Opinion  /  Peter DeWitt's Finding Common Ground Blog
There's a Better Way: Trust-Based Observations


Today's guest post is written by Craig Randall, a former school counselor, coach, teacher, and principal at schools both in the U.S. and overseas. Now, the author of Trust-Based Observations: Maximizing Teaching and Learning Growth, he consults and trains schools on the model.

The teacher-observation process is supposed to improve teaching and learning, but it doesn't. Research says that despite all the work that has been put into improving teacher observations over the last two decades, these efforts have not resulted in teaching and learning gains. The most compelling evidence comes from the 2018 final report on the Gates Foundation's Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Initiative . This seven-year, $200 million effort was designed to improve teacher effectiveness, student achievement, and graduation rates through the development of more robust measures of teacher effectiveness used for evaluation. Despite the money and time spent, in the end, there was no significant and sustained teacher- or student-performance improvement (Stecher, et al.,2018)

So, what's going on? The core problem is that trust is missing. Though designed to promote improvement, increased accountability measures exerted on teachers through observation evaluation systems, instead evoke fear. When fear is present, the chance teachers will take big risks to innovate and grow their practice is minimized. Matt O'Leary, whose career has been dedicated to researching the observation/evaluation process, found that rating teachers' pedagogy inhibits their growth; as soon as evaluative or developmental rating enters the picture, teachers become cautious, fearful, and stop taking risks (2017).

In essence, observations have been done to teachers, not with or for them. As Simon Sinek has pointed out, "If there were no trust, then no one would take risks. Only when individuals can trust will they take personal risks in order to advance the organization (2009)." And that's where we are, a system designed to improve teaching and learning inadvertently inhibits trust, and therefore, risk-taking and innovation.

There is good news, however; even though observations aren't currently improving teaching and learning, there is a way they can. In my new book, Trust-Based Observations (TBO), I lay out a comprehensive system that builds trust which fosters teacher risk-taking and innovation. Knowing that growth happens when people persist in taking risks, two actions must be taken. Ingredients that build trust and cultivate the confidence to take risks must be added, and obstacles that inhibit trust and risk taking must be eliminated.

Beginning with additions, the most important action to take is working to build trusting, differentiated relationships with each teacher. So, how do we build trust? An excellent place to start is with an understanding of and empathy for the complete vulnerability that is the teacher-observation process. There is no other job that I'm aware of where the boss comes into the employee's office as it were, sits down, and watches them work while taking graded notes on what they see. The employee then waits and worries until the boss is ready to tell them the results. Sharing your understanding of the vulnerability of this process builds trust. When observers also empathize about the other challenges of teaching, like the unpredictability of working with the developing minds of young people or teaching during COVID-19, and use their emotional intelligence to guide their interactions with teachers, it builds trust. When principals understand that every action they take influences relationships and are cognizant of the words and tone they choose, trust is built.

How else do we build trust? Through time, patience, and frequency of contact. As Brene` Brown says, "Trust is built a marble at a time (2012)." It's a process. In traditional models where visits are so infrequent that neither party can remember the last visit well, trusting relationships are difficult to build. In TBO, there is a continuous cycle of 12, 20-minute, unannounced observations and reflective conversations per week.This continuity and frequency allow observers to spend significant, regular blocks of time with each teacher, which is foundational for building trust.

The reflective conversations, with the following changes made to them, is where we build that trust. In TBO:

  • Conversations occur in teachers' rooms because they feel more comfortable in their own space;
  • Principals sit beside the teacher, looking at the template together, instead of across from them to minimize the power differential that inherently exists between the jobs.
  • Conversations begin not by talking but by asking reflective questions and listening.

The questions that lead these conversations are:

  1. What were you doing to help students learn?

  2. If you had it to do over again, what, if anything, might you change?

These questions send a message that reflection is an expected part of practice, and listening instead of talking first sends a message that observers care about what teachers have to say.

  • Next, observers share evidence of observed teaching strengths but not accompanied by ratings. As a matter of fact, for at least the first three conversations, observers don't offer any suggestions, even if the teacher asks. Patience builds trust, as does taking the time to really get to know your teachers as teachers. The remarkable thing about waiting is that in doing so, teachers will frequently ask where they can improve before you are ready to offer a suggestion, which is surely a good sign that trust is being built.

Though these actions build trust, there is still the problem of removing actions that inhibit trust, meaning the rating of pedagogy. Here's the tricky part; evaluation has to be part of any job, but rating pedagogy causes fear. What to do? No one would argue that it's unfair to evaluate planning and preparation, professionalism, or collegiality and collaboration; they are elements that play into the success of any job involving human interaction. So, how do we eliminate the rating of pedagogy, yet have a fair and comprehensive evaluation system that doesn't cause fear?

First, a small detour is required. Aiming to foster growth mindsets and risk-taking, TBO works to manifest these conditions by connecting professional development (PD) directly to observations.

TBO creates professional-development communities (PDC) which meet regularly and are centered around the TBO template's nine areas of pedagogy. Teachers choose the PDC that aligns with their annual action-research big goal. Teachers work concurrently on their goals and professional growth in their PDC, and they regularly review progress and make adjustments when necessary, during their reflective conversations with observers. Finally, connected to PD, when observers see their teachers in action so frequently, they discover who is best at what areas of teaching. Observers use this information to empower in-house experts to lead each PDC. The result is empowered, risk-taking teachers demonstrating growth mindsets.

Moving back to the evaluation problem, TBO eliminates the growth-inhibiting rating of pedagogy and replaces it with the evaluation of mindset, but with the caveat that TBO, by virtue of its just described system, has created a mechanism that almost automatically fosters at least a proficient level of growth mindset. Frankly, it would take a monumentally fixed mindset not to participate in the PDC and goal- setting process.

Controversial? Maybe. If the results, however, are that teachers embrace the risk-taking necessary to grow practice and teaching and learning improves, then isn't it worth it? It's time to put into practice our own social-emotional learning and support our teachers. It is a better path for improved teaching and learning.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.


  • Stecher, Brian M., Holtzman, Deborah J., Garet, Michael S., Laura S., et al. "Impacts of the Intensive Partnerships Initiative." RAND Corporation, June 21, 2018. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2242.html.
  • O'Leary, Matt. Reclaiming Lesson Observation: Supporting Excellence in Teacher Learning . London; New York: Routledge, 2017.
  • Sinek, Simon. Start with Why. New York, Penguin Publishing Group, 2009.
  • Brown BrenĂ©. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead . London: Penguin Life, 2012.