Watching and being watched

Daniel Barber would welcome friendly lesson observation for all concerned.
How many times in your teaching career have you been observed so far? Twenty? Five? Well, you were probably observed solidly for the first six hours or so when you studied for your teaching qualification, but since then, I’d be surprised if you are observed more than once or twice a year. There are many reasons for this: for a start, it is costly to have two members of staff in one classroom at the same time; then, if you work in a language school, there’s the fact that the management probably has more pressing issues to contend with than long-term quality assurance. However, this is a terrible shame, and I’m going to argue that observing and being observed are the two most positive and immediate means of improving as teachers and feeling good (yes, good) about our work. As a teacher trainer on a course where we place great importance on observing each other, I see now teachers making huge realisations, not only during their time in front of the class, but also as they reflect on what they see from the back. I learn lots, too, and in the dialogue that is generated when more than one teacher is witness to a lesson, everybody’s a winner. Observation is a two-way process, with potential benefits for both teacher and observer. As such, there are simple alternatives to the standard model of trainer or director of studies observing trainee or employee which allow for greater involvement in the decision-making process on the part of the teacher and which foster a more positive attitude to being observed. What is more, by focusing observation tasks, observers at all levels of experience can provide more productive feedback and feel more confident in giving it. First of all, let’s look at the problems…

Being observed is scary
Many teachers are uncomfortable about being observed. because they don’t know why they are being observed because the relationship between observer and teacher is usually that of senior to junior because they weren’t involved in the decision to be observed in the first place because feedback after observation often lacks focus, which means that they don’t know which aspects of their teaching are under scrutiny because observations are often so rare that they become over-important and therefore intimidating

Observing is a skill that takes practice
A lesson consists of many elements. It is hard for observers to know what to make a note of and what to prioritise. Furthermore, less experienced teachers observing their peers might not realise the potential value of their thoughts and ideas.

Observation has knock-on effects
The observer’s paradox tells us that observation affects outcome, so that we can never know what would have happened if a lesson hadn’t been observed. In other words, factors such as

nerves, “over-planning” (making these lessons unrepresentative) and altered student behaviour can leave lesson evaluation inaccurate and unfair on the teacher.
Daniel Barber is a teacher and teacher trainer. He has worked in Mexico, Oxford, London and Barcelona and Is now a teacher and trainer at Active Language in Cadiz, Spain, where he helps run English classes and Trinity Certificate courses.
Article published in ENGLISH TEACHING professional, Issue 56, May 2008.