Engaging Teachers in their Professional Growth

By Elaine B. Gould, M.Ed.
September/October 2012

In his book Unmistakable Impact, Knight (2011) quotes:

Classroom observation … is a discipline – a practice, in the sense that it is a pattern of ways of observing and talking and is designed to create a common understanding among a group of practitioners about the nature of their work. A central part of that practice is deciding in advance what to observe, how to observe, and, most importantly how to talk about what is seen. (City, Elmore, Fiarman, & Lee Teitel, 2009, p. 86)

 As a doctoral student, I had an opportunity to engage in this process with a third-grade teacher with whom I had a professional relationship. I was required to complete the cycle (pre-conference, classroom/teacher observation, and post-observation conference), and she agreed to participate in the assignment. During the pre-observation conference, we identified strategies and behaviors around which data would be collected during the observation. During the observation, I used a pre-determined data collection tool to collect data on the behaviors identified in the pre-observation conference. Finally, at the post-observation conference, I provided nonjudgmental feedback to the teacher and, through questioning, guided her analysis of the data that were collected (DiPaola & Hoy, 2008). Throughout this process, the teacher was actively involved in identifying her instructional strengths, areas in which she would like to improve, and deciding which actions she would have to take to achieve her professional goals (DiPaola & Hoy, 2008).

I completed a 45-minute observation during two 20-minute rotations of the teacher’s Reading instructional block. There were 16 students (9 boys and 7 girls) in the class. Five students had disabilities and received special education.

Our Story

The Pre-Conference

During the pre-conference, I explained the observation cycle and the roles that each of us would play in the process. When it came time to identify an area around which the teacher would like me to collect data, she expressed concern that she was neither reaching her students with disabilities nor effectively differentiating instruction for her students.

I asked her to describe what it would look like if her students were provided with work that was both challenging and at the appropriate instructional level. She stated that her students would be engaged and on-task during instruction. We agreed that I would use a data collection instrument specifically designed to record student engagement and on-task behavior. Sensing a positive classroom climate, I also decided to collect data on the ratio of positive to negative teacher comments made to students.

The Observation

During the reading class, a timer was projected onto the Promethean board to indicate the amount of time that students would spend at each reading station. When one minute remained on the timer, students began to clean up and prepare for the transition to the next activity.  This observation, along with the quick and efficient manner in which students transitioned to the next station, demonstrated that students had been taught and had practiced routines and procedures around reading instruction. It was also evident that reading block rules had been taught. For example, the teacher would not engage in discussion with students outside of the reading group with which she was working. As a result, when a student approached the reading group table to ask the teacher a question, without saying a word, she pointed to a “closed” sign on the reading group table. The student asked for and received help from another student seated outside of the reading group.

Tables 1 and 2 include a summary of the on- and off-task behavior data, respectively. During the observation period, this teacher made 14 positive and 2 negative comments to students.  These statements praised specific student behaviors so they could make clear connections between their behavior and the teacher’s feedback, such as, “Good job using vocabulary from the story when answering that question!” Research suggests that when teachers use specific praise and deliver it immediately following the desired behavior, they increase positive academic and social behaviors such as on-task behavior, correct responses, and productivity (Simonsen, Myers, & DeLuca, 2010).

During the observation of the first reading group rotation, I observed the teacher asking her students a high number of questions. Using Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, I collected data on the cognitive levels of the questions that the teacher asked of her students during the second reading group rotation. The teacher asked the students in her reading group 16 questions, including:

  • 5 remembering questions
  • 3 understanding questions
  • 2 application questions
  • 1 analyzing question
  • 4 evaluating questions
  • 1 creating question

 Asking questions at a variety of cognitive levels allows students to build broad knowledge about a topic (lower cognitive level questions), and to develop a more thorough understanding of the content and apply that knowledge to events occurring in their lives (higher cognitive level questions) (DiPaola & Hoy, 2008). 

 Table 1

 Summary of On-Task Behavior


1st Reading

2nd Reading














Hands-on activity



Helping one another



Table 2

Summary of Off-Task Behavior


1st Reading

2nd Reading

Off Task 

Inattentive (distracted or daydreaming)




Doing other work



Engaged in peer conversation



Disturbing others







The Post-Observation Conference

Before the post-observation conference, I emailed the data tables and the following guiding questions to the teacher:

  1. How do these data speak to you?
  2. Are the data what you expected to see?
  3. Are there any surprises in the data?

I also explained the data collection process, what each data table represented, and the behaviors around which data were collected: student engagement, on- and off-task behavior, ratio of positive to negative comments, and levels of questioning. Finally, I attached to the email a link to an informational article about Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. Providing the data in advance allowed the teacher time for reflection before our meeting.

I arrived in her classroom during her planning period and asked her to discuss what the data revealed to her.  She said, “I’m surprised!” She was pleasantly surprised. As we reviewed the data for the off-task behavior, I explained that a single student demonstrated many of the off-task behaviors noted. For example, the same student may have been “playing” and at a different time “distracting others.”

Once I finished my explanation, the teacher led the remainder of the discussion. She explained that since the pre-conference, she had reorganized her reading class so that students with disabilities were integrated with their peers in instructional activities. In the past, they were routinely grouped together and completed adapted activities. She said, “I am so proud of them now, and I’ve been proud of them all week.” She was surprised that none of the students with disabilities had been identified as being “off task” during instruction. After the changes had been made, she said that one of the students with disabilities shared with her that he “finally felt like a real third grader.” She felt that she had done the right thing, and seeing these data was reinforcing for her. After looking at the data, she said, “I need to stop being so hard on myself.” Her active involvement in the data analysis enabled her to be more aware of her strengths as a teacher. The hope is that she will continue to take risks and set high expectations for her students with disabilities.

Because the data were so encouraging, this teacher established a goal to learn more about differentiating instruction to meet the needs of all of her students. Together we identified resources for professional learning including T/TAC Considerations Packets: Differentiating for Success in Inclusive Classrooms, Grading in Inclusive Classrooms, and Reasonable and Effective Accommodations; and IRIS Center learning modules: Differentiated Instruction: Maximizing the Learning of All Students and Universal Design for Learning: Creating a Learning Environment that Challenges and Engages all Students. We also set a time when we could meet to engage in the process again.


Engaging in this process enabled the teacher to be actively involved in the classroom observation by engaging in reflective practice, data analysis, data-based decision making, and action planning for professional growth (DiPaola & Hoy, 2008). 

After completing the observation cycle with this teacher, I met with the school’s principal and assistant principal to share our positive experience and the data collection tools. Both leaders recognized the value in using the forms, and the principal said, “I should be collecting this type of data with all teachers.” Completing this cycle with the teacher changed her beliefs about and her expectations for her students.


DiPaola, M., & Hoy, W. (2008). Principals improving instruction: Supervision, evaluation, and professional development. Boston, MA:  Pearson Education.

Knight, J. (2011). Unmistakable impact: A partnership approach for dramatically improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Simonsen, B., Myers, D., & DeLuca, C. (2010). Teaching teachers to use prompts, opportunities to respond, and specific praise. Teacher Education and Special Education, 33, 300-318. doi:  10.1177/0888406409359905