Lesson observations are an integral part of every teacher’s professional development. They are usually carried out by a peer who will sit in on a class and observe how a lesson is conducted and then later provide useful feedback. Here we have an interview between Mike Turner (a Director with English in Action) and Maureen McGarvey (an Educational Consultant and Trainer). Both have worked on developing observation systems and policies, as well as having carried out many observations themselves. The following interview provides an informative guide on some do's and don'ts for teachers who are preparing to be observed.
Mike: Hello Maureen. For this interview, I wanted to chat with you a little bit about your experience of observations and for you to pass on any hints, tips and words of wisdom you might have picked up during your career. The first question is what, in your experience, worries teachers the most about being observed whilst teaching a class?
Maureen: I think most teachers worry about being judged and being evaluated when they're observed. This is quite normal, really, because when we're teaching, we're in our classroom with our students and we've built up our relationship and our rapport … then suddenly somebody from outside comes in and the first thing that worries many teachers is that the observer is going to tell them everything they're doing wrong. The good news is that the more experienced you become as a teacher the less you tend to worry about observations.
Mike: In my own organisation, we have set up two different kinds of observations. The first we call a Technical Observation and the second, a Developmental Observation. The Technical Observation is likely to concern teachers who are a little less experienced and therefore maybe a little more nervous. The focus of the Technical Observation is on basic teaching techniques - managing a class, presenting and practising language, monitoring learning, those kinds of things. What sort of advice would you give them in terms of what to focus on in preparation for this type of observation?
Maureen: Firstly, it's important to remember whether it's a Technical or a Developmental Observation, being in employment as a teacher means you are already considered a capable classroom practitioner. No one is looking to catch you out! In terms of preparation, I would say prepare your lesson with a clear view of what you want your students to be doing by the end of the lesson. Ask yourself what learning outcomes you want this lesson to have? This is particularly important because the observer will be focusing on the students’ learning and how the teacher effectively facilitates this.
Mike: During observations, teachers will be assessed on specific elements such as concept checking, transitions between activities, etc. but do you think there is a sense in which people can over-prepare for an observation?
Maureen: I think there is because, particularly when you're less experienced, the tendency is to try and plan your lesson almost minute by minute. This is partly because pre-service training courses encourage teachers to stick with a mindset where they need to put all their timings down. As a result, you may find yourself feeling your world has ended just because you overran to seven minutes as opposed to sticking to the allotted six! However, I think it's wiser to try and leave space within your plan to adapt to your students’ responses. If you plan too tightly it means you are not leaving enough room for the students to perhaps work a little bit more creatively with new language or for them to ask questions they might have or to clarify anything they are uncertain about. Of course, it's important to plan - but it is equally important to avoid micro-planning to the point your leave your students no opportunity to properly engage with the lesson.
Mike: What areas of the lesson would you consider a priority to prepare for?
Maureen: The things that I always planned for when I was inexperienced were things like my board work - I also used to put practical reminders on my plan like ‘rub out’ because I sometimes forgot to clean my board and then I couldn't do my next bit! I also always planned how I would check meaning and I used to script the questions I would use to do this. I would script the examples I wanted to use to exemplify new language. It is very useful to always plan the questions you intend to use to check meaning and the examples you'll use for new language. A good technique is to plan and to script from the bottom up. If you think what you want the students to be doing is ‘X’ then it's a good idea to work back from this to the instruction. If the final instruction is ‘So now work with your partner,’ it is helpful to think about the steps you need to take beforehand. It means you think, ‘Well at the end I want people to be doing this, so what do I have to do to help them?’
Mike: I suppose one of the situations in which you kind of feel most vulnerable as a teacher is in the post-observation feedback. It's likely that, if you've been observed and the observer is quite acute in their observations, then there will be some things that are very positive and there may be some things that are less positive. How do you, as a teacher, process all of this information in the most productive way?
Maureen: I think in this type of situation it's very easy for us, as teachers, to ignore the positive feedback, and overly focus on the negative feedback. It's all too easy to get hung up on what didn't go well, rather than remembering that a large part of the observation process is to identify areas for improvement. This means focusing on the good as well as the bad. If somebody says that one part of the lesson went really well, you should actually pay attention to this. A useful question to ask yourself is 'What made that good?'
