The idea of being observed while performing a job can make anyone feel a little nervous. But understanding what CLASS® observations are really about can help educators relax and approach their classrooms with the same skill and attention they normally do. 

Marnetta Larrimer, host of Impacting the Classroom, is today’s guest. She’s an early education professional and trainer who is currently a Professional Services Manager for Teachstone. In her conversation with Kate, she’s going to talk about what a CLASS observation is all about. Listen to the episode to hear what she has to say about what she would be doing while observing a classroom, who she’s paying attention to, and what happens after an observation. The answers you hear will help you feel more confident the next time you’re being observed.

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Kate: Welcome to the Teaching with CLASS podcast. Marnetta, I'm really glad you're here with me today.

Marnetta: I am glad too. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Kate: I'm really excited to have this conversation with you because I know you have a lot of wisdom to share. As an observer, as a coach, as a professional you are to guide us through understanding what a CLASS observation is all about, what to expect, and what if things go wrong and all that. We're going to dive into that together.

Marnetta: It's going to be a really good question.

Kate: Yes, so let's put this into the broader context because there may be some people listening who don't really know about CLASS, or they're just beginning to learn about what the CLASS tool is. Let's just look at it from really the big picture level that all classrooms and learning environments provide opportunities for children to learn.

It's in the context of these interactions with their teacher that this learning happens, whether it's an infant classroom, toddler, pre-K, kindergarten, or all the way up through 12th grade, interactions are happening in classrooms. We want children to get the most out of those interactions so that they get the most out of that educational experience.

The CLASS is a way of describing what high quality teacher-child or educator-student interactions look like. Those interactions that have the greatest impact on learning outcomes. That's really what we're all about in classrooms. A CLASS observation is a way of measuring those high quality interactions and being able to describe what we see happening in classrooms so that we can look at, in the long run, how to support teacher growth.

We have to first understand what it is we're looking for, know what it is that we saw, and then be able to support teachers to grow, do what they're doing even better or more often, so a CLASS observation allows us to do that. Any thoughts about that before we dive into talking about what it's all about?

Marnetta: No. I think if you don't know what CLASS is, that kind of sets the stage for us. So we know that we're looking at these interactions in the classroom and then it takes us to the next step of what we're going to talk about.

Kate: Yeah, so let's just jump right in there. What is a CLASS observation?

Marnetta: That was a really big question, Kate. A CLASS observation, like any observation, is an opportunity for us to see those interactions in the classroom happening right there, these behaviors that teachers exhibit naturally. We literally just take CLASS language and tie it to those behaviors in the classroom, so we go into the classroom to assess the quality of those interactions.

Like you said, use it in different ways, whether it be for professional development to write for coaching, for higher stakes like QIRS, different things, so for lots of different reasons, but I think the first thing that I want to say is that don't think of it as this thing that's happening. Remember that this is your classroom and we are guests in your classroom.

This isn't about being punitive, judgy, or anything like that. We literally just want to see you exist and do the wonderful things that you're doing in the classroom, take note of those things, and help you to do it even more across more times of the day with more children, and just elevate those practices in the classroom.

Kate: Okay, so you're coming into my classroom—let's just say because I was a teacher for many years—kind of like a fly on the wall?

Marnetta: Absolutely.

Kate: To see everything that's going on, so when you come in, how long are you going to be there? What do you do while you're there? What should I expect to happen?

Marnetta: I love it, so I'm now going to walk you directly through what it would look like. I'm going to arrive at the site. Depending on where I'm at I'm going to be masked depending on what the protocols are because we are still dealing with this pandemic. Either you'll know I'm coming or you won't. It depends on your program and what their protocols are, so you may not be expecting a visit from me. But you may be expecting a visit from me.

If you are expecting me, it's business as usual. We're not doing anything new. We'll talk more about that later because I really want to dig into some things to support those observations. Usually, I'm fun size, Kate, so children like to play with me. In order for me to observe in a classroom and be invisible, I don't want to be off-putting, but I want to be unavailable and disconnected.

In order for me to gather objective data, I'm not going to be smiling. I don't want to do anything that's going to persuade, shift an observation, or invite interactions with myself, so in that invisibility, that observer might be very removed. You should understand that it's nothing personal, it's about removing ourselves and making sure we are just that fly on the wall, the wallpaper, the door. We're just invisible and removed from the situation so that we can gather the data that we need.

Kate: If I see a very kind of straight face without a lot of smiling, I don't need to worry or take it personally that I'm doing something wrong. You're just trying to do your job to not be disruptive to what goes on in my classroom.

Marnetta: Absolutely. But just think, if you were doing something and I laughed, you're going to continue to do those things, and that's going to shift what would have normally happened, so I'm not going to do anything that's going to interrupt the learning processes.

