The thing about a $hit observation

I had my first ever on-the-job teaching observation after I’d been in my first job for a while: long enough to garner a bit of confidence; to love my class; to feel that they at least liked me a lot; and long enough to be out of my probationary period. On-the-job observations of non-probationary teachers are meant to be ‘developmental’. In practice, teachers often seem terrified of observations, unable or not helped to see any underlying developmental purpose, and generally harbouring a quiet suspicion that their job may be on the line.

And so it was with me in my first teaching observation. I spent hours preparing every day, but I prepared this even harder. It was a grammar lesson on the past continuous vs. past simple, and it was my best CELTA rendition – I presented, I controlled practised, I freer practised and I was terribly winning throughout. I came out feeling buzzed.

I sat down with my DOS, and he started with that horrible (but useful) CELTA stalwart question: ‘How do you think it went?’

Actually – I thought it went pretty well. I thought I’d explained the concepts well. I thought I’d shown the form clearly on the board. I thought the students had had a few problems that were highlighted during my photocopied controlled practice task from English Grammar in Use (Intermediate), but I thought I’d explained these clearly in feedback. It was a shame there hadn’t been much time for the freer practice in the observed lesson, but (I assured him) they were all using it really well in the next lesson. [I will always remember a much later observer, teacher trainer and friend telling me, tiredly: ‘It’s always better in the next lesson…’]

You may be able to spot some issues with the above. Maybe not – there were certainly good things there: awareness of (some) aspects of target language aims – identification of (some) appropriate material – good rapport. Anyway I tailed off after a while and asked my DOS: “How do you think it went?”

He said, and I quote, ‘To be honest, I thought it was pretty shit.’ [He was a northerner, if that explains anything]

His main points were:

– ‘Your aim was to get your students using the target language, yet most of the talking time in the lesson was you explaining things.’

– ‘There wasn’t very much talking time anyway, as you kept giving them paper exercises.’

– ‘It’s not about you or what you did. It’s about the students got from the lesson.’

Me (feebly): ‘But didn’t you think the exercises were useful? They highlighted [this or that] error and they really needed help with that.’

Him: ‘Yes but – you do know that Raymond Murphy is a self-study book for students right? If students can do something at home and check the answers themselves – why are you making them do it in class? Spend your class time doing useful things, things they can’t do by themselves at home!’ [Flipped Learning – still a thing in 1996, people]

He added: ‘You didn’t do anything on pron for instance.’

He was right. It wasn’t even on my radar. And it was a really good point about Murphy – I hadn’t realised that just because I had relied the crap out of this book to learn the grammar of my own language while doing CELTA, doesn’t mean that students needed that from me. They’d had years of controlled written practice of grammar points already. What they wanted, needed and were paying for was a chance to really use, relate to, internalise and engage with the language.

My DOS topped this off by saying, ‘Right. Here’s what we’re going to do. Next lesson, you observe me. I’ll show you some of the things I want to see you doing in class, and you can take notes on what/when/why and then we’ll talk about it afterwards.’

What I then saw wasn’t my first time watching someone elicit, model, drill and write up target language on the board – but it was the first time that I had been ready to see why and how it was useful, why it worked. Plus I got to see someone with my class; I got to see how quickly they could establish rapport through confident teaching rather than handouts-and-niceness-over-time; I got to see them modelling and drilling in a really fun and dynamic way; I got to see how students enjoyed and appreciated that; I got to see how easily a personalised task can be plucked from the air; and I got to see how easily students launched into it and loved it.

(Why aren’t more new teachers observing experienced teachers instead of [or as well as] being observed themselves? A question for another time…)

We met again after class, and talked this over, and it was good because my DOS conveyed that he was sorry for being so ‘northern’ the day before, and it was also clear that my job wasn’t on the line – he thought I did have the right stuff – but he wasn’t going to let me get away with just ‘having my awareness raised’. Being aware is not the same as putting into practice.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to come and observe you every day for a week. And each day you have to teach the whole lesson based on just one page from the coursebook. No, not a double page. Strictly no supplementary materials. No, not even the workbook.’ [Dogme – still a thing in 1996…]

This was terrifyingly incomprehensible for a super planner who had to have 9 zillion handouts just to feel secure in any lesson. ‘But,’ I stammered, ‘the next page only has a couple of speech bubbles on it!’

We were talking about this page, or something very like it:

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 10.52.42 PM

from New Headway Pre-Intermediate, Liz & John Soars (OUP)

At the time I literally could not imagine how it could be done.

But it could.

My warmer was a dictation. Normal style (read, listen, write, read, listen, write etc) for the first text, followed by pair check and group feedback on the board [Nowadays I’d do that as ‘the teacher is a recorder’ where students can shout ‘Stop! Rewind! Play! Fast forward!’ – one of the best no-mats activities ever).

