The Mess is All Inside Our Own Head: Peer Observation and Peer Mentoring for Reflective Practice

by Dana Taylor


Governments and education providers around the world are increasingly requiring tertiary teachers to engage in professional learning in order to enhance course quality and achievement outcomes (SOLAS, n.d.). Certainly, as teachers we want to participate in professional learning activities—such as reflecting upon our teaching, observing and being observed, and being mentored—to improve our practice.

This article outlines a cross-discipline teaching (CDT) project for International Academy of Business Studies (IABS), a private tertiary provider of English language and business courses located in one of New Zealand’s main cities. (Identifying details have been changed, and pseudonyms are used for the organisation and its people.) IABS is a New Zealand was established in 1995 by a Japanese educator for domestic and international students to study government-approved business, tourism, and language programmes. The Academy’s stakeholders include students and their families, government agencies, and employers, who expect IABS qualifications to lead to successful career pathways for graduates (Henard & Roseveare, 2012; Parsons, 1994).

In this article, I will describe and discuss the CDT project and its impact upon participating teachers’ professional development. I will also provide a rationale for replicating the CDT project in other institutions.

The Cross-Discipline Teaching Project

Background to the Project

While preparing for an upcoming government educational audit in my role as academic manager, I noticed a gap in IABS teacher education. Teaching staff were observing and moderating courses together. However, collaborative joint work was done in separate EAP and ESP departments, so teachers were not equally benefiting from shared knowledge (Kruse & Louis, 2009). I subsequently decided to lead and participate in a CDT project, in which an ESP teacher and EAP teacher used peer observation and peer mentoring to develop their own and their colleague’s learning. My aim for the project was to help teachers break down departmental barriers, resulting in a more positive and integrated teacher culture.

Before the Project. Prior to starting the CDT project, the two teachers attended my professional practice workshop, ‘Making the invisible visible: Reflective practice for self-observation and self-evaluation’. In this workshop for all IABS teachers, they learnt how to use reflective enquiry to set and meet goals for excellence in teaching and student achievement. As a community of practice, we identified ways to integrate reflection into lesson planning and explored collaborative teaching situations in which reflective practice can be applied.

During the Project. The ESP teacher and EAP teacher took turns to observe and reflect on one class every week for six weeks. Before the lesson, the observer and teacher chose focus areas for the observation depending on their mutual needs; for instance, setting instructions, checking comprehension, facilitating communicative tasks, and using teacher talk. They both met afterwards to discuss the lesson’s aims, activities, and outcomes, while I acted as mentor, providing advice when required. The classroom teacher first shared their feelings and/or observations of each stage of the lesson. Together they discussed any difficulties or successes, and the observer gave constructive feedback.

The teachers mentioned that their follow-up discussions with peers gave them teaching ideas and techniques they wanted to try in future. Furthermore, the EAP teacher wrote: “I like peer observation and reflection. We learnt something each time we met. It’s helpful and educational to take things out of our head and talk about them” (personal communication, September 10, 2014).

After the Project. After conducting the peer observations, the three of us engaged in a critical incident discussion, using critical self-reflection adapted from Johns’ model of structured reflection (1994, as cited in Finlay, 2008) to obtain valuable insights into our teaching. Teachers discussed one critical incident during their observation and provided their own feedback as an observer. They were thus able to reflect upon a classroom experience that gave them an ‘a-ha’ moment about their own teaching. For instance, the ESP teacher mentioned that before class he had discovered problems relating to an upcoming field trip. Owing to his feeling distracted, he forgot to do his warmer activity. He believed the warmer would have helped him gather his thoughts rather than launching straight into the lesson. It would have also reduced his teacher talk in the first hour.

Nevertheless, the observer said that “the mess was all in your own head” and that students achieved the lesson’s learning outcomes. Realising that a teacher’s emotions may influence their experience of the lesson, the ESP teacher advised, “It’s important to give oneself 30 minutes’ quiet preparation time to clear the mind [before teaching]” (personal communication, August 29, 2014).

As an output of the CDT, I led a teachers’ workshop on reflective practice for peer observation and peer mentoring during summer school. The workshop gave participants skills and strategies to:

i. Collaborate with colleagues across disciplines and engage in peer observation.

ii. Help colleagues develop understanding about their own and others’ teaching experiences.

iii. Incorporate new learner-centred pedagogy and reflective practice into lesson planning.

Limitations. The two teachers initially felt hesitant observing others and/or being observed, but they relaxed over time as they interacted more frequently. The biggest limitation, however, was time: teachers admitted that two to three hours a fortnight was difficult to manage. In total, the CDT project took approximately 12 hours for each teacher to complete.

Rationale for Replication of the Project

Metaphorical Framework. In line with Kruse & Louis (2009)’s findings, the CDT project was successful in that it built teacher capacity and developed open, cooperative relationships between EAP and ESP teachers. Indeed, teacher feedback inspired the metaphorical framework for replicating the project: “There’s so much more I could learn through this kind of [professional practice], or a ‘collegial coffee club’, to talk about our teaching and assignments” (EAP teacher, personal communication, September 26, 2014).

Stoll (2012) endorses a coffee shop metaphor as providing the humanistic model of collegial professional learning that EAP and ESP teachers relate to. IABS staff are familiar with the idea of participating in friendly conversations with a socially mixed group over a cup of coffee. According to Dove and Honigsfeld (2010), maximising performance outcomes for students and the educational institution requires teacher collaboration, which frequently emerges from teachers’ discussions during coffee breaks. Furthermore, EAP and ESP teachers enjoyed learning from their peers, seeing them as credible role models.

Replication of the CDT Project at IABS. In the past two years, we have introduced a more collegial and supportive approach to classroom observations. After their formal observation (i.e., for quality assurance and annual review purposes), EAP and ESP teachers have the opportunity to discuss and reflect upon the lesson with their observers in person, whereas previously they would have simply received a written observation report via e-mail. Teachers can also choose a peer (rather than another manager) to accompany me to observe their teaching. This reduces their feelings of stress, and their observing peers enjoy the experience of seeing what goes on in their colleagues’ classroom (ESP teacher, personal communication, June 2, 2016). Teachers often share a critical incident with their observers, who can give personalised feedback and advice to support their peers’ professional practice and identity.

In addition, a group of EAP and ESP teachers in the IABS sub-degree business department meets twice a semester (often at a café) to discuss teaching resources and provide advice on assignments before they are given to students. This initiative is especially important as IABS is introducing new business studies programmes in 2017, so teachers need to feel confident that they are meeting stakeholders’ expectations for quality courses and work-ready graduates.


The CDT project allowed the EAP and ESP teachers to enrich their professional practice through reflecting on aspects of teaching in a constructive, positive way. Teachers also demonstrated professional compassion and respect for others’ opinions to “create a [learning] environment in which the energy and creativity of others are released” (O’Donoghue & Clarke, 2010, p. 158). I believe that replicating this project at other institutions has the potential to foster collaborative, reflective practice, thereby increasing course quality, student outcomes, and teacher motivation.

Author’s Bio: I have taught English language at a tertiary institute in New Zealand since 2003. I hold a Licentiate Diploma (TESOL) with Distinction from Trinity College London and a Master of TESOL Leadership with Distinction from Massey University. As Assistant Dean, I manage sub-degree programmes, teach vocational English, and train teachers.


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