Moving Embers: On Partner Observations

Fall 2012

By Philippe Ernewein, Cynthia Richardson

“When I use the word center, I am always referring to a physical set, a distinct physical system, which occupies a certain volume in space, and has a special marked coherence. Even when the center is a social or cultural center, it is still ultimately spatial as well; it occurs in space, and always has a spatial locus,” Christopher Alexander wrote on page 84 of The Phenomenon of Life.

Too often as professional development support staff, we travel to these centers, classrooms, alone. Our experiment over the past year has been to travel in partnership with classroom teachers to different classrooms. We call these observations, partner observations.

Background of Partner Observation Idea

When we read Alexander’s explanation of centers as “a certain volume in space...{that} has a special marked coherence,” as educators, our minds immediately turned to the centers of classrooms, the centers found in schools. Alexander’s definition of centers has been presented here in an architectural sense. In his book, The Phenomenon of Life, he wrote extensively about the role that centers play in understanding and appreciating structures, design, and art. In the same chapter, he wrote, “I use the word center to identify an organized zone of space - that is to say, a distinct set of points in space, which, because of its organization, because of its internal coherence, and because of its relation to its context, exhibits centeredness” (p. 84). Alexander’s theory is rooted in the notion that centers play a critical role in the successful design of buildings, cities, and even art and gardens. The time we’ve spent in classrooms supporting teaching and learning makes it clear that centers also play a vital role in educational systems.

When walking around campus, observing and supporting teachers in classrooms, we discovered that the definition of Alexander’s centers was extremely applicable. Like many other educators around the country supporting teachers in the classroom, we often found ourselves sitting in the back of a classroom tapping away on a keyboard or scribbling notes on a paper trying to capture the teaching and learning we observed to give feedback to the teacher. As visiting outsiders in sacred spaces, we clearly saw classrooms as centers around learning.   

We sometimes moved between 15 or 20 classrooms a day, where we observed the classrooms' centers, the spaces where groups of individuals (typically, a teacher and students) gathered to participate in a lesson, activity, or project. With Alexander’s centers firmly planted in our minds, we started to see classrooms as hearths, with the fire of teaching and learning as the centerpiece. In this experience, we became solo travelers moving between campsites of different tribes.   

During weekly meetings and daily check-ins, our support team shared what we observed while moving about campus classrooms, including anecdotes about what we learned particularly about the innovative strategies and techniques we witnessed. In a sense, we were bringing embers back to our own fire, our own center of the support team. We wondered how this transfer of embers could have more immediacy for teachers.    

We have always valued the traditional constructs of teacher observation. Nothing is more powerful than being in the space where teaching and learning are happening. We have witnessed amazing lessons. We even dare say that we’ve seen magic in these centers. We watched amazing teachers making over 200 decisions within a time span of 55 minutes to ensure that students not only achieved the objectives, but were also able to apply, analyze, and transfer that learning to other content areas. We have seen literal “aha” moments when students blurt out, “I get it now!”   

After moments of observing the teacher alone, the support team realized that it was imperative for us to somehow make this a shared learning experience. Of course, it is a shared experience for the students and teacher (and briefly, the observer), but we started to wonder about the possibility and power of sharing that observation (that experience) with other teachers, not secondhand but directly. During trainings and individual meetings with teachers, we translated and shared these classroom anecdotes that we gathered through solo observations. We remained mindful that nothing can replicate the experience of being at the hearth witnessing the event.   

After reading an article by William Sterrett and Matthew Haas (2009) in Educational Leadership, we started to combine what we found to be best practices in the professional development literature with our own daily experiences. Sterrett and Haas stated that principals in their district performed frequent “four-minute walk-throughs,” observing the teachers in their buildings. During those meetings with the professional development team, they participated in the walk-throughs together and shared insights. In the article, they said, “These observations ground our conversations in instructional supervision” (p. 79). The conversations Sterrett and Haas had at the administrative level mirrored the debriefings that our support team was having on a regular basis; we also found this incredibly valuable and grounding; however, something seemed to be missing.   

It became clear that the professional development offered through partner observations was crucial to supporting teachers in their craft. The next step was to include classroom teachers, not just administrators, in the observations. We focused on two key questions: What would the impact be of having members of the professional development support team traveling with classroom teachers around the school to these centers of learning and teaching? What would be the enduring value of actively and purposefully having conversations about what we were seeing, thinking, and wondering?   

After experimenting with the partner observation model, we found few practices more effective, rewarding, and meaningful. The power of observing and then debriefing about the instructional design, teaching practices, and student engagement created a renewed excitement for teachers to bring new embers back to their classrooms. Dr. William Roberson, co-director of the Center of Effective Teaching and Learning concurred: “Easily, peer observation is more valuable than other forms of professional development, if the proper context is created. If done well, it is carried out in a real, practical, immediately relevant situation. Compare that to attending workshops or conferences in which participants remain at a certain level of abstraction from their own classrooms” (Israel, 2006).  

Examples of Partner Observations in Action 

Partner observations are a highly individualized, carefully crafted approach to professional development. We have found the process to be meaningful for teachers, whether they are in their first or fifth year of teaching. Here, we share two examples of successful partner observations.   

Chuck was a first-year teacher in the middle school, who taught algebra, English, and science. Chuck identified teaching math as an area in which he wanted to improve. When approached about doing a partner observation of an experienced math teacher, Chuck was enthusiastic about the opportunity. We contacted the classroom teacher to schedule a time for Chuck to observe. On the day of the partner observation, we met Chuck in his room. During the walk to the math class, we established the focus of the observation with the following questions:   

  • How did the teacher utilize technology to impact student learning? 
  • How did the teacher keep students engaged with the new content during instruction? 
  • What routines/procedures did the teacher use to reinforce previously taught concepts?   

Chuck observed the teacher using Google Docs as part of a daily routine to reinforce previously taught concepts, as well as provide new content notes and processing questions. During the debriefing, Chuck was excited about the idea of implementing Google Docs in his math lessons. The next day, Chuck started his math class with the new procedure of using Google Docs as part of his warm-up activity.   

Abigail was in her fifth year of teaching upper level high school math. Although she was a content expert in her subject area, she needed to improve her classroom management and her students' investment in the learning objectives. We scheduled an observation with a teacher, Spencer, who had developed strong management and investment strategies in his classroom. Prior to the partner observation, Spencer identified which of his upcoming lessons would best highlight these strategies in action.   

For the sake of scheduling, a 40-minute period was dedicated for the partner observation. This allowed time to engage in conversation both before and after the classroom visit, specifically establishing a focus. The questions posed included the following:   

  • What routines and procedures did Spencer have in place that maximize his instructional time? 
  • How did he address minor misbehaviors? 
  • What did Spencer do in the moment to invest students in the content and learning objectives? 
  • What could he have done in prior lessons to create this student investment?   

A critical ingredient of the debriefing with Abigail was helping her choose which embers to take back to her classroom. This partner observation proved to be vital in supporting Abigail. We conducted conversations in the following weeks that were grounded in the actions we observed in Spencer’s classroom.   

As these examples show, embers may be immediately added to stoke the fire of the observing teacher’s classroom, or they may ignite after some time.   

Overall, partner observations have had high success rates. There have been examples where teachers did not take these embers back to their hearths. Through closer examination, we realized two standout variables were present that hindered success: the assumed background knowledge of the observation objective and the investment of the teacher. This approach made it clear to us that those in the positions of supporting classroom teachers must meet the teachers where they are and differentiate our approach in order for successful comprehension, analysis, and application to occur.

Support Staff ​ Teacher (Observer)​ Teacher (Observee)​

Contacts/communicates with classroom teacher to be observed​

​Show up with a professional development mindset Be open to observers​
​Pair thought-partner with teacher observer to establish focus on observation Implement new ideas into classroom​ ​Plan lesson
​Find correlation between teacher actions and impact on student learning Evaluate effectiveness, have ongoing conversation with trainer to refine newly learned instructional strategies​ Teach​

 10-minute post-observation discussion questions​:

What teacher actions worked or didn't work?​

How did the students respond to teacher actions?

What were resulting student behaviors to teacher actions?

What are you going to bring back to your classroom and why? 


Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Book 1 - The Phenomenon of Life. Berkeley, CA: CES Publishing, 2001

Sterrett, William and Matthew Hass. “The Power of Two.” Educational Leadership 67 (2009): 78-80.

Israel, Michele. “Teachers Observing Teachers: A Professional Development Tool for Every School.” EducationWorld (2006):  

Philippe Ernewein

Philippe Ernewein is the Dean of Faculty Training & Development at Denver Academy and writes about education at

Cynthia Richardson

Cynthia Richardson is the Faculty Development Coordinator at Denver Academy.