Lesson observation is an integral feature of continuing staff development in all schools and colleges. Although it causes teachers insurmountable anxiety and stress, Ofsted and education management think it’s an important way of ensuring effective teaching and learning. So, it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.
However, if – as penance for a deed you committed in your previous life – you’ve been given the unenviable task of carrying out a lesson observation, here are the top 10 tips you must keep in mind.
1. Give teachers ample time to prepare a lesson
Show sensitivity and humanity to the colleague you’re going to observe. Allow them sufficient preparation and planning time. Give them plenty of notice. Don’t cause them undue stress by putting extra pressure by demanding unnecessary paperwork or data. Try and alleviate their anxiety and stress that relates directly to observations. This might be particularly the case for new or inexperienced teachers who might not be familiar with the content or process.
2. Talk to the teacher
You can support the teacher by telling them what in particular you’re going to look out for in the observation. So before the lesson, liaise with that teacher. Calm them down if they look anxious or overly stressed. Tell them what quality of paperwork you’d like, what you’re looking for in their lesson. Be clear about your expectations. Ask them to refer to their own selected professional standards and check whether their intended lesson plan will provide the opportunity to demonstrate them. Ask them to push the lesson plan past one or two experienced colleagues and see what they think.
At the end of your observation, keep your comments professional, not personal. Give feedback as soon as you can, preferably straight away after the lesson. If your commitments or the teacher’s timetable don't allow that, at least try and give the feedback on the same day. There are reasons for this. The lesson will be clear in your minds and both of you will have a good recollection of what happened, how the lesson went and how well the teacher touched on the professional standards.
3. Connect with the class and the teacher
Pay attention to the engagement aspect of the lesson and not your recording of every detail. Don’t sit at the back of the class, put on a pro-face and write reams of notes, rarely looking up at the teacher or the class. These can be more off-putting and intimidating for a teacher. It is important that your colleague is supported and not made to feel judged and penalised. So instead of being cold and aloof, join in the class activities – immerse yourself with the spirit of the lesson.
4. Remember, not all that glitters is gold
Focus on students' engagement and not just on the teacher’s dazzling array of resources – their use of IT learning tools, PowerPoint presentations and smartboard gimmicks. These might look good and, of course, you should give the teacher credit for design, preparation and effort. But equally, they can be a distraction from real learning. Ask yourself, is the class learning or are they merely having fun? Lots of activities can cloud the purpose of why students are there in the first place. They are there to learn about their subject, its context and the wider world. Is this happening?
5. Assess the quality of activities not quantity
During the observation, ask yourself, is there substance to the lesson? Ask students what they’re learning. Listen to their conversations. Often such engagement will reveal a lot about the quality of students’ learning. In my experience, some class activities – if not managed effectively – don’t necessarily translate into effective learning. Getting the class to design posters or discuss a topic are two such examples. They can go horribly wrong if students are not given specifics instructions preferably written on the board or supplied in a handout. The same applies to the use of multiple activities. Check if the teacher has given clear instructions.
There is a belief that lots of activities equal effective teaching and learning experience. This is questionable. Remember, it’s the quality of the activities that matter not the quantity.
6. Encourage teachers to deviate from the lesson when necessary
Encourage your colleagues to abandon a lesson plan when it’s not working, when little or no learning is taking place. Tell them to improvise or deviate in terms of focus or methodology. They don’t have to stick rigidly to a plan. Recognising that a lesson plan is not working and being able to do something else – something more effective – is a sign of an outstanding teacher. To do this, the teacher has to be confident and self-assured with both his class and subject knowledge. Such attributes go a long way.
7. Share good practice with the teacher
A lesson might not be going well but if the teacher has an affinity with their class, they should be able to readjust their aims and objectives to align themselves with the students’ responsiveness. The class might be disengaged because the teaching and learning process or its contents might not be susceptible to their mood. That’s why differentiation is important – teaching students according to their ability level and learning needs.
A teachers job is to instil knowledge and skills and to ensure these have been transmitted. That’s why differentiation, a range of assessment activities and plenaries are important.
8. Always keep the students' at the forefront of your observation
Ask yourself, are the students interacting with the teacher as a person, as a human being? Are they responding to what their teacher wants? Is there a good rapport, a professional relationship that is conducive for mutual respect? Is the teacher catering for both the advanced and less-able learners? Is the teacher demonstrating their awareness of the students' different modes of learning?
9. Always start with the idea that this teacher is brilliant..
... and then look for evidence that reinforces this. Go with the idea that I want to give this teacher an "outstanding" for their lesson. Ask yourself, what examples am I witnessing that I can reference in my report and is there a sufficient number of these to warrant the (albeit, unofficial) grade I want to give?
10. Remove personal bias
Don’t let a teacher’s style or personality cloud your impression of the lesson. Again, remember to focus on the learning not the egocentric distractions that can creep in – whether you would have done this or that, whether your tried and tested way of delivering a lesson is better than the teacher's. We are all individuals with different teaching styles that suit our personalities – keep that in mind.
Most of all, remember that you are there – foremost – to help the teacher develop. You are supposed to build their confidence, not to undermine or belittle them. Your observation should be uplifting and constructive not deconstructive and demoralising.