Classroom Observations -
making them useful for teachers
by George Murdoch
Finding an observation focus
It can be extremely beneficial for the teacher and supervisor to agree on a focus for the class observation visit. There are many areas that can be selected: the teacher’s instructions, amount of teacher talk, pacing of the lesson, attention given to weaker students, questioning techniques, reactions of the students to a communicative activity etc. Finding a focus helps all parties: The teacher realises that the observer is not intent on using a driving test style checklist of teacher competencies to seek out his minor weaknesses. The supervisor benefits from having an agreed focus because there is already an agreed starting point for looking meaningfully and developmentally at the teacher’s lesson, without the burden of assessing every single aspect of the teacher’s performance.
Perhaps the biggest mistake an observer can make is to feel that his/her primary role is to identify the weaknesses of the teacher and make him/her aware of them. It is more realistic to see the role initially as recording data on the lesson with comments, so as to be able to help the teacher reflect on the lesson taught. The data collected can then be sifted through in order to see if there are significant patterns that are worth commenting on. For example, a review of the notes on the lesson might reveal that a teacher manages to include a variety of useful activities but regularly rushes through the instructions (or modeling) phase when introducing the activities, thereby disadvantaging the weaker students who get confused about what they are supposed to be doing.
One method of recording data that many observers find useful is to go into observations with sheets of paper divided into three columns. In the first column the observer keeps notes on the main events or stages of the lesson along with a record of the times spent on different activities. The second column can be used to keep notes on students’ involvement in the class and their level of interaction, response to activities etc. The third column can then be used to record the observer’s subjective reactions to the lesson. These comments will naturally be informed by an awareness of generally recognised features of sound English language teaching e.g.; providing opportunities for students to practise/use language in meaningful contexts; giving feedback and encouragement to students; appropriate error correction strategies etc.
Feedback based on the data collected needs to be managed very carefully in order to make the post-observation conference a constructive experience for the teacher (and supervisor!). Adoption of a few key strategies can have a very positive impact.
It is generally not a good idea to schedule the feedback conference on the same day as the observation, even though the teacher may be anxious to receive feedback immediately. The actual observation can be a stressful experience for many teachers and they will be too ‘close to’ the lesson just after teaching to be able to discuss it reasonably objectively. Also, the observer needs time to reflect on the lesson, review the observation notes and make a strategic decision about which points to bring up with the teacher. On the other hand, it is not a good idea to postpone the observation for more than a day or two since the memories of the lesson can fade fast, and then the discussion of events will not be so effective.
A collaborative spirit should be fostered by the observer throughout the observation process. In general, it is best, as Goldhammer (69) stresses, to avoid critical dissection of teaching. Too much criticism and advice giving will simply overwhelm a teacher.
A detailed analysis of all the data may throw up more areas for potential improvement than a teacher can actually deal with – probably most of us can only contemplate adapting our behaviour on one or two fronts at a time! If there are major problems in an observed class, then it is probably best for the supervisor mention just one of the general features of a sound lesson that was lacking, e.g. the need for opportunities for students to participate/use language interactively, and then move on to working together with the teacher to think of ways of achieving this outcome in future lessons.
A supervisor can very easily become over-critical (and underestimate the impact of their criticisms). It is crucial for a supervisor to highlight those aspects of the teacher’s performance that were strong or effective – teachers need good points to be appreciated too! In fact, the observer would be negligent if he or she did not try to reinforce good practice and build up a teacher’s confidence by mentioning positive points.
Appreciating the teacher’s perspective
A final thought: In approaching the experience of observing another teacher for evaluative/developmental purposes, we are involved in a process of professional support, collaboration and dialogue. The shared experience of a class enables the observer to enter into a dialogue with a teacher. The observer can offer suggestions about strategies, but the main concern must be to understand the teacher’s personal outlook on teaching events. To achieve this requires a conscious effort by the supervisor to hold back on diagnosis and prescription. Listening to the teacher’s story in order to understand his or her skills, personality, potentials and stage of personal development as a language teacher is a pre-requisite for meaningful discussion of lesson events and teaching options
Acheson, K. A. and D. Meredith 1980 Techniques in the Clinical Supervison of Teachers New York: Longman
Goldhammer, R. 1969 Clinical Supervision: Special Methods for the Supervision of Teachers. New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston
McLean, A.C. (ed) 1997 SIG Selections 97 IATEFL
Murdoch, G. S. 2000 ‘Introducing a teacher-supportive evaluation system’ ELTJ 54/1 January 2000 OUP
Wajnryb, R. 1997 ‘A framework for feedback’ in A.C.McLean (ed)
George Murdoch teaches courses for international students at Regent Language Training in Margate. His overseas career in EFL took him most recently to UAE University in Al Ain, where he held positions as a team supervisor, curriculum leader and lecturer in the English department. In the early 90s, he worked for the British Council as an ELT Adviser in Sri Lanka. There he was responsible for updating lecturers in teacher training colleges and establishing a new B.Ed. course for in-service teachers. He has also worked in Oman, Kuwait, Iran and France.
George’s areas of interest include teacher development/supervision, curriculum development and literature in ELT. He has published several articles on these topics and has given presentations at international conferences, most recently IATEFL 2004 in Liverpool.
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