Dealing With Observations in the TEFL/ESOL Classroom

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 8 min

Observations are part of the TEFL/ESOL Teacher’s life. They can take many forms and few of us really enjoy them. They can be very stressful and when we are observed we seldom feel that we are being ourselves. Things often feel a bit false, forced and generally unnatural. It is hard to get away from the feeling that we are being judged; and indeed, in many cases, we are being judged.

I have been observed more times than I can remember but in recent years I have also done a lot of observing myself, so I have experienced the process from both sides. In the following article, I will try to point out a few things I have found useful both as an observer and ‘observee’ over the years. I will consider;-

  • Types Of Observations

  • Important Do’s and Don’ts

  • The Role of The Observer

  • The Importance of Preparation

We will also leave you with a handy ‘Observation Checklist’ to download for free.

But First… Don’t Panic!

This is easy advice to give but can be very difficult advice to keep to! Why shouldn’t you panic? Because when you panic it is hard to focus and things tend to spiral out of control. There is a big difference between panicking and being slightly stressed or anxious. A little anxiety shows that you are taking the process seriously and this is something ‘the observer’ wants to see.

Let’s think about ‘the observer’ at this point, because doing so may help you not to panic.

The Observer

The observer is on trial too. Depending on the type and purpose of the observation, the observer has specific tasks to fulfil, particular things to look out for, and will need to justify any written comments or spoken feedback s/he is required to give. It is almost certain that the observer doesn’t want to create an unnecessary conflict which they will have to spend time and energy justifying. In short, it is in the interest of the observer that things go smoothly and that the results of the observation are seen as positive and helpful by you.

In most cases, the observer will be an experienced and well qualified TEFL/ESOL teacher. Teachers understand teachers and know how it feels to be observed. They have been in your shoes and probably sympathise with you.

From personal experience as an observer, I can absolutely confirm that I get a great deal of satisfaction from being able to pass on the good news to the TEFL/ESOL teacher who is being observed. I am human; seeing something great in a lesson puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day! By contrast, having to impart less good news is always troubling and on the rare occasion that a lesson goes badly wrong, giving negative feedback is as traumatic for me as for the person being observed. Nobody goes into an observation wanting to be the bearer of bad news at the end of it.

In short, the observer wants you to succeed and fully understands the difficulties being observed creates. They have been observed themselves many times.

Types of observations

There are many types of observation that can happen in your TEFL/ESOL career and many reasons why an observation may be necessary. I have categorised them with broad strokes below but there may be other forms of observation that don’t sit within this list.

Short/Unscheduled Observations

Some TEFL/ESOL institutes and schools have an ongoing program of short observations in which the Director of Studies or other Senior Teacher observes members of the teaching staff for short periods of time at regular or random intervals. Sometimes the teacher will be given short notice of such an observation, and sometimes not, depending on the policy and logistics of the institute concerned. Such observations usually only last for ten to twenty minutes at a time although could extend to a whole lesson. Because of the random nature of these observations, it is difficult to give specific advice other than to use the methodology and materials favoured by the school as regularly as possible. That of course is often the psychological reason for observations of this type. The school or institution want to make sure you are using the materials and methodology they advertise to the students. Naturally, they also want to check on the overall teaching competence of the teachers working for them. When such observations are deliberately random the idea is that you can’t do any special preparation for the lesson you are going to be observed in. The observer wants to make sure you are at your best and fully prepared all of the time. As a tip I would suggest keeping an eye on the routines and comings and goings of senior staff within your school or institution, they might sometimes give away their likely observation plans without meaning to! But if in doubt, assume that any or all lessons you teach could be observed.

