Special Interest Column - Developing Teachers
by Sandy Millin
Observation: a word to strike fear into your heart? Or something you can’t get enough of? However you feel about them and whatever your level of expertise, observations should be a key part of your development as a teacher. There are as many forms of observation as there are types of teacher, and I don’t claim to be an expert. Instead, I will offer a series of suggestions in the hope that it will inspire you to experiment with observations or even to overcome any fear you might have of them.
Senior staff: When you first think of observations you may picture a manager sitting at the back of the classroom. They are watching a nervous teacher, who is scared that if they fail the observation they will lose their job. Although they are there to assess the quality of your lesson, a good observer is not trying to catch you out: their job is to help you. Observations by more experienced staff can be particularly useful in helping you to deal with difficult situations.
Your colleagues: Peer observations are a good way to collect new activities and classroom management strategies. If you can, try to arrange a ‘return observation’ so that you observe each other. You can also watch lessons online if it’s difficult to arrange ‘live’ observations. Try typing ‘watch EFL teachers’ into YouTube. Finally, Jeremy Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching (2007) comes with a CD-ROM with excerpts from lessons, along with commentaries on them.
You: Self-observation is probably the most daunting form of observation – nobody likes hearing a recording of themselves. However, taking an audio or video recording of your lesson can show all kinds of things that you weren’t aware of doing, or that you’d been told about but can’t seem to stop. From video observations of my own lessons (http://sandymillin.wordpress.com/videos/) I realised that I move around all the time, especially when giving instructions. I’d been told about this before, but until I saw myself doing it, I found it difficult to remember to stand still when I want the students to focus.
The question of what you are looking for during an observation is very important.
As an observer, it’s important to make it clear to the ‘observee’ what criteria you are judging their lesson on (and it does always feel like a judgement!)
As an observee, you could select one area of your teaching you want to improve and ask the observer to only focus on that. This is particularly important for audio/video observations, where the data can be overwhelming if there isn’t a focus. For example, you might choose to look at task set-up or the balance of attention you give to all of the students in the class. It’s good to have a fixed question, such as “How efficient were my instructions? Did the students understand what they were supposed to do?” There are a lot of examples in chapter 7 of Jack C. Richard’s The Language Teaching Matrix (1990).
The purpose of the observation will also determine whether a formal plan is needed. An alternative to producing an extended plan before the lesson is to make a plan but not show it to the observer. During the lesson, the observer reconstructs what they think it should be. Comparing the two highlights what actually happened in the class, and can be a rich source of discussion about the teacher’s decision-making before and during the lesson.
How long for?
Observations do not necessarily need to be for the whole class. In fact, you can often learn just as much from a small part of the lesson as you can from the whole thing. If you choose not to observe/be observed for the full lesson, make sure you know whether the observation is at the beginning, in the middle (a drop-in), or at the end of the lesson, as this will influence your observation question(s). For example, 30 minutes at the beginning of a young learner class may focus on starting routines and how the teacher gets the students settled, whereas at the end of the lesson it may focus on what the students take away from the lesson and whether there is a clear end point.
With audio/video observations, you may record the whole lesson but choose only to watch select points relevant to your observation focus. You are under no obligation to listen to/watch the whole thing!
The most important part of an observation is feedback. Whether given by a senior member of staff, a peer, or yourself, it should be constructive and supportive. While critical feedback may be necessary at times, it should also be accompanied by suggestions on how to improve.
Follow-ups to observation could include:
- recommended reading/watching, like books, articles, blogs or webinars;
- an observation plan, either of the observee being observed again, or of suggestions for other teachers they could watch;
- action research, with the observee being helped to put together some experiments to try in the classroom to improve their [instruction giving/listening teaching…] based on the observation.
However you decide to observe and be observed, don’t forget that it’s a learning process. We all have off-days, and sometimes they coincide with observation days, but you can always learn something new. Good luck!
Harmer, Jeremy (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching (4th edition) Pearson Longman.
Richards, Jack C. (1990) The Language Teaching Matrix Cambridge University Press.
Author’s Bio: Sandy Millin is currently DoS at IH Sevastopol. Before that, she taught at IH Brno and IH Newcastle, as well as in Paraguay and Borneo. She is interested in making professional development available to everyone, and to that end is an active member of the online ELT community, with three blogs and a Twitter account for teaching: http://twitter.com/sandymillin