The second was dictogloss style, again with pair check and feedback to the board. We then used the board text to examine the target language, ask concept questions, and elicit the form to the whiteboard. When we’d discussed the meaning and form of the target language I then copied my DOS and managed to focus attention, model clearly, beat the stress, and conduct choral and individual drilling in a really simple and clear way.

(I was amazed that my DOS’s arcane pron magic worked for me as well as it had for him. It was the first time I really ‘noticed’ pron for myself rather than as something just  to churn out in a CELTA observation. It meant something, the students enjoyed it, wanted it, needed it – and couldn’t really get it from elsewhere.)

We then did a simple personalisation activity – I asked students to write a short description of their own life, e.g. I live…I work…I have…I go…They then swapped their paper with a partner who read their original sentence completion, then crossed it out and substituted it for something imaginary, writing a two-clause second conditional sentence (If I worked at X, I would Y etc.). Then they got together, read out their sentences and basically talked about their own realities and dreams.

For the first time in my teaching life I had the impression that a lesson flew by. Also for the first time I saw myself as a facilitator rather than the ‘sage on the stage’. And it was a big realisation that I had enough to offer as a teacher that I could carry a whole lesson without ever even opening the book; that materials aren’t an imperative but something to be exploited, turned around, made the most of, or ignored, depending on what would be of most benefit to the students.

The thing about having a ‘shit’ observation is that it can be the best thing that has ever happened to your teaching – and being observed every day for a week by someone who’s genuinely interested in your development is an amazing opportunity.

Have you had any eye-opening moments result from an observation?

24 responses

  1. Good post Sophia, and great DOS – his initial comment threw me a bit… reminded me of the comment of my tutor on my first course beginning with the words “Why the hell didn’t you…… ?” but what followed sounds like great mentoring.

    Thanks for sharing this. In this world of politically correct reactions, saying it like it is is frowned upon and we have to find inane comments to avoid making a teacher feel bad about a lesson – well, nothing wrong about feeling bad about a lesson… otherwise, how else are we to start developing as teachers?

    • Thanks so much for your comment Marisa – I am also really pleased that you experienced a ‘why the hell didn’t you…’ back in the day 🙂 I agree that my then- DOS, despite first impressions, actually had an amazing sense for effective PD. I think it was a lucky intersection of factors – I was young/new enough to just accept his style of feedback, and the school was small and just starting out (and he had a stake in it) so it was important to him to spend time on PD for the few teachers they had, and he was also fairly fresh off the DELTA I do believe, so maybe he had some extra enthusiasm and positivity towards observations because of that. Your point about ‘saying it like it is’ is really important though. As a CELTA trainer I give positive feedback with the best of them, but I wonder how much trainees actually remember. I can’t remember ANY feedback from my own CELTA (CTEFLA) – I was just too focused on getting through. I’ve had one or two memorable observations after this, but THIS is the one I will never forget. You can turn teachers around in a week doing what he did.

      • Well, “i want your eyes to smart when you remember this awful lesson” is not on either but I do wonder myself sometimes, so much so that I try to give feedback in all sorts of different ways just to find out what can stick more 🙂

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  3. Great post. I wish somebody had told me I was shit a long time of go as it would have fast tracked my development. Working for ten years I have never had a proper observation. I tried to set up a peer learning program once but went down like a lead balloon as people thought it was a peer spying program. The best way to learn is to watch the best and it doesn’t happen enough.

    • Hi Damien – I appreciate your comment, and your commitment to getting PD for yourself by hook or by crook. It should not happen that you can go ten years without an observation. In theory (yes, my personal theory) all teachers should be observed *at least* yearly, and at least every six months for the first 2 years by peer or DOS. From a management perspective this can be a nightmare, and ok, you might be a late – but it’s a goal to strive for, right? I was pretty surprised in Australia how many DOSs seemed to be doing a kind of ‘centre management’ role, that overlapped a lot with sales and marketing and ‘clients’ – I hadn’t seen that before in Europe, where my DOSs pretty much looked after teachers and students in the day-to-day – maybe that has something to do with it. I also think unfortunately many DOSs may not be trained themselves in observing and giving feedback and maybe this leads to some avoidance on their part. Anyway – you are not alone. Peer observations are a great opportunity too and the world has just opened up now we can access online training etc. You’ve shown yourself how if people won’t help, you can do it for yourself.

  4. I know I “liked” this post. And just writing something like, “Wow, this is awesome,” doesn’t necessarily add to the conversation. But all I really feel like saying is, Wow, this is awesome.


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  6. I like the way you led us up to the crushing comment from the observer – I really wasn’t expecting that! However, I like the way he used the opportunity to come up with an action plan and to set you some targets. Too many of the observations I’ve had have been full of vague, generic criticisms with little or no follow-up.

