You know what it’s like. You are told you are being observed on Thursday morning at 09:00 and you should have a lesson plan with some aims and objectives ready for the observer.
Come Thursday morning, the observer sneaks in and sits at the back of the room and scribbles notes on a piece of paper.
Sometime later, the observer invites you to their office for feedback. They briefly ask you how it went before giving a subjective point of view of what they thought was wrong with the lesson. You listen and they speak. Afterwards, you reflect on what they said, not for developmental purposes but whether you, as a teacher, did well. Was it a good lesson, or a bad lesson in the eyes of the observer? So, which was it? Did you teach a good lesson, or not?
If this is your experience, you do have to ask the question, why bother?
Pre-observation, teachers should be provided with some criteria for effective teaching, a negotiated list of points that is bespoke to your context. If someone is coming to observe your lesson, it’s only fair that you know what they are looking for. By introducing criteria, we are moving observation towards an objective point of view instead of equating effective teaching with what we do ourselves.
With that in mind, the observation can take place with some clarity between what the observer is looking for and what behaviours the teacher should display.
Last week, I conducted a number of observations at my summer school. During each observation, I made notes about what I saw at each stage. When writing up my notes, I referred to the criteria for effective teaching and whittled it down to a few points, both strengths and weaknesses that could be explored during post-observation feedback. The next step was to formulate these points into noticing-type questions, which would act as a catalyst to turn post-observation feedback into a conversation. In asking questions, we are point out behaviours which should lead the teacher to ask themselves similar questions (Baxter 2010). Fundamentally, we are alluding to observable behaviours and guiding teachers to discover an answer for themselves. If we guide our learners to work something out, there is no reason why we shouldn’t apply the same principles to our own development. After all, it is always better to discover something than be told directly.
Here are few examples of the type of questions I posed to teachers during feedback:
- How have you built rapport with your learners? This teacher had built an excellent rapport with his learner group. As a teaching strength, I wanted to explore how he had managed this. I had my own opinions but I wanted to know how he had done it. During the conversation, there was some overlap of thinking but many of the point raised were ideas I had not even considered. This was a genuine question which required a genuine response.
- Who provided the task language? On walking into the classroom, the board was filled with language that learners were referring to and using during a speaking activity. I wanted to know who provide it, the teacher, or was it negotiated with the class group? It was abundantly clear that providing language in this way helped scaffold interaction, however, the conversation led us to conclude that we can also exploit our students as a resource to encourage participation and work towards learner independence.
- After starting the activity, not everyone was on task. Why was that? In this instance, the teacher set up an activity, which had a number of complicated stages, by describing at length what the class had to do. When the activity started, it was clear that not everyone was on task. The teacher re-instructed the group before restarting the activity, but further intervention was needed to get everyone working. Naturally as an observer, you have time to ponder on what you might have done to have helped the fluid transition from set-up to activity e.g. demonstrating, concept checking instructions etc. The question I asked the teacher was exactly the same one I asked myself at the time. After prompting the teacher to give her own thoughts, the conclusion she came to was that the activity required a demonstration. I also added that some success criteria to act as a reminder and guide learners through the activity may have also been useful.
Engaging in conversation helped to identify possible areas of professional development the teacher may wish to pursue. Interestingly enough, these also included areas in which the teacher showed general competence e.g. building rapport, the teacher who was naturally adept at doing it, is now interested in investing time and energy in understanding this niche area even further.
By reconsidering observation and feedback, it has prompted me to reflect and ask who has learnt, or developed, from this procedure? As an observer, I have gained insight from those I observed, which has allowed me to reflect on my own teaching practice, as well as understanding more about what it is to be an observer. Clearly, development is not just a one-way street, in fact, learning is facilitated by everyone within an organisation in order to feed organisational change and avoid stagnation (Underhill 2004). In asking questions we are opening up the space to a meaningful conversation which requires participation from both sides. One hand washes the other, eh?
Baxter A. 2010. Observations – why bother? British Council. Retrieved from: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/observations-why-bother
Underhill A. 2004. The Learning School. Humanising Language Teaching_Year 6, Issue 1. Retrieved from: https://lamsig.iatefl.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/4-Underhill-Learning-school.pdf