Observations in ELT should be supportive not just evaluative, but how often is this the case?

When I started training teachers on TEFL courses, our Course Director told us that he wanted all members of the training team to observe each other. One of the trainers, an experienced TEFL Q (DELTA-qualified) teacher, managed to avoid being observed for nearly a month. She would agree a time for an observation and then, often at the last minute, come up with an excuse and try to reschedule.

Finally, she had to admit the truth: being observed terrified her. She had gone through a series of assessed observations on her DELTA Diploma training and this had scarred her for life.

Even experienced teachers often feel uncomfortable when an outsider enters their classroom. There is probably a significant psychological component to this. Self-efficacy,¬† one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task, can affect how we feel when we are observed by other teachers:

We may believe we are skilled and competent teachers because we get positive feedback from our learners, but there is always the risk that an experienced professional observing our classes may not have such a positive opinion regarding our skills, competencies, and overall teaching approach.

This might not be such a bad thing; we may not have an accurate assessment of our actual teaching ability. However, conflict may arise if our observers have a significantly different idea of best practice to our own.

But, I wonder if this risk of damaging our self-image as teachers results from an institutional failure in many language schools and academies to identify the true purpose, in my opinion, of observing teachers. I have had many conversations with experienced teachers who have complained about the observation policy at their academies being too focused on assessment and evaluation.

What I propose in this blog post is that observations, especially those of experienced teachers, should be primarily designed to encourage professional development rather than serve as an assessment tool.

Many academies seem to adopt the following approach when observing teachers. The Director of Studies informs their teachers that they will be observed. A timetable is created and teachers are asked to submit lesson plans before each observed lesson. The DoS (Director of Studies) observes their teachers and arranges a time to give feedback.

Feedback consists of the DoS and the teacher discussing whether a set of criteria were met and to what extent. A set of action points may be agreed and the teacher is expected to work on acquiring new skills and improving their weak points.

In my opinion, there is one major flaw in this approach:

Teachers on English language courses do not give discrete lessons; they teach over a number of lessons.

Observers have no real way of knowing what the teachers and students did in previous lessons leading up to the observation. Teachers do more than just teach a discrete language point; they build rapport, create a classroom atmosphere conducive to learning, they diagnose individual strengths and weaknesses, they negotiate a syllabus with their learners, they recycle target language etc.

To use an analogy; imagine I wanted to know whether it was worth watching a long-running TV show such as Games of Thrones. Would you recommend that I watch Episode 4 from Series 5 and base my assessment of the quality of the show from this isolated sample? I very much doubt that this would be a sensible recommendation.

If observations are to be used for assessment or evaluative purposes, then surely it would make more sense to observe over the duration of a course rather than a single lesson.

How can observations be more supportive?

There are a number of approaches which could be implemented to change observations from being an assessment tool to being a system for encouraging professional development.

Firstly, why should Director of Studies be the only people who conduct observations?

Senior teachers, who may need to be trained in observation skills, should be able to fulfil the requirements of the role but may be perceived by teachers as mentors rather than assessors, reducing the level of stress teachers may feel when being observed, which, in turn, should result in them giving more relaxed lessons.

The other reason why Senior Teachers may be more suited to observing teachers than a DoS is that this may reduce the observer effect, which states that the presence of the observer may have a significant effect on the phenomenon being observed. Experience tells me that both teachers and learners act quite differently when they are aware of the presence of the observer, especially when that observed is a figure of authority.

Secondly, planned observations may not demonstrate what a teacher normally does in the classroom.

When your DoS tells you that you are being observed next week, you are likely to do one or all of the following:

  • spend hours, maybe even days, planning an amazing lesson
  • repeat a lesson which you have given successfully a number of times (your showcase lesson).
  • tell your students that they are being observed and train them to behave and respond in a way which will meet the approval of the observer.¬†Confession alert here: I once gave a lesson on a Monday and told the students that I would repeat the lesson the next day when I was being observed. The students were happy to collaborate in this deceit as I bribed them with the promise of free cakes!
  • spend the time before the observed lesson procrastinating about what to teach, getting increasingly anxious as the lesson approaches, only to implode in the observed lesson due to your high-stress levels.

When we give teachers advanced warning of their observation, they may respond by giving a wonderful lesson (which shows their potential) or they may panic and give a substandard class (which shows how they respond to stress). Unless teachers are used to being observed, they are not likely to give a representative lesson which means calls into question the validity of the observation process.

There are other approaches academies could take.

Involve teachers in deciding on the observation process and criteria.

Observations must be relevant to the teaching context. When I worked as a DoS, I used a fairly generic observation template without really evaluating the validity and appropriacy of the criteria. Why not hold a meeting with teachers and decide upon the observation criteria and the observation process. This would provide two clear benefits: the observations would be related to the actual needs of the teachers and this would also encourage them to invest in the whole observation process.

Peer observations could be encouraged so teachers get used to having observers in their classes.

This could be done in two stages. The first stage could consist of the observers noting down what they liked about the class and what they learned from observing their peers (positive feedback). The second stage would require the teacher to ask their peer to focus on aspects of teaching they would like to improve (negative feedback) and suggest improvement strategies.

The DoS (or whoever is observing) could do shorter but more frequent observations so they get to see what normally goes on in classes.

The information collected from these mini-observations could then be collated and feedback could be given to the teaching body and not just individual teachers. The advantage of this approach is that the Director of Studies gets a wider perspective on what is going on at the school, which can help with standardising best practice.

Another benefit of this approach to observations is that the DoS may discover that certain teachers have a talent or innovative approach in relation to a particular aspect of teaching. For example, a teacher may have wonderful board work. This teacher could then be encouraged to give a skills workshop for the other teachers.

Teachers could record (audio or video) segments of their lessons over a period of time and then submit a report (including the recorded samples) to their Director of Studies.

Feedback would then consist of the DoS and the teacher discussing the findings of the report and agreeing on action points.

In this post, I have made a few suggestions about adopting a different approach to observing teachers. They are certainly not intended to be prescriptive; each school or academy should consider what approach will produce the most beneficial results in relation to the quality of teaching provided.

If you are interested in some simple formative observation tasks for the EFL / ELT classroom, click on the image below:

Peer observation in TEFL

Observing EFL teachers

 

 

 

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