Many schools overlook its importance, but the opportunity to observe your colleagues’ teaching can be very valuable.
Observations can result in our learning new methods and finding solutions to long-standing problems; after all, we all face similar challenges in the classroom. Witnessing someone else’s approach is often enlightening and almost always provides food for thought. To make the whole experience as useful as possible, though, we need to do a little preparation. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your observations:
Observe Lessons Gaining Tremendous Benefit
Keep an Open Mind
You may be about to see a whole swathe of methodologies with which you’re not familiar. This doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or ineffective; be prepared to evaluate the class on its merits, not simply on how closely the teacher follows your own systems of presentation, discipline, class structure, use of time, etc.
You’ll need a note pad and pens. Your school or organization may provide standardized forms; if not, there are some tips below on how to organize your notes. Expect to be given a lesson plan by the teacher you’re observing, as well as copies of any handouts they’ll be using. If no plan is forthcoming, unobtrusively check whether the teacher has created one; if not, consider whether this is an oversight, a troubling sign, or simply a very experienced teacher who has eschewed a written set of intentions for their class.
Organize Your Thoughts
In the absence of a standardized form, informally create your own. Include the date, time and duration of the class, as well as the level and number of students. Make a note of the (implicit or explicit) aims of the class, i.e. the target language or skills to be practiced.
Don’t Expect a Particular Structure
Five pedagogy texts will advise five different ‘ideal structures’ for organizing the content of a class. If I’ve learned anything during my time in classrooms, it has been the importance of teaching the class, not the plan. The teacher may find themselves going off-road to address a particular issue, re-explain an important point, or practice something which needs additional time; all of these things demonstrate a responsiveness to student needs, and are absolutely fine. In your notes, then, rather than organizing boxes or sections for particular types of activity, leave an open space which is filled in ‘organically’ as the class progresses.
Whatever is happening, be it a pedagogical marvel or a slow-motion train wreck, keep a poker face. Or, if you’re feeling cheerily compassionate, keep a bright and open visage; smiling and nodding (and, if you’re in the mood, even giving the occasional thumbs up) can reassure the stressed, self-conscious teacher that they’re on the right lines. This is particularly true of new teachers; perhaps you’ve had the experience, during your training or certification, of looking to your observers, only to receive a stony-faced and impassivene reply. It’s not the most comfortable feeling.
Avoid such negative gestures as shaking your head or betraying shock or disapproval through your facial expression. The teacher’s confidence may never recover from this unwelcome rebuke.
I’d also recommend that you don’t become involved in the class. If a student asks you a question while you’re observing, quickly tell them that you need to concentrate and listen, and that they should ask their teacher instead. Don’t feel the need, however, to be rooted to your seat; much can be learned from seeing first-hand how well the students are absorbing the day’s material, and a brief patrol around the class may yield valuable data.
So, What Am I Looking For?
You may choose to focus on particular aspects of your colleague’s teaching; these are some common areas to dwell upon.
- How well does the class use its time? Is any section needlessly lengthy, or unhelpfully brief? Do the students feel rushed, or as though they have extra time on their hands?
- How do the students and teacher interact? Is the teacher in danger of lecturing or dominating, or is there sufficient ‘conversational space’ for everyone? Do the students have enough opportunities to converse together, and with a variety of partners?
- Is there enough monitoring of student activities? Is the teacher a passive observer, a hands-on mechanic, or a mix of the two? Does (s)he correct the students without deflating their confidence? Conversely, are there too many mistakes slipping by?
- How about classroom management? Were there any discipline issues, and if so, why did they arise? Was everyone engaged, throughout the class?
- How clear and useful were the teacher’s explanations and presentation? Were there enough examples, and were they of the right level? Could anything have been explained more succinctly, or by using more of what the students already know?
- Did the teacher facilitate useful practice? Was there a variety of controlled and free practice (i.e. a mix of gap-fill and multiple-choice exercises, versus more spontaneous, natural use of language)? Was the target language truly being used by the students? If not, why not?
- Consider the pace and energy levels of the class; did time seem to slow down, or whiz by? Did the students seem tired, lethargic, or bored?
- Which happened most often: asking/eliciting or telling/instructing? Were there occasions where the students could have ‘taken over’ the explanation of a structure, or some vocabulary?
This is a delicate and challenging situation, and I invite you to consider the style in which you might prefer to receive what may well be an awkward, embarrassing and even contentious summation from your colleagues. As much as possible, frame your comments as praise and advice, not simply a list of ‘things they should have done’. In fact, there is a range of language which can add tension and stress to the feedback process, and I urge you to avoid its use:
- Why didn’t you…?
- You should have…
- You forgot to…
- You should never…
- It’s your fault if the students…
Instead, these might be better places to begin:
- Next time, why not try…
- It’s sometimes more useful to…
- I’d recommend…
- There’s a strong case for…
- Consider different ways to…
- I think you should be especially careful of…
If the teacher made the same mistake many times (e.g. asking “Do you understand?”) mention it once, and then move on. Nobody enjoys being reminded of failures, so address the issue, recommend an alternative method, or a way to remember this point in the future (e.g. writing it on the lesson plan) and return to something more positive. Some good language for this would include:
- You know, I think … worked really well.
- I really enjoyed the way you…
- … was particularly effective today.
Try to include strongly positive adjectives (excellent, superb, outstanding, first-class) at least as many times as you address knotty issues or mistakes. The teacher will come away with a little more motivation and self-belief, as well as useful hints for their future teaching.