Classroom Observations - making them useful for teachers
by George Murdoch

What is at stake

Observations are a familiar part of professional life for most EFL/ESL English teachers working in government schools, tertiary level institutional language programs, private language schools or British Council centers around the globe. However, is it always certain that the professional training of those empowered to conduct observations has fully equipped them for their role as evaluators of classroom teaching? Even though observers are normally experienced teachers, all too often the step up from teaching to observing others teach can unintentionally result in adopting behaviours and practices which are not always in the developmental interests of teachers.

An awful lot is at stake when a director of studies or supervisor observes a teacher in a language teaching operation. No matter how informally or casually the classroom visit is presented, the teacher is aware that his performance is under review. Depending on how the lesson and discussions with the supervisor proceed, the observation experience is bound to have a considerable uplifting or demoralising impact in terms of the teacher’s self-image and his or her professional standing within that teaching community. A poor performance will inevitably affect not only the teacher’s confidence and relationship with the person who is observing the lesson, but also his/her more general reputation among the teaching staff and others in the organisation. On the other hand, a good performance can boost a teacher’s self image and confidence level, so he or she feels a valued, respected member of staff with all the motivational benefits that flow from such a feeling.

Given the importance of observations in the professional lives of teachers, it is vital that those who conduct observations should carry them out in as supportive and constructive a way as possible. Those who observe are (or should be!) teachers themselves, even though they may currently enjoy a more prestigious title! They need therefore to recall the damage that can be caused by the extremes of being overly critical of a teacher’s classroom performance, or an inability to focus on areas which might help a teacher grow and overcome difficulties. In this article, I will describe a number of key procedures and strategies that need to be adopted by observers to make the observation process meaningful, supportive and of practical use from a teacher’s perspective.

The importance of the pre-observation discussion

In a busy school or department, a pre-observation discussion or conference might seem something of a luxury. However, it can be just as important in some ways as the actual observation itself. It is a chance for the observer to hear and understand the teacher’s story: to listen to the teacher talking about the class, the particular style of teaching which has been adopted and the problems that the students present from a classroom management perspective. It is also an opportunity for the teacher to describe the activities planned for the lesson to be observed.

Giving the teacher the opportunity to talk about the class and teaching helps many teachers feel more relaxed about the visit because they sense that their own views and ideas are considered important. A better understanding of the teacher’s personality and his classroom approach is a great asset, too, to the observer in terms of feeling better able to provide feedback which is relevant and useful.

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.

Collecting data

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 strategies

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

References:

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)

Biodata

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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