Formal Observation, Formality and Dreaming

by Zhenya

Observation is something teachers hardly ever feel indifferent to: either being observed, or being the one who comes to see a lesson, it is often a challenge, and stress, and (sometimes?) a chance to honestly reflect on one’s teaching (both for the observer and the observed, openly or privately) A lot has been written about it recently (more links below), but the post that made me want to sit down and write today was on Hana’s blog:

I initially wanted to write a comment to her, but then it started to grow, and I decided to respond here. The easiest way for the readers would probably be to go and read the original post on Hana’s blog, and then come back here (or vice versa!)

Hana is writing about formal observations she needs to carry out as a senior teacher at her school in the Czech Republic, she talks about the purpose for those, the report she has to fill in after observing teachers, and how she makes decisions about what goes into the report.

My own thoughts are listed as ‘points’ below:

  1. To me, observations can’t be formal — I think the word ‘formality’ is killing the idea of professional development as such. Now, a lot of schools (including some I was working in) have the ‘system’ or ‘policy’ of observations where teachers are ‘regularly’ observed once a term in order to maintain the school standards and raise quality of teaching, etc. ‘Regularly’ often turns out to be once in 4-5 months, which often means that the observer has very little or no idea about the current challenges and goals of the teacher, the group of his/her students, the course books, etc. The idea could be ‘sold’ as a professional development opportunity for the teachers, and as ‘quality control’ for students, or parents, but eventually, becomes a formality.
  2. Formal observations are those carried out by someone officially ‘entitled’ (paid for?). Usually (well, based on my own experience), this is a busy DoS, or Senior Teacher, whose global task is to take care of the curriculum in the school, the students/parents’ meetings and/or complaints, a hundred of other little things, and his/her own classes. Also, it is oftentimes not the most experienced teacher at the school (well, it is often a teacher who said ‘yes’ to the challenge of carrying out those duties – again, based on my experience) If so, then the ‘formal’ observation is done by someone who is busier than the teacher observed, and who (possibly) is not formally trained to perform the task, and therefore relies on the checklist, or the template, making a lot of notes, trying hard to help. Question: can peer observations in this case be equally ‘official’? [Well, I could add this point to my ‘dreaming’ number 8 below]
  3. What is the real point** of observing, and being observed? Is it to help a private school make more money by ‘reporting’ that the teachers are observed regularly and therefore the quality of teaching is greater? Is it required by the standards, or charter, of an international chain of schools? Is it really about helping teachers teach better, or helping students learn better, faster, more efficiently? There might be more than one purpose, of course. In any case, if it is more about helping teachers to help their students, than much more than ‘formality’ needs to be done (and perhaps have someone observing more often and less ‘officially’? [Maybe I am just dreaming – see point 8 on this below please]

** please see the post by The Secret DoS’s on this. The final two paragraphs are kind of explaining one possible point of view very well!

  1. Letting teachers know the assessment/observation criteria probably sounds obvious; letting them do self-assessment and ‘grading’ of the lesson (similarly to the Language Passport idea where a learner is assessing which level his/her each skill is) This could possibly involve evaluating their teaching skills before the observed lesson, deciding with the observer which area(s) they would be closely looking at during the lesson and then discussing, reflecting and working out concrete plan of actions afterwards?
  2. Now, let’s think about the ‘report’ that the observer is writing: where do its sections/criteria/template ideas come from? Do teachers in the school agree that these are necessary? Do they see the point of each item for student learning? Do they have a say in creating/modifying the template? Who is reading the reports? Do teachers need to know what the observer is writing?Note: I really liked ‘Eye on the Classroom’ series of posts by John Hughes on his blog — specifically, this one on using Observation Checklists
  3. [this part is related to (3) above]: What are the real consequences of the observation and report writing/reading? Who is the reader, the audience? Are teachers going to be fired if they perform below standard and/or are they going to be paid more rewarded if their lessons are consistently graded as ‘outstanding’? What are the real consequences for the observer, the one who is submitting the report: leaving some boxes blank, or filling out short pieces of formal information?
  4. This brings me to the point about an ideal school (in my opinion), where teachers are taking turns in doing the official observation (and even in carrying out the responsibilities of a Senior Teacher, or the Director of Studies, etc.). In that case all the teachers would find themselves in the position of making those (inevitably) subjective comments and decisions what to write in the boxes of the reports, etc. – which would probably bring more clarity and purpose to what exactly needs to go to the report, and eventually would help the teachers help their learners better…
A lot is happening when I observe: notes on my comp, notes on the written plan, side notes, and thinking...

A lot is happening when I observe: notes on my comp, notes on the written plan, side notes, and thinking…

Final thoughts:

  • I have never worked in an ideal school (yet?) but I did have one wonderful academic year with the language school as the Director for Teacher Education and Development. It was a year when I was welcomed into literally every classroom by the teachers, asking for feedback and advice, sharing the successes of their students, reflecting openly on the strengths and areas to work on for themselves. Yes, it had taken several years to build to that. Yes, it was one excellent year — and there were many more (good, normal, etc.) before and after that one. Yes, it is another story, longer than this post!
  • I don’t think that anyone, not even the most efficient and experienced coordinator/supervisor/teacher trainer in the world, knows the students and the teacher better than… the students and the teacher in that classroom. If this is so, then how can anyone really grade my lesson, or tell me the strengths and challenges of my teaching, especially if s/he comes to see me in class once or twice a year? Apologies if I have I just asked a question that perhaps doubts a PD ‘program’ in many schools! [Note: I wrote about objectivity in observation here earlier this year]
  • At the same time, I also think that any person who visits my class can bring me a new perspective on the group of learners I am working with, ask a question about something I have never thought about, notice a detail that I missed myself. It does not matter in this case how long this person has been teaching, or where, and whether or not s/he is officially, or formally, entitled to observe me. The question then is how can this observation culture be created and nurtured, and how can it co-exist with the formal reports, grades, and ‘negatives’ that the observers need to ‘find’ in the lessons they see? Maybe a topic for a longer discussion.

What has your experience of formal observation been like? Did you observe, or were you observed? What was the learning?