Mike: We all perform a bit when we are teaching but I think there is a danger when we're being observed that we try to be something we're not. There is a tendency to lose contact with our normal classroom persona because we try to be something we think the observer wants us to be, rather than the person we are. Would you agree with this?
Maureen: I completely agree with you. There are two key Maxim's. One is to teach your students and not your lesson plan. There will be times in your lessons when you must adapt your plan. For example, when something takes longer than you thought, or you realise your students aren't on task, or maybe your instructions weren't clear so you need to pull the class back to re-instruct in a more staged manner. The second maxim is to teach for your students and not the observer. As far as you can, you have to try to ignore the person who is observing you and bring your focus down to your students, so that you avoid being a different teacher just because you're being observed.
Mike: When I've been observed myself, I've had observers sit in different positions in the room. Do you have a preferred way of observing?
Maureen: I was once observed by someone who sat at the front beside the whiteboard, facing the class! I found it wasn't very helpful for me to have the observer either behind me or beside me. I like to sit at the back in a corner because if the room is set up in a horseshoe it means I can try and catch students from two corners. Sometimes I'll even change position when I'm observing so that I can get a different perspective on how the students are engaging. There really isn't an optimum position. However, as a teacher, you can suggest to the observer that you'd like them to sit in a specific place such as next to a student, for example, so they can see the whole class.
Mike: Have you ever observed a teacher that's tried to involve you in the lesson, even though you're there as someone who's sort of sitting outside and looking in?
Maureen: Yes, I have. I have had teachers say to me, ‘Isn't that right?’. Sometimes, they'll try to observe me or they'll ask me to work with the group. As nice as it is to work with a group of students in this context, it distracts from my primary function, which is to observe how the teacher is working with the group. As tempting as it is to pull your observer in to be an extra monitor or facilitator, I am not particularly keen on this approach. What is your opinion on this?
Mike: I would agree. Just leave your observer to observe. They will have a particular remit and it may be difficult for them to fulfil that if they're having to do other things. They need to be left to look at the lesson objectively. Okay, so let’s move on to Developmental Observations. These are observations that move beyond looking at basic techniques. If you're an experienced teacher, then the first thing you want to do is to make sure your observer is happy - but do you think there is scope for you to also use observation as an opportunity to benefit your own development as well?
Maureen: Oh yes, I think so. It's like when we're trying to learn anything, first, you must master your scales before you can move on to composing a symphony. As a teacher, you must master your techniques but in mastering those techniques and in the discussion with your observer, you start to dig a little bit deeper and look at the teaching decisions you make and why you chose to make them. This is not always about technical teaching skills. Sometimes it’s about understanding a dynamic, or how to work with a piece of material, or how to work with emergent language from students - and that leads you to develop not only those skills but also that awareness and that understanding. I really do think they can come together.
Mike: As professionals, we often talk about ‘jagged profiles’, and I'm not sure that all teachers really understand what we mean when we use that term. Could you explain a little bit about what a jagged profile is?
Maureen: Okay. My understanding of the term is that you will be stronger in some things than others and that is just a fact. In truth, it's a factor in almost every aspect of our lives. For example, you might be a very good technician, but you may not be very good at responding to students’ problems or questions they might ask - or vice versa. Essentially, a jagged profile means that you will have some things that are stronger at than others. While it's not always possible to have a completely even profile, when we're looking at skills and techniques, in a Technical Observation, we're particularly looking at evening out those areas where you're stronger and supporting you in areas which need improvement so you can even out your profile.
Mike: If you could offer one piece of advice to a teacher having their first observation, what would it be?
Maureen: Try to teach like you normally do. There are many obvious things I could advise like make sure to get a good night's sleep, set the classroom up beforehand, check your tech is working, check you've got all the photocopies you need, etc. But really the most important point is don't try to put on a show for your observer. If you do, the observer will be trying to help develop the teacher you really aren’t, rather than improving on the teacher you are. It is much better for us to see you as you are, rather than putting on a one-off spectacular where we will be unable to offer any valuable help.
Mike: That's great. Thank you very much.
Maureen: Thank you.