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Big Brother is watching

Are visions of George Orwell's 1984 lurking at the back of your mind? Observing your colleagues need not be scary, writes Sara Bubb

Observation is a powerful tool for professional development - for the person observing and the one being observed. Used well, it gives a detailed picture and can stimulate some useful reflection on teaching and learning. The trouble is is that it has been associated with inspection and destructive, punitive and excessive monitoring.

Peer observation - observing each other for mutual benefit - is a great solution. But don't be fooled into seeing this as easy and free continuing professional development. Unless it's set up properly