create a Hashtag and Share It

To create even greater dissemination of ideas and findings, develop a way for staff to share what they learned during observations with the rest of the community. A great way to do this is to create a hashtag for the program and encourage observers to tweet out the great things that they see and ideas they pick up.  

The Power of Peer Observation

While many at our school were immediately receptive to the idea of peer observation and eager to get involved, some were not. Little by little, though, we developed the ten ideas outlined above that led to increased participation. Maybe the best outcome of the program is that it shifted our teacher culture toward one that is more open and collaborative. But the shift in culture did not happen overnight; it grew steadily as the school community became more comfortable with the concept and began to see its worth.    

Peer observation creates an environment where collegial relationships are more readily formed, more ideas are shared, and instruction is more well-informed. Try it out and watch teachers throughout the school start to share and grow with each other like never before!

Have any other ideas for creating a great peer observation program? Share them in the comments below!

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