Observations and inspections: more ‘yippee’, less ‘scream’

By Keith Armstrong

A five-hour train journey across northern Spain was the origin of this article — my own fault, really, for not taking a book with me. But as the hills passed by and the light faded I began to meditate on my previous work as Director/DOS and my current role as an Inspector for IHWO, both of which have entailed observing classes. The more I reflected, the more a number of similarities between formal Teacher Observations and School Inspections kept springing to mind. I started to jot them down and within an hour, with the aid of a couple of cortados — just for concentration purposes — I had noted a round twenty comparisons, although this is assuredly not an exhaustive list.

The aim of this article is to share them with you, focussing on the rationale and procedures before, during and after an Observation or Inspection. The importance that we attach to these two processes within our organisation stems from the belief that a sound focus on both can have a positive impact on school development and help ensure an excellent quality of service for both clients and staff, which are, after all, the two cornerstones of the IH Promises. Keywords in each comparison have been highlighted in bold to help focus attention and at the end of the article there are a number of questions for Teachers and Academic Managers to consider and/or discuss with peers in order to stimulate reflection and debate.

Why and how observations/inspections are conducted

  • They are recommended practice by leading educational organisations such as IHWO, Eaquals, British Council, Instituto Cervantes, AISLi to name but a few.
  • They are a means of Quality Assurance to check whether agreed standards are being met, or not, and to help raise the benchmark within schools, or within a network of schools.
  • In our organisation we believe that both are beneficial to the recipient and consequently to their students and as such contribute constructively to teacher development and school improvement. In other words, they strengthen the quality of service given to students by teachers and to clients and staff by schools.
  • Observations/Inspections may be scheduled or unannounced. The former is perhaps more common and when scheduled, dates may be agreed mutually between both parties.
  • They take place at regular intervals — often once a term or several times a year for Teacher Observations and once a year or every two, three or more years for School Inspections, depending on the length of affiliation to their respective network.

Pre-observation/inspection — the preparation stage

  • Being on the receiving end of an Observation/Inspection may be a cause of anxiety to the Teacher/School when they are put in the spotlight, even if they have been the subject of numerous Observations/Inspections in the past.
  • Teachers and Schools are ordinarily given prior guidance — they know what the Observation/Inspection criteria are and what to expect. To help reduce the stress-load and ensure a constructive approach there should be no surprises as to how the Observation/Inspection is carried out.
  • Observers/Inspectors may likewise receive prior training. They need to know what to look for in order to collect the maximum amount of data in a limited time period.
  • Appropriate preparation must be made by the Teacher/School beforehand, usually with the provision of documents (lesson plans, photocopies of materials/inspection documentation).
  • If the Teacher/School has requested help with a certain area, both parties may agree on a particular focus for the Observation/Inspection in addition to the standard criteria.

During observation/inspection — the note-taking and collection of evidence stage

  • The Observation/Inspection report could be described as a ‘photo’ of the class/school at a moment in time and it is important that evidence is indeed observed as a justification for all feedback comments.
  • Standard procedures and standardised report templates are used, although they may vary from one Observer/Inspection organisation to another.
  • The Observer/Inspector must be honest, fair and impartial — however well, or not, you know the Teacher/Academic Manager, the criteria are the same for all.
  • The Observer/Inspector should be friendly, but firm. When standards are not met this must be pointed out, but, of course, in a constructive and approachable way.
  • The Observer/Inspector may need to accept the possibility that some flexibility is required when events out of the control of the Teacher/School intervene.

Post-observation/inspection — the feedback and follow-up stage

  • Detailed feedback is given swiftly to the Teacher/School. Often a verbal summary soon afterwards is followed by a written report at a later stage. An accurate document can thus be referred back to and this in turn feeds into the next Observation/Inspection cycle, enabling the subsequent Observer/Inspector to note what changes have been made, especially with respect to recommended areas.
  • Feedback may start with the Teacher’s/School’s own impressions of what the Observer/Inspector has seen. Teachers probably sense how their class went and similarly Directors/Managers should have a gut feeling about the underlying state of their school with respect to Inspection criteria. Do their impressions tally with those of the Observer/Inspector? Feedback may end by asking if the Teacher/Director agrees with feedback given and all comments in the written report should be a faithful reflection of what was said. Again, no surprises.
  • Feedback should not just include evidence of where standards have been met, but also constructive comment on where work still needs to be done, e.g. ‘Areas to work on’/’Requirements’.
  • Recommendations and suggestions to help Teachers/Schools with these ‘Areas to work on’/’Requirements’ are given. Teachers may be offered extra support by Directors/Academic Managers, who, likewise, may receive further guidance from their Inspection organisation.
  • The Observer/Inspector is professional throughout and respects confidentiality. In other words, details are not shared with other Teachers/Schools.

In the light of these comparisons, here are some reflections and questions for you to consider.

  1. What is your gut reaction upon being informed that you are going to be observed or inspected? Do your eyes light up, or do you suppress a Munch-like ‘Scream’? Do you see them as an Opportunity to learn and/or showcase strengths or as a Threat that might reveal weaknesses and which interferes with your day-to-day work? Or perhaps a bit of both?

  2. As Teachers and Academic Managers do you prefer scheduled or unannounced Observations? Or a combination of both? What advantages or disadvantages do you think each type has?

  3. Peer Observation is generally considered to be beneficial to Teachers to help them learn new skills and techniques from one another. As a Teacher, do you like these opportunities to share with your peers? If so, how could you benefit from them more fully? And what about ‘Peer Inspections’? A number of schools do this. Could front-of-house staff, Coordinators or even Academic Managers visit other schools for a day or two to glean ideas and share best practice? Directors/Academic Managers, would that be a sound investment of time and money in your context, or not?

  4. Would brief self-reflective reports by Teachers and Academic Managers following their Observation/Inspection help to focus the mind on what has been learned and what needs to be done next in order to tackle any ‘Areas to work on’/’Requirements’ and hence keep raising the benchmark?

  5. How effective is our follow-up post-Observation/Inspection to ensure that Teachers and Academic Managers are really making the necessary changes to the service they provide? Where problems persist with the same areas to work on for Teachers or Schools, is further guidance or mentoring required? How prescriptive should that help be?

  6. Given the similarities we have seen between Observation and Inspection procedures and the benefits that we in our organisation believe accrue from them both, how can we achieve a state in our schools where Teachers actively look forward to being observed and Schools actively look forward to being inspected?

In short, when managing our Observation and Inspection cycles and with a view to boosting both staff and school development, how can we achieve more ‘Yippee’ and less ‘Scream’?

Author's bio: Keith Armstrong is an Inspector for IHWO and was Director/DOS of IH Tarragona, Spain, for ten years. In previous incarnations, as well as an EFL Teacher in Spain, France, Egypt and the UK, he has been a Conference Interpreter, a PA at a university and a Tour Manager for American high school students. Unsurprisingly, he has a fondness for travel and an interest in both language learning and language teaching. He holds an MA in Applied Linguistics-ELT, a BA in German and French, a PG Dip. in Conference Interpreting Techniques and the DELTA.