Peer Observations

Peer Observations can also take different forms, but the common factor is that two or more teachers within the same TEFL/ESOL school or institution agree to observe each other and give informal feedback. I highly recommend participating in these kinds of observations as often as possible. They can be used to prepare or practise for more formal observations by a senior member of staff or an outside observer. However, more importantly, they provide an invaluable opportunity to share with and learn from, other teachers. Some of the most important lessons I have learned came from observing how other teachers handle particular situations and challenging students. The length and style of the observation will depend on the time and staff available within the school. A short observation is better than nothing but, if possible, I would suggest it is always best to observe a whole lesson. It is also good practice to agree on the criteria with the teacher you are going to observe and be observed by. The aim is not to be critical but to be constructive. You might for example ask your partner teacher to note specific things such as how often you ‘concept check’ and whether your concept checking seems to be effective. It is always best to agree specific goals and tasks for your peer observations.

Formal Whole Lesson Observations

These are the types of observations we tend to worry most about. You are usually given at least a few days’ notice before the observation happens and then the observer sits unobtrusively at the back of the teaching space and observes a whole lesson, making notes quietly. Usually, you will be asked to furnish the observer with a lesson plan. Often a feedback session will be arranged later in the day during which you may also be invited to write about and/or discuss your view of the lesson.

In House Observations 

It is natural for a school to want to check the teaching and classroom management skills of teachers who are new to the company or institution. Regular observations, perhaps once a year, can also be an essential aid to professional development. Professional TEFL/ESOL teachers should be reflective and should welcome constructive advice and feedback. Knowing your strengths and being able to set goals based on observation feedback helps you to progress as a teacher and advance in your career. Positive written feedback can also be linked to your C.V. to help acquire more senior teaching positions in the future.

External Observations

Many English Language Schools and similar institutions are affiliated with larger, internationally recognised, professional bodies such as The British Council or Eaquals, who conduct observations to make sure participating schools and institutions maintain the standards set by the association. Such observations form part of a larger inspection of the institution which in many ways resemble Ofsted inspections in British state schools. In this type of observation, it is the institution you work for that is being inspected as much as your own teaching. Your employer is likely to give you some guidance on how and when the observation will happen and what the inspectors are particularly interested in. You might be asked to participate in follow up discussions with the inspectors.

Do’s and Don’ts

The following short list of do’s and don’ts relates mainly to more formal observations conducted by your own school or TEFL/ESOL institution or by outside bodies. This is not an extensive list but aims to cover the most important points.

  • Do Prepare. It might sound obvious, but preparation is very important. Moreover, the person observing you will want to see evidence of preparation. This could include writing a Lesson Plan in the style required by the observer and familiarising yourself with the class you will be teaching (possibly writing a short profile of the class including the student’s ages and ability levels). Preparation also means studying the language point you are going to be teaching and making sure the classroom is set up appropriately for all the activities you plan to include in your lesson.

  • Don’t involve the Observer in your lesson. On very rare occasions the observer may volunteer to get involved in some aspects of the lesson, but in reality, this hardly ever happens. The task of the observer is to be as unobtrusive and invisible as possible while the lesson progresses. As far as possible the lesson should proceed as if the observer isn’t there. You should not draw any extra attention to her or him.

  • Do make sure you have a chair and desk set up and ready for the observer (you will probably be given instructions about this when the observation is arranged).

  • Do inform your students that there will be a stranger in the lesson observing you but DON’T labour the point. The less drama you create about the observation the less the students will be affected by it.

  • Do make sure you get to the classroom where you will be observed as early as possible.

  • Don’t panic. The observer understands that his or her presence has an impact on the class dynamics. The observer also understands that you are likely to feel nervous. They want you to do well. They have been in this situation themselves many times.


The longer you stay in the TEFL/ESOL teaching profession, the more observations you are likely to have. Perhaps they get a little easier but personally, I never feel quite myself when being observed. However, it is part of the job so it is best to approach the process as something we can learn and grow from. You might find it useful to think about what you would be looking for if you were the observer. One day you may well be in that position.

We have compiled a free observation checklist to help you prepare for observations. We hope you find it helpful, and I wish you lots of luck for your next observation!