    I am now an observer on occasion myself so I got a lot of ideas from this post about how to do it right – thank you!

    • Hi Dave – thanks so much for commenting. I know exactly what you mean about the ‘vague, generic’ type of observations. I think these, and the ‘overly-critical, weirdly specific’ kind of observations are entirely to blame for this culture of negativity that often exists around observations. As long as it comes from a place of listening, reflecting, being open to changes and new ideas, it will be productive. My ex DOS though could have closed me down entirely when he called my lesson shit 🙂 Especially when a) I thought it was really great and b) it actually wasn’t THAT bad. So please don’t do that. But it is important that observees get to ‘hear’ your message and as Marisa mentioned earlier, sometimes we are so caught up in PC language that the message just doesn’t stand out. Having said that – more important than the message is putting your money where your mouth is. Show don’t tell – oldest rule in the book. And don’t let one observation be the end of it (if you have that choice) – PD is about goals, you have to keep meeting them and setting more, not jumping through hoops every two years and thinking ‘yeah, ok, whatever’. I’m sure any teachers who have you as an observer will do pretty well out of it though 🙂

  7. A terrific post, Sophia, and I love reading through the comments you’ve attracted too – I agree with them all.
    The most useful observations I’ve experienced, both ways, were while I was on still studying, and fortunately I was in a position to continue observing teachers even after I’d started teaching myself – for a while at least. But it has been too long!
    Recently I’ve had the opportunity to observe teachers in mainstream vocational education courses and have found that very useful. Mostly the focus has been on thinking about the language demands of the courses to help me develop support strategies for the teachers and/or learners, but it has been also very useful for my own classroom practice. Being able to sit back and observe the teachers and the learners is beneficial in that I have the time and distance to reflect on why and how specific techniques, activities, etc. work and are useful.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

    • Thanks for commenting Lesley 🙂 I remember you talking once about how you took every opportunity to observe other teachers even though no one ever made you do it…I agree with you completely – it is ALWAYS useful to observe other teachers. Not just what works, but what doesn’t, not just what works for them but what could work for you etc. Being a reflective teacher is really greatest tool in the box when it comes to observations. That and taking charge of your own PD if no one else will do it for you!

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  9. Such a great tell-it-like-it-is approach with effective solution, no beating around the bush to spare feelings because they ought not to need sparing–thanks for the share, Sophia.

    • Hi Tyson! Thanks for your comment! I can’t say I would recommend telling anyone their lesson is ‘shit’ – but as you say ‘telling it like it is’ is certainly crucial. Beating around the bush only puts layers over the message you are trying to get across, I’m beginning to think. But people respond to feedback in different ways at different times, and sometimes being too direct will close people down and lead to other problems…Ah feedback, such an interesting process!!

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  11. I came to read this after ELTCurious linked to it in her blog post on the same topic. This was really brave of you to post, if you ask me. Thank you very much for sharing it. I’m so glad you had a good mentor willing to take the time to help you improve. I am a big fan of materials-light methods.

    I was dreading a recent observation, but got something very valuable out of it. You and ELTCurious have inspired me to write about it today.

    • Thanks for your comments Kelly – glad it inspired you to write on your blog which I have just discovered but am now following! I am a firm believer in the power of observations and useful feedback now – I just wish there was more of a positive culture around the process, generally speaking…It’s such a great opportunity and privilege to be able to watch someone else’s class – and yet teachers can do this pretty much whenever they want, if they are wiling to organise it…

  12. Useful post – I always like to hear about how other teachers develop and learn.
    One thing I don’t understand is what political correctness ( if there is such a thing) has to do with people who can’t manage and/or don’t know how to give feedback properly.

    As I understand it (what so many people refer to as) political correctness is language and behaviour which aims to make the world more inclusive for everybody. I’ve never really understood why more inclusive behaviour and language is a problem

    • Hi Chas – many thanks for reading and commenting. You raise an interesting point about political correctness – I can see how using that term in this discussion could be misleading. I would agree with you that PC generally refers to the use of respectful and inclusive language especially regarding things like race, gender, religion etc. I think we all agree that’s good. But the underlying principle of the PC langauge debate could be read (and often is, in the tabloid press – “political correctness gone mad!!” etc) as the idea of ‘not offending anyone at any cost’ even when it’s not common sense, has a negative impact, or actually wasn’t offending anyone in the first place. Apply this ‘principle’ to other areas of life, such as feedback on an observed lesson and that’s where we get our problem. I’m not saying my DoS did it right in the story above – there are obvious issues of appropriacy and professionalism in calling anyone’s lesson ‘shit’ – but it does seem that there is some benefit in plain speaking rather than always couching feedback in such carefully non-offensive language that the listener can be forgiven for thinking ‘well, it was ok actually’ rather than ‘I really need to make some fundamental changes.’ That’s my take on it anyway. What do you think?

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