Kate: Right. So then what do you do? Do you just stand around? What do you do while you're doing your observation? How long does it last?

Marnetta: So while you're doing what you're doing, which is teaching children, expanding their knowledge base, I'm going where the action is. I'm going to be invisible but as close as I can be to hear what's happening, to see what children are doing, to be able to note what they are playing with, what's being said, what those interactions actually are. Far enough away to be invisible, but close enough to where I can gather that data.

We will do it for four cycles. Well, again, it depends on the purpose because sometimes, if it's a coaching session, it might be one cycle. If it's Head Start, it might just be two cycles. But normally, it's four cycles of 20 minutes. For 20 minutes, I'm going to observe and gather that information and take anecdotal notes of what was said and what was done. I usually go to a corner, I find leaving the classroom to be disruptive to what's happening. I usually, in my introductions, tell you, hey, I'm going to code for 20 minutes, then I'm going to watch the classroom for 20 minutes, code for 10 minutes.

When I code, my back will be to you. That's how you'll know that I'm off. Some teachers want you to leave. But, again, because I think of it as a break, you're doing this stuff all the time and deeper natural behaviors so you don't really need a break from it. Because again, I'm not trying to catch you doing anything. These are things that you're just doing already. It's less disruptive if I just find a place in the room to code for those 10 minutes with the children.

Kate: I definitely would not want you coming and going out of my classroom, in and out, in and out, in and out like eight times in order to get that done. I can see that would be really helpful. You just remove yourself from observing for a few minutes, then what do you do during that time?

Marnetta: So during that 10 minutes, I'm coding. I'm going through my manual. I'm looking at the behaviors you exhibited by dimension. I’m looking at the quality, the depth, the duration, and the frequency of those behaviors, and assigning it a code based on what the tool is designed to determine. So table 2.1, if you've never been an observer, you have no idea why, but if you are, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Then it's taking that data and determining where you fall in relation to that table. I do that for each of the 10 dimensions or depending on the tool.

Kate: Right, because it depends on which age group exactly what you're looking for. You're looking for developmentally appropriate things then depending on the age group that I'm working with.

Marnetta: Absolutely, so if we were talking about the infant tool, infants need lots of touching, caressing, and handling. They're making emotional connections, so I would be looking to see how often they were held, touched, and comforted. Are we respecting them by using their names? Are we walking over children? Are we picking up the cues that they're putting down? If we do, how do we respond to them? Are they soothed by those responses?

In pre-K, it's some of the same things, but it just looks different for pre-K CLASS because they still need comfort. They might be weepy. If they are weepy, do you tell them hey, you're too big for that? Or is it yeah, talk to me about that, what's going on? How can I support you? How do you help them through, first of all, acknowledging their feelings, but then providing them that comfort so that they can move forward as well.

Just depending on the age, those are some of the types of behaviors that we're looking for, those relational behaviors that help children to learn, feel safe in the classroom, and be able to thrive.

Kate: What if I'm not the only one? What if I have a team of people, who are you looking at while you're in there?

Marnetta: Again, it just depends on the purpose of the observation. If I was coming in as a CLASS observer from Teachstone, we're looking at an environment. We're looking at the average experience of the children in the classroom. So if you have a co-teacher, both of you are responsible for what's happening in that classroom. You both have an equal buy-in to the children's experiment.

Now, if in one of those cycles, my co-teacher is just sweeping and cleaning up, those behaviors are way less weighted in that observation because she's not interacting with children. So the onus would be more on me because I have these children, I'm doing all of these things, and she's doing more managerial stuff. But if we're taking turns doing small groups, both of those interactions are weighted in part of that score that we've received, so it's a classroom score and not a teacher.

Kate: Everybody matters to adults. It's kind of like what they're doing at that time with how many children and things like that. But what about the kids? Are we just looking at teachers? I mean, kids do all kinds of stuff.

Marnetta: That's the thing, so that's why it has to be business as usual. Because when you change it up, you're only going to impact that observation. You're going to cause yourself more barriers than success in the classroom. We expect four-year-olds to do four-year-old things. We expect that things are going to happen, but it's about how you handle those things that happen.

People are going to spill milk, how do you handle them spilling milk? People are going to grow up, but how do you handle that situation? Children are going to fight, but it's about how you handle it. How do you help them to see each other's perspectives, minimize what's happening, and help them through working through those processes? We don't expect perfection. We expect those behaviors to happen. It's just about how you show up to those situations.

We're looking at teacher behaviors. We're looking at how children interact with each other and with their teacher. Let's say I'm smiling and I'm just talking, I love all of you. As an observer, I'm going to look to see how that impacted the students and how the students responded to that statement because that's what tells me how effective that interaction was. It's not checking off the boxes of teacher behaviors. It's about how the children respond to those behaviors that really tell us how effective they are.

