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  • Matthew Woods

"A Post-Observation Conference"(Conversational Analysis Perspective)

Updated: Jul 19, 2021


Post-observation conferences between administrators and teachers are widely used in K-12 to promote teachers’ reflection on their instruction, and in turn, improvement in instructional effectiveness. Scholars have examined how these conversations derive from pedagogical references, professional development structures, and supervision philosophies (Leonard, 2002; Sparks, 2002; Zepeda, 2007). Yet, little research has been conducted to examine what actually goes on in post-observation conferences between teachers and administrators (Wragg, 2013). This data analysis write-up addresses this gap in the literature by investigating the instructional dialogue that takes place during this interaction. By examining this post-observation conversation using conversation analysis, this paper will contribute empirical data to the ways teachers and administrators talk about instructional strategies during post-observation conferences. Findings will inform work that seeks to validate the merit in conducting post-observation conferences to improve instructional practices in K-12 classrooms.

Conceptual Literature

Teacher Perceptions

Bangs and Frost (2012) surveyed teachers in multiple countries (and grade levels) to gauge their opinions on the influence they have on professional development in their schools. The data showed that majority of teachers think it is normal for teachers to lead these discussions (within their sphere of influence), however many of these same teachers do not feel teachers should lead changes beyond their influence. Ironically, when asked about the perceived influence they have over “policy and practice both in their schools and beyond in their districts and even nationally,” three quarters of teachers “indicated that they are able to exert some influence” (2012, p. 19). Bangs and Frost (like myself) found this contradiction peculiar, and noted it in their findings:

What is abundantly clear is that, if the responses to the question about actuality indicates doubt about the extent of influence, the responses to the question about the importance of having such influence is unambiguous… The discussion in these ‘survey workshops’ reinforced this, but the statements did not, as some policy makers might suppose, indicate that teachers simply look to improving their own material working conditions or reducing the intensity of their work, considerable as this may be; rather they seek to be more effective teachers… (2012, p. 19).

The ways in which Bangs and Frost (2012) highlight this discrepancy sheds light on the exponential number of declarations that can arise during institutional dialogue. These assertions are constantly fluid based on the contextualization and levels of understanding by the participants (Liddicoat, 2007).

The perceptions participants (in this case, educators) bring towards institutional policies and procedures orientates the dialogue (Silverman, 1998; ten Have, 2004). These perceptions can impact how educators listen and respond to feedback during instructional post-observation conversations. As we hear ideas that conflict with our biases, norms and convictions, we become defensive in our responses. Nichols and Stevens (1999) use an example of a conversation between a firm accountant and general manager to prove how this can occur. As the firm accountant began to tell the general manager that they had just heard from the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the general manager stated, “Can’t they leave me alone? Every year the government milks my profits to a point where…” Although the firm accountant never told the general manager what they said, he automatically concluded it was a negative connotation because it came from the Bureau of Internal Revenue (p. 12). As Silverman (1998, p. 51) noted, a social organization can be “observed within the structures” of a conversation. Within the realms of an organization, participants perceptions are shaped by their previous and current interactions in that space.

When measuring teacher’s perceptions of pre- and post-observation conferences, Range, Young, and Hvidston (2013) discovered that teachers valued the post-observation conferences higher. Although participants “identified all elements of the post-observation conference as important, respondents identified constructive feedback delivered by the principal/ supervisor as the most important element” (p. 72). However, this feedback needs to be tailored in a fashion that is applicable to the specific teacher, and navigates the emotional underlyings at play. Khachatryan (2015) study examined the nature of feedback give from observations, and teachers perceptions of that feedback. Her findings uncovered that the administrator’s specific feedback regarding their instructional practices prompted the teachers’ reflection. Additionally, Khachatryan (2015) noted that every teacher in her “study respected Jason (the administrator) immensely and valued him as an educator, not just a leader” (p. 184). The implementation of professional development in K-12 settings hinges on the perceptions all participants bring during these instructional collaborations.

Evaluation of Teachers

Feedback plays an essential role in education. Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano (2014) argued that “feedback for growth involves intentionally differentiating feedback” so teachers can make meaning of it to improve instruction (p. 1). Teacher evaluations are one of the times when administrators analyze instructional performance, and provide feedback to the teacher on what they have seen to promote growth. Evaluation of teacher’s instruction should not be instituted to criticize teachers, because this will “situate teachers in a deficit” manner (Zepeda, 2007, p. 49). Drago-Severson, Blum-DeStefano, and Asghar (2013) argued that there is a “long-standing knowledge gap” to how “school leaders support adult learning and growth” in their schools (p. 15). Concurrently, this impacts the means and methods in which administrators give feedback to teachers. Current evaluation methods have structured instructional supervision to align with “substantial and competent evidence” that follows “due process” and avoids subjective claims (Hazi and Rucinski, 2016, p. 188). However, these formalized mandates do not provide guidance on promoting these suggestions to teachers. True instructional supervision builds off the components discussed in the previous section to build coherence between all facets of instruction. Coherence not only links evaluation, supervision, and professional development, but it unifies their impact (Zepeda, 2007). 

Hazi and Rucinski (2016) discuss three approaches to judging teachers’ instruction: fault-finding approach, instrument approach, and inquiry approach. Fault-finding looks for errors in someone’s actions. Instrument approach requires the supervisor to look for accurate evidence that fits into the instrument. Inquiry approach allows the supervisor to “think deeply and thoughtfully” about what they see (Hazi and Rucinski, 2016, p. 192). While all three approaches have various levels of complexities, they all provide different perspectives in delivering feedback. Unfortunately, many administrators have become trapped under the first two categories, and rejected inquiry feedback. According to Hazi and Rucinski (2016):

leading reflective inquiry about student learning with teachers is a challenge for many supervisors, often because they have not studied teaching and teacher learning. Using such inquiry to further the professionalism of teachers as adult learners is even more challenging (p. 195).

Additionally, they further highlight that teacher choice/autonomy and professional development built-in traditional work days are precluded due to the innate challenging of “building and district leaders on these principles” (p. 196). Although these items are precluded to mandate district, state, and federal policies, administrators can still institute inquiry feedback in thoughtful fashions to promote instructional activities in their schools.  

The purpose of this paper is to addresses the gap in the literature by investigating the instructional dialogue that takes place during post-observation conferences between administrators and teachers. By examining the attached post-observation conversation using conversation analysis, this paper will contribute empirical data to the ways teachers and administrators talk about instructional strategies during post-observation conferences. 

Theoritical Literature

Conversation Analysis

Conversation Analysis (commonly referred to as CA) is a qualitative approach used by researchers “to study the organization and orderliness of social interaction” (Liddicoat, 2007, p. 6). CA grew out of the research produced by Harold Garfinkel called Ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967, 1996; Liddicoat, 2007). Conversation analysis, seeks to “describe the competencies and procedures involved in the production of any type of social interaction” (Arminen, 1999, p. 251). The main feature stems from the belief that language is fluid, and not stationary (Drew, 2005). As Prasad (2005) noted, “researchers in this tradition are less interested in texts as standalone artifacts and more interested in the ways in which language is employed in everyday situations—in meetings, casual conversations, interviews, expert consultations, and so on” (p. 68). This mindset allows researchers to study how language develops and maintains social order; and the connections between language and direct context for participants (Hepburn & Bolden, 2013).

Key Components

According to ten Have (2004), “CA writings may be read in two alternative ways: as searching for ‘rules’ of a general kind, or as investigating how such ‘rules’ are used in particular cases” (p. 25). Regardless of the approach, three notions govern the structure of these conventions: “Order is produced orderliness… Order is produced, situated and occasioned… Order is repeatable and recurrent… (Liddicoat, 2007, p. 5). The assumption by CA scholars is that conversations are grounded in order; as evidenced by the participants communicating and understanding one another. If there is no structured order, then social organizations could not exist due to people not understanding each other’s actions (Drew, 2005, p. 71-102). To help identify the structures that form meanings between individuals, conventions are used to transcribe and code the discourse:

The transcription of the interaction represents, then, an effort to provide in a written, linear format enough of the details of the interaction to permit subsequent analyses of particular kinds… the choice of particular transcription notation symbols becomes an important matter [emphasis added], as they may systematically provide the details [emphasis added] that are made ‘visible’ by the transcript… (Psathas and Anderson, 1990, p. 77).

These symbols act as markers for recognizing the words and sounds associated with the interaction (ten Have, 2004, p. 49-51).

Institutional Talk & Workplace Interaction

To properly appreciate this approach, we must first discern the three main features of institutional interaction:

1. Institutional interaction involves participants operating towards goals that are aligned with the institutional objectives.

2. Institutional dialogue is governed by boundaries and procedures that are specific to the institution’s setting.

3. Institutional interaction involves limitations on allowable dialogue in these spaces (Drew and Heritage, 1992, pp. 3-65; Heritage, 2004, pp. 222-245).

In combination with the aforementioned conventions identifying order (see p. 7 of this paper), institutional talk is aligned with these assumptions. However, the order of dialogue is constituted around the institution; with participants making meaning of each other in respect to performance tasks and actions carried out in these spaces. An institution is constructed based on user’s adaption and modification of turn-taking to one another (Silverman, 1998). Nevertheless, CA has been criticized by scholars for not delving into the organization of institutions (Sargani and Roberts, 1999; Arminen, 2017).

Institutional interactions not only govern the institution and its users, but also the social order as it manifests in these organizations (Heritage, 2004; Arminen, 2017). These discourses construct rituals that are adhered to by users, and legitimize practices that occur in these institutions (Sargani and Roberts, 1999). This concept aligns with CA scholar’s conceptualization of interactions taking and developing order during conversations between participants. These traits are notably referred to in Kim and Silver’s (2016) work using conversation analysis to identify how sequential organization can promote or hinder teacher reflection. They discovered that post-observation conferences can be “can be fertile settings for reflective thinking” (Kim and Silver, 2106, p. 216). However, the interactions that take place are not candid due to the sequential organization of how they are constituted. In a similar vein that Vasquez and Reppen (2010) argued for shifting the traditional emphasis of post-observation conferences as evaluative events, Waring’s (2017) identification of generalized feedback supports the concept of objective feedback. Within this paradigm, feedback is relevant enough to engage teacher reflection, yet depersonalized to minimize the likelihood of defensive rebuttals.

Data Source & Analysis

Data Source

This study is an analysis of a previous post-observation conference I had transcribed between an administrator and teacher in Florida. The research questions that guided the data collection and analysis are: How are instructional strategies communicated between administrators and teachers in post-observations? What formal/informal signals generate instructional collaboration? The administrator and teacher had agreed to record the post-observation conference on their smartphone, and send it to me (via email) to transcribe and analyze for my qualitative courses in my doctoral program. After transcribing the audio recording verbatim, I used conversation analysis conventions to analyze the participants dialogue. The transcription conventions were devised using suggestions from ten Have (2004) and Liddicoat (2007).

Data Analysis

The analysis of data centered on the workplace interaction and institutional talk that took place between the participants in the post observation conference. While analyzing the data, the following themes became evident that categorized the participants’ interactions with one another: