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Are you looking at me?

Teachers' dislike of being observed in the classroom is hindering performance management, writes Iain MacDonald

significant proportion of teachers hate being observed at work by adults, whether peers, parents, senior colleagues or their departmental head, and this reluctance presents an obstacle to the successful implementation of performance management. Why should this be? And what can departmental managers, heads and teachers do to improve such an unsatisfactory situation?

I think there are probably two main reasons. First, classroom observation has been sporadic, and when it has taken place it has been associated with judgment - the judgment of Office for Standards in Education inspectors, interviewing panels and now threshold assessors.

Second, we do not like being watched, because so often we know that we are not teaching as well as we would like. Faced with the needs and potential of 30 individuals, which of us comes close to "performing" as we should like to on a daily basis? Throw in the pressures engendered by a government whose overriding educational commitment is the raising of standards, and it is no surprise that teachers are terrified that what they perceive as their own inadequacy will be revealed.

For performance management to be positive, we must get our approach to observation right. In the course of developing performance management as a department head in two different schools, I found it helpful to distinguish between two types of observation. First, there needs to be regular peer observation, which does not involve any formal feedback or assessment, and whose purpose is to benefit the observer. The observer will probably not be the head of department, will take nothing into the lesson, and may become a participant if appropriate. Such lessons should not be "display" lessons or restricted to the most compliant classes or topics we could teach in our sleep - we need to be prepared to be honest in what we reveal to one another about our teaching. The benefits of such a "not-for-profit" approach are considerable, not only in the development of a collegiate attitude but also in what we can learn from - as opposed to of - one another's strengths and weaknesses.

Second, we need to be less coy about the purpose of observation. What senior managers or assessors are looking for is evidence of competence rather than brilliance - this has proved true of threshold assessment, contrary to the fears of most teachers. The idea is not to determine whether X's resources are more thoughtfully chosen than Y's, or whether Mrs Smith can differentiate Mr Jones into a cocked hat, but to satisfy the purse-bearers that X, Y, Smith and Jones know how to differentiate and use helpful resources.

It is also important to discourage the "don't expect me to put on a special show" attitude. Why not show what we can do? Ask to be observed with your favourite group and put on a humdinger of a lesson. Everyone knows it is not what happens every day, but there is no hypocrisy there. Getting the best out of observation is a two-way process, and heads of department have a crucial role to play here, both in the way they conduct their observations and give feedback, and in the influence which they can bring to bear on the procedures used.

Most schools utilise some sort of standardised form, and the content of this is clearly going to influence the process. Training in giving feedback can be brought in and staff should press for it. It makes life easier for both the observer and the teacher. There is no reason why feedback cannot be a dialogue and indeed a stimulating professional discussion, but where the observer's views differ from the teacher's it is important to make this clear, inviting the teacher to make their dissent known on the form if they so wish.

We may not like the way the Government has introduced performance management, but regular lesson observation is a baby that is well worth retrieving from the somewhat dirty bathwater in which it sits.

Iain MacDonald was for six years a head of English in the West Midlands. He now teaches in Cornwall

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