On Being an Observer

In response to Dave Dodgson’s post which raised questions about the merits of common observation/feedback procedures in language schools, I thought I’d post one or two thoughts about the exact same thing – but from the other side of the coin, that of the observer. I don’t claim to speak for all observers here, but this is the situation as I see it. I’m also talking about observing working teachers, rather than trainees on initial CELTA, for example.

What’s the point of an observation?

A younger me after having been observed for the first time ever during my CELTA. Couldn't have been that traumatic...

Observations are there to help teachers develop. They should be carried out with this in mind and with both teacher and observer fully aware of this point. 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, in exactly the same way that tutors on training courses should do too. The key words for me would be reflection, guidance, support and advice.

Observations of teachers are not there to tell people how to teach, to take a teacher’s lesson to bits, to criticise, to push a certain pedagogical agenda or to show off the observer’s supposed greater experience and knowledge. I know that this is how they are often perceived, but that doesn’t mean that view is right!

How should observations be organised?

If there is a supportive environment for professional development in your school, this shouldn’t be a problem. The teacher can choose the class they want to be observed on and, assuming this fits with the observer’s schedule, the observation organised for this class. This is particularly important in reducing stress for newly qualified teachers as they can choose a class they’re comfortable with. Ideally, there should be a conversation before the class between observer and teacher in which the background to the class is discussed along with any particular points the teacher wants support with.

I ask the teacher to write a lesson plan (I’d say planning is part of the reflection), with help from me if desired.  I then follow it in the class and we discuss it in feedback, thinking through the rationale for different stages, etc. It seems to me that teachers often find this quite useful in terms of thinking through why they’ve chosen certain activities or why they decided to approach the grammar in a certain way. Again, this is for reflection and development and is not critical.

There is another kind of observation, of course: the “walk in” observation, whereby the observer simply turns up to watch a teacher’s class unannounced. I have to say, I cannot stand these. I see management might think they’re important – make sure the teacher is doing everything right, etc, however this simply does not fit with the ideas I outlined above about development. This turns observations into assessments and pressures teachers to teach in a certain way – a way liked by the observer and not necessarily suited to their class, who they know. These observations can increase stress and can make a normally relaxed teacher noticeably nervous in front of their class. Not good in my book.

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. If there is a good atmosphere, the learners enjoy the class, it’s as student-centred as seems possible, the presentations are clear, meaning focused on, skills work well-staged and useful and no-one leaves the room confused, I’d say we have an example of successful teaching.

Feedback

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.

Is this good teaching? Doesn't look like I'm doing much and I was being observed by a peer.

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, for example; 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. As an example,  I’ve conducted feedback with teachers who wanted to take DELTA and we’ve agreed to pretend the observation was the “diagnostic” DELTA observation, with feedback focusing on some really seemingly pedantic points that might well come up in DELTA (I’m not a DELTA tutor, by the way, but I do remember that particular observation well..). But again, this isn’t for everyone.

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 apposite 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 set that particular context, etc. This helps the teacher see the lesson as a whole, rather than a set of randomly chosen activities.

And the best feedback I ever had as a teacher? It was the most direct and critical and I benefited enormously. When you walk in, sit down and the observer starts off by saying “Hi. Let’s start. Well, your instructions certainly aren’t the best thing about your teaching, are they?” you know you’re in for it… That style suits me as a teacher, but not everyone.

Post-Feedback

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 involved 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 with support? Out of thin air? Magic? It’s a process and takes time, reflection and practice. And some teachers need more support than others.

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as an observer is uncooperative, and even confrontational, teachers who simply do not want to be observed, do not see the point and take it as a threat to their abilities in the classroom. What to do with these people? My approach is to be as diplomatic as possible, listen to their concerns (rants?) and frame my feedback very much in terms of offering suggestions rather than telling people what to do. I also try to explain the point of the observation and am patient to the point of, well, I don’t know what, but very patient. While there are bad observers out there, there are also uncooperative teachers.

Then of course there are the teachers who get incredibly nervous during feedback. I admit, someone did cry once during my feedback, and I was making a positive point at the time! This is obviously a very delicate time for teachers and so, as I said above, I think it’s imperative that feedback be carried out in as supportive a manner as possible.

There are also defensive teachers who need to explain absolutely everything about the lesson in the minutest detail and tell you all about how they had to do things differently in previous jobs. Again, I understand this. Getting feedback can be traumatic if it’s handled badly and it would seem there are a lot of bad observers out there. Patience is again the key here and framing things in terms of supporting the teacher, not attacking.

Job satisfaction

The best thing about being an observer, teacher trainer or mentor, is when you see somebody teach for a second time and you see an improvement in some aspect of their teaching. It’s very very rewarding and makes the job worthwhile. It tells me that the initial observation and feedback were worthwhile after all 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.

Right, well, I hope that’s put the observer’s case and that teachers can see we’re not all evil or useless. Some of us actually care about what we do and want to help people. Anyone got any suggestions about how I can improve my observing?

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6 thoughts on “On Being an Observer

  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this post – it’s good to know there are observers like you out there! You obviously take the whole process seriously and I like the way you are involved at the pre, during and post observation stages. Alas, I feel many observations are seen as an extra duty by the observer who just wants to turn up (often unannounced) and reel off some quick feedback. That in turn leads to the teacher feeling put out and defensive, which in turn leads to over-reactions to any observations such as the examples you gave above.

    As I said in my post a couple of weeks ago, observations should be about development and support. The teacher and the observer should be working together as partners in a critically reflective process rather than a stressful evaluative one. Thanks for sharing your way of doing this in this post, a must read for teacher trainers, department heads and DoSs everywhere!

    1. Chris Ożóg

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for the comment. It’s great when I can say in a reply that I completely agree with everything that you wrote! I’ve had some not-so-wonderful experiences being observed myself. One which sticks in my mind was when a DoS told me off for writing “free practice” in my plan. Appraently, it should be “freer” rather than “free”. I mean, does anyone really care? It’s not as if it was my external DELTA obs. And if that’s all you’ve really got to say, then why even bother. I got nothing from that feedback at all, other a sense that there went 25mins of my life I’d never see again.

      Reflection, and critical refelction at that, is key. Without it, how can anyone develop? It’s our job as observers to encourage that, promote it and offer support where we can. It may be more time consuming, but at the very least its our job and so even if you’re not particularly interested, you should still make an effort. And if you’re not interested, you’re probably in the wrong job anyway.

      Thanks again for commenting and especially for the positive feedback.

      Cheers,

      Chris

  2. Pingback: On Being an Observer | Online English Language Learning | Scoop.it

  3. Pingback: Why do we still have so many MISFIRES with classroom observation? (Part 01) « allthingslearning

  4. Shiva Mahshid Falahi

    Hi Chris
    Thank you for the honest and heartfelt post. I can’t tell you how much I identified with it. I, like you take my job so seriously and believe the best thing about teaching, and mentoring is what you said at the job satisfaction. No amount of money or raise can compare to that. Just last week I got an email from one of my teachers who used to work with us about three years ago and now lives in a different country. In it, she told me how much she had enjoyed our training sessions and how much she had learned and just wanted to say hi and thank you.

    1. Chris Ożóg

      Thanks for posting, Shiva. What a positive experience you’ve had with the teacher contacting you. I totally agree that it makes what we do worthwhile. Keep up the good work!

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