Observations on observations by Chris Ożóg
Oh no, not an observation!
Every teacher will doubtless be able to tell you about a nightmare observation in which everything went wrong and to which the resulting dreaded feedback was every bit as critical as feared (I know I could). Such anecdotes often reveal inherent problems in the observations procedures in a school in the first place. In this article, I’ll look at observations in more depth and suggest ways in which they can be used to maximal teacher, and hence school, benefit, using IH San José de Costa Rica (IHSJ) as an example. It also lays out some guidelines for those new to observing and maybe even some ideas for old hands.
What’s the point of an observation?
There are many reasons why teachers are observed. In this article, I’ll be focusing on observing working teachers in a supportive manner, taking the premise that observations are there to help teachers develop and to promote reflective evaluation of their teaching practice and rationale behind how they teach. This implies that observations of teachers are not there to prescribe certain methodological techniques, to merely criticise, or to show off the observer’s supposed greater experience and knowledge, though from experience I know they often take these forms. The key words for me are: reflection, guidance, support, encouragement and development.
How IHSJ does it
As a CELTA tutor and the Teacher Training Coordinator at IHSJ, I observe a lot of classes. My reflections on my own practice as an observer have led me to apply the above premise to all observations and make the teacher aware of how I conduct things. In theory, this should help reduce anxiety on the teacher’s part and help create a space for open reflection, both before and after the class. After all, if teachers are to develop, they need to reflect and observational procedures should encourage this.
Not including IHCYLT, a teacher coming to IHSJ can expect to be observed up to, but not limited to, five times, along the following lines
- An initial observation within two weeks of arrival
- A follow-up to the initial observation, if required or requested (focusing on points to work on from the first observation)
- Peer observations, informally organised and ongoing throughout the year
- A ‘developmental’ observation (see below)
- The final PDI observation
The ‘developmental observation’ involves the teacher being observed on a point they wish to develop, whether it be trying a TBL lesson, experimenting with process writing or working on their instructions. The observer helps with the planning by being available for questions, suggesting reading, offering advice, talking through rationale, etc. These observations are not assessments in any way and there should be no pressure on the teacher for fear of being criticised. They are there simply to encourage experimentation and reflective practice in a supportive manner.
A suggested procedure for organising observations
If there is a supportive environment for professional development in your school, organising observations shouldn’t be a problem. The teacher can choose the class they wish to be observed on and, assuming this fits with the observer’s schedule, the observation is organised accordingly. This is particularly important in reducing stress for newly qualified teachers, or teachers who are new to the school, as they can choose a class they’re comfortable with. The following is a suggested procedure
- The teacher writes a lesson plan in sufficient detail to show how the class has been planned, talking it through or asking for advice if they want. After all, planning is part of the reflective process even though it does come before the class.
- Have a conversation with the teacher about the group to get more of an idea of what you’ll observe.
- Read through the teacher’s plan and think through the staging, any apparent rationale, etc.
- Follow the plan in class making notes on both the plan and a separate piece of paper about anything that seems apposite.
- Ask the teacher to complete a self-evaluation form.
- Prepare written feedback.
- Conduct feedback with the teacher, focusing on asking questions rather than criticising, encouraging reflection, discussing rationale, etc.
- Post feedback support
What should an observer look for?
In class, I have the teacher’s plan and I’ve spoken to the teacher about the group and possibly even the lesson prior to the class. What I’m looking for is successful teaching. I really don’t mind what particular approach a teacher takes, as long as it falls within a communicative framework and that it’s done well. There are certain things I generally look for, namely:
a good atmosphere and engaged learners
a lesson appropriate to the level of the group
a rationale of some sort behind the staging
as learner-centred as seems possible
successful instructions i.e. not confusing
meaning focused on
clear, complete language work, with checking and examples
appropriate practice activities
skills work well-staged, engaging and seemingly useful
some evidence of learning
no-one leaves the room confused
Note that this isn’t a restrictive checklist of points which must be covered in the class; rather, it is a set of guidelines which could cover many different aspects of an individual lesson. Of course, you may want to observe for more specific points, depending on the reasons for the observation, but the above points act as a general outline for me and work well.
I believe there should be both oral and written feedback. In many institutions, the latter is an official document that is kept in the teacher’s file, but this doesn’t mean that oral feedback is simply reeling off what’s been written down. The other reason for written feedback is so that the teacher can have a copy to keep and to refer to in the future if they want to, as it should indicate strengths and points to work on.
Oral feedback is, for me, the most challenging part of the observer’s job. It is paramount that this be carried out in a relaxed, supportive environment and with the teacher’s development at the very heart of the process. It also depends on the personal preferences of the teacher; some people like to be given a list of things to do; others prefer space and time to reflect and open discussion about the class, approaches to teaching, etc. The observer has to play this by ear and cater to what the teacher seems to want. After all, you can’t teach every class in the same way, so why should every feedback session be exactly the same? Teachers are individuals and observers need to remember that.
Personally, I like to start with a general discussion based on the teacher’s self-evaluation, in which points raised by the teacher are discussed in turn, with practical suggestions offered as and when it seems germane to do so. As I said above, we’ll often talk through the lesson plan and discuss the teacher’s rationale in choosing activities or why they set that particular context, etc. This helps the teacher see the lesson as a whole, rather than a set of randomly chosen activities. Furthermore, I’ll make reference to the written feedback and discuss reasons I chose to write what I did.
Another element to consider is filming. Some of the best feedback I’ve ever had as a teacher came from watching myself in a filmed lesson and then discussing the class with the observer. If the lesson is filmed and the teacher simply given the video to watch, they can observe themselves teaching and use notes from this in the feedback. This has the potential to turn the observation into an incredibly useful developmental experience. Of course, many teachers hate being filmed and watching themselves, myself included, but as a developmental tool it can be very powerful and only the teacher need ever see the film.
It doesn’t just end with feedback, of course. The observer should be available to help the teacher with any points that came up from the observation. This could involve helping with lesson planning, suggesting reading, checking language awareness if requested, etc. I know this isn’t possible in every school, particularly large ones, but if there is a good professional development structure there will be a mentor or senior teacher who can take on this role if the observer can’t. After all, how is a teacher supposed to develop without support? It’s a process and takes time, reflection and practice and some teachers need more support than others.
The best thing about being an observer, teacher trainer or mentor, is when you see somebody teach again and you see an improvement in some aspect of their teaching. It’s very rewarding and makes the job worthwhile. It tells me that the initial observation and feedback were beneficial and that the teacher has taken something positive from what was discussed. Occasionally, you even get an e-mail thanking you for your feedback or when teachers leave the institution they tell you, out of the blue, how useful their observations were and how much they feel they’ve developed as teachers. After all, we’re here to help and it’s good to know that the way we conduct our observations – the way outlined above, focusing on reflection, development and guidance – can help us achieve this.