How to Handle Principal Observations

I know a lot of teachers who get nervous about being observed by their principal. With only a couple of observations each year, teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform. They worry how a poor observation will impact their overall evaluation. Some are simply uncomfortable being observed and judged. The irony of course–and it’s one recognized by even those teachers feeling this way–is that worrying about an observation is likely to lead to a worse performance.

So how do you not stress over a principal’s observation? 

Any time you worry, it means you’re nervous. Nervousness comes from fear.   So what exactly are you afraid of? If you wrote out a list, I think you’d find that every single item on it comes back to this: You’re afraid of your principal’s opinion of your abilities. If you didn’t care about that, you would no longer be worried. So how do you convince yourself to not care?

I tell myself four things:

My Opinion Matters Most

I set my own standards for professional success. I have reasons for everything I do in the classroom and no one knows all of them but me. Anyone judging me lacks the necessary facts to make an informed decision. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but I have the right, and usually the duty, to ignore it. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I do not give my consent. In short, I don’t really care what my principal thinks of me. It’s nothing personal, I just won’t give anyone (except my wife) that much power.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Observations are subjective. The truth is, nearly all of your evaluation is based on the opinions of a single person who watches you do your job for a total of maybe three hours out of 1,100. Now you might be able to watch a single Nicolas Cage scene and feel pretty safe in concluding that he sucks as an actor, but I’d want a little larger sample size for most professionals.

Consider whether your school district would ever do the following:

To prove to teachers how reliable and valid their administrators’ observations are, they put all of their principals in a room. On a screen, they show a forty-five minute video of a lesson. Each principal uses their evaluation tool to rate the teacher across the zillion or so items they’re required to assess. And then, after they’re done, they all compare scores.

How similar do you think those scores would be? How many principals would feel comfortable sharing their numbers? How many districts would dare reveal the results of such an experiment to its teachers? I have a guess and it’s very, very small.

I Own the Moral High Ground

How many meetings have you attended where you were reminded that you, the classroom teacher, has the greatest in-school impact on student achievement? Eric Hanushek has even attempted to tie teacher effectiveness to future earnings for students. (Which I guess is what really matters???)

Every time I hear this fact, I internally roll my eyes. What other in-school factor would impact students more? The quality of the food in the cafeteria? The size of the rooms? The cleanliness of the hallways? Of course the person with whom kids spend six hours a day has the most impact.

But I also use this finding to feel superior to my principal any time I worry about her judging me.

It is the teacher, not the principal, who has the greatest impact on students.

That means that the person who is sitting in the back of my room evaluating my performance opted to take a job that has less impact on the only people who really matter in a school than the one I have chosen. What could their reasons have been for making such a choice?

Perhaps they wanted to make more money. They wanted to lead. They were frustrated by administrators when they were teaching and felt they could do better. Their talents are better suited to leading adults than children. Or maybe they decided they didn’t want to teach any more and there weren’t too many other jobs they were qualified to do.

Choose whichever reason you like for them. It doesn’t matter if it’s accurate. Remember, you’re doing this to relieve your stress. So if it helps to imagine your principal as a completely ineffective former teacher who got fed up, quit, and then decided to take out her frustrations on other teachers, go ahead and do it. Feeling superior does wonders for self-confidence.

If All Else Fails

I sometimes remind myself that the only thing that matters about my evaluation is that it’s good enough for my employer to invite me back next year. Because next year, I get to be evaluated all over again.  It’s all just another show where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.

How to Act

When I’ve convinced myself that I don’t really care what my principal thinks of me,  I can relax and perform. In fact, I make it a goal to appear even calmer than I normally am in front of my students. The biggest thing I want to convey during an observed lesson is self-confidence. Here’s why:

Confidence inspires confidence. During this year’s Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons were trouncing the New England Patriots. But the Patriots had the most confident player on the field. Even though it looked hopeless for the Patriots, there wasn’t a fan who watched that game that didn’t believe Tom Brady could bring them back. Tom Brady exudes confidence.

Who would you rather have at the free throw line in a tied game with one second on the clock, the excitable guy whose jerky actions, darting eyes, and nervous tics reveal exactly how he’s feeling inside, or the guy who calmly steps to the line, jokes around with his teammates, and is so relaxed he decides to bank the thing in?

When the principal walks into my room to observe me, the only thing I think about is projecting confidence. My voice is even. I don’t gesture much. I respond calmly to students, including any misbehavior. The  message I want to send is: I do this every day. It’s no big deal. I can handle whatever comes my way. I smile, tell a joke, and move leisurely throughout the room. And I try not to look at the principal.

While I’m teaching, I pretend he’s not even in the room. If you keep looking back at the principal, you are signaling a lack of confidence. It shows that you care what the principal thinks. Every time you look, it’s like asking, “So what did you think of that? Was that okay?” When a principal sees you looking at him, he thinks two things:

  1. You lack confidence.
  2. Your focus isn’t on the students, where it should be.

Both of these are bad. If a principal starts to think you lack confidence, his next logical thought is, “If this teacher isn’t confident in her ability, then why should I be confident in it?”

You are on your way to being marked down. The principal won’t fear giving you a 1 or a 2, because you’ve already shown self-doubt. You’re almost asking for it. It would be inconsistent of you to later stand up for yourself when you meet with him to discuss the lesson. People rarely act inconsistently.

Most people avoid conflict. Confident people send an unspoken message that if you jerk them around, they’re not going to accept it. That conversation will not be pleasant. Principals are far less likely to ding a confident teacher than a nervous, self-doubting one because they don’t want to deal with a possible future conflict. So even if you don’t feel confident, pretend that you do!

What do you tell yourself before an observation? What mental tricks do you use to stay calm and confident? Tell us in the comments!

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6 Replies to “How to Handle Principal Observations”

  1. We have informal “walk-through” observations throught the year and unless one of us sees the principal or AP with their iPad going into rooms & gives a heads-up to others, we don’t know when they’re happening. I’ll be doing my thing teaching away & happen to look across the room & see one of them sitting there. Those tend to be my best observations!

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