Kate: If they're comfortable coming, sitting near me, or if they say nice things to me back or to each other, that tells you something in terms of the quality of our relationship, or if they just stare at you if I say, oh, I'm so glad you're here today, and the child doesn't smile or anything like that, then that would tell you something different about the comfort that that child has in our relationship.

Marnetta: Absolutely. I love that example. Earlier, you were talking about all the adults. I've been in classrooms where I might be with a co-teacher and the classroom is fine. They're functioning, but then the lead teacher comes in and there's a shift of energy. It tells me where those relationships are, where the children feel the most comfort and who they lean to. In those situations, it's about how we make sure that that happens across all of the adults in the environment.

Kate: Yes, so children have really as many opportunities to connect and learn from all the adults in the classroom, not just their favorite one.

Marnetta: It allows you to be off or be gone and the world would not fall apart. It doesn't have to start over. That's what some of my coaching is just getting them to understand that if you guys do it together, then if you guys are missing, the world doesn't end. They still have a person that can carry me through that they feel safe with, they feel comfortable with, and there are less problems in the classroom.

Kate: How should my team and I prepare? Let's just say we know you're coming. We've been told that in the next two weeks, some time, we're going to have a CLASS observation. We don't know exactly when, but we're ready. How do we make sure that we're prepared for the observation visit?

Marnetta: I don't even know how to answer that. I mean, there's nothing to prepare. Well, there’s really nothing to prepare for.

Kate: But I want to have the best lessons ever. I want to make sure that the day goes perfectly. I put on a good show.

Marnetta: But the thing is, you can only do that show for a couple of cycles then the real things come out because you're looking at children's behavior and children say things like we get to play with that today or we don't usually do this. That tells us that this isn't a normal routine for them. Don't change anything up because again, they tell on you and it just impacts your score based on their responses, but also their inability, you've changed their routine.

You've worked really hard in that routine. Once you shift it, that's when you get into behavior management issues. They need that routine. If you change it up on them, it's going to be very challenging for them. Then you're going to have an observation that you're not going to be pleased with the results.

Kate: Okay, so what I hear you saying is that don't do anything special to prepare for that one day. What I'm thinking is, if I feel nervous, I better change what I'm doing so that it's really great when the observer shows up, then maybe that's giving me a clue of things I should be thinking about anyway, that I should be doing differently on a daily basis.

Marnetta: Every day, because if you think about habit and how habits are formed, the more we do it, the more we flex that muscle and massage it, the bigger the firmer, the better it is. You definitely want to have those types of interactions and focus on those types of interactions every day, so that way you keep building on them across the day. It becomes second nature and you don't think about them. They're authentic. You can tell that authenticity in an observation—that genuine care, that genuine questioning that you're giving.

If you're all of a sudden doing this rattling of higher order thinking questions and I talk with you afterward, they never answered these questions, that tells me they're not used to having those questions. Whereas if you do it all the time, they get used to answering and responding and it becomes a natural part of their day, so you have to massage that muscle. You have to do all those things every day in order to be good or effective in your CLASS observations.

Kate: Right, because as a caring teacher, I really want every day to be the best day possible for the students in my classroom. So they get the most out of every day, not just the two hours that you might be in my classroom or something like that. It doesn't seem fair to make them wait for the good stuff for the observer to show up.

Marnetta: But it's not even just about CLASS operations. These behaviors are beyond CLASS. Research says this is how children learn, and how they learn best. It is the foundation. Those relationships and those interactions drive their success. It's beyond just CLASS. It's going to show up in all of your observations or all of your visits in the classroom. If you think of it outside of just it being an observation and this other thing you have to do, it really is best practice.

Kate: Okay, so it's not a test I'm preparing for, it's really everyday life.

Marnetta: Absolutely.

Kate: So, in everyday life, crazy things happen. I know in my classroom, I've had things like people throw up, or children fall down and bust their lip open and there's blood everywhere. I mean, crazy things happen. What do I do if that happens while you're in my room?

Marnetta: What you would just normally do. We're not going to freak out. Accidents happen. We have to remember, part of the child's development is helping them to understand and deal with things that happen. We want to model that process anyway, so that's exactly what you would do. We're not going to minimize the behavior. If he busted his lip and he's hurt, we're going to empathize. We're going to support. We're going to clean up or do whatever. But I can have some regard and say, hey, so and so, can you get me a wet towel?

I can still [...] different CLASS behaviors while dealing with this emergency. You just keep your head, things can happen. We just want to remember that we are modeling those behaviors for the children. It's not the end because all I'm going to see is, okay, this thing happened. Oh, look, there's some regard that we got children gathered XYZ. She was sensitive in her response. She saw what happened. She quickly attended to it. There are all of these things that are happening that are still beautiful things that we would run out.

Kate: What about a situation that's not quite so severe like some sort of emergency, but just sort of daily life with a child who takes a little bit of extra support? Maybe they are aggressive or developmentally at a different level than the rest of my class and they do take some extra time and attention. Maybe they really hurt somebody, they throw a chair across the room, or something crazy like that happens, what do I do then?

Marnetta: Yeah. It's scary because you have a whole class that you're really thinking about, and at the moment you want to react in a really big way, that fight or flight. I’ve got to protect. But again, you know your children better than anybody. When I come, I don't know them. I don't want to know them because I don't want to be biased in that observation. I don't want to know anybody's background because I don't want anything to hinder where I land as far as the score.

Your attention to that individual, the plans that you make for the individual, if you have to spend time with that individual, let's say, for 20–30 minutes, because they need some—I'm going to say banking time because banking time is like the best thing ever—banking time. Some time with that child individually because you need to cool down with them and do some things to focus their attention so that they're less heated.

You can start little fires with your other children and get them involved in other things while you handle this other thing that needs most of your attention, so children don't have to sit around and wait for you. They can still be busy. They can still be learning, whether it be self-directed or writing. I can still check in from afar. I can say, hey, I see you building that over there. I can still be focused on helping and calming this child as well. But again, the fact that there is this individualization that's happening is also part of this tool. That individual support is a good thing that you provide it.

Kate: Okay, so it isn't about that something bad happens. It's about what I do to manage the situation. Am I being proactive to know what other things can happen? What other things might happen to make the rest of what's going on smooth as possible while I [...]?

What about what happens after? You're in my room for a little while, you observe and take notes, and then you assign a score. Then you do that repeated number of times. And then when you're all done, what happens?

Marnetta: It just depends. I wish to answer that but it just depends on the program. Sometimes I say thank you, and I'll walk away because that's my job, I'm not allowed to tell you anything. Sometimes because your organization wants to filter that information or use that information in a different way than just to coach you.

If I'm supposed to coach you, I'd go away. I'd probably take 30 minutes to an hour to write up a report, look at those strengths, those great things that are happening, some areas of improvement, and then we can come together. We'll talk these things out, and then come up with a plan on how we can get more of those strengths into the classroom.

When you're thinking about higher stakes like QRIS or whatever, it just, again, depends on the system, so it might be a mixture of both where the organization is using the data to drive their PD in a very specific way, but also reports out to the QRIS. That becomes organizational, let's say a childcare center, their score, their rating for that facility, so it just depends on lots of different things.

Kate: That's helpful because what it tells me is, as a professional, it's important for me to ask some questions maybe to find out from my administrator what to expect, what will happen with my scores? What will I find out? How will there be follow-up so I can continue to grow based on what was observed in my classroom that day?

This is very comforting. I now know that it's about being a proud professional. That I should be thinking about this in the broader context of my role as a professional, my role as this person who's building the future in my classroom. These students are getting, hopefully, the most out of every day, and I'm not just preparing for a test when you show up. You're going to be there for a little while, and then it'll be done.

Whatever happens, happens. I should just handle it the best way I can at that moment. Then I should find out from my administrator maybe what the follow up be about that. This is helping. This is helping to put everything into a nice little package for me.

What little takeaway would you want? On this podcast this season, we hear a lot about teachers leaving. We want to focus on the teachers who are staying and encourage those teachers to stay. So at the end of each episode, I've been asking, if you had 30 seconds to encourage a teacher, what would you say?

Marnetta: I would say that you are right where you're supposed to be. You're this professional. No one knows your classroom or your children any better than you do. You know all of their secrets, how to get to them, how to motivate them, and there's power in that. You really drive what happens in that classroom. Remember that little people are very able and you can facilitate without dictating.

Sometimes we think because things have to go a certain way to be right, but they can't learn if they don't take on those things. If it's September, and you're still leading circle time, you don't need to. They can do it without you because you do it every day. They see you do it all the time, so give them those opportunities to lead, so that way, you don't have to do as much and you can lead and put your energy into other things that may need more of your attention in the classroom.

Trust yourself to know that you know best, you know how to do this, you know how to teach. You can do it and everything takes time to grow. Even the most effective teacher still has areas of improvement. We all have growing to do. There's never an end to the work that we do as children develop, grow, learn and what we know about them changes, grows, and learns.

We're always evolving. You have to be comfortable with knowing that you're never going to be perfect. But you're absolutely perfect for the students that you're taking care of. Be easy on yourself. Be gentle. Be kind. Be ready to learn and share that learning with your kids.

Kate: It's a big job, but that's very encouraging what you just said, so we'll definitely keep that in mind. Thank you so much for being here with us today and helping us understand what to expect and putting some of our nerves at ease about what this means.

Marnetta: It was my pleasure

Kate: Thank you so much.

Marnetta: Thank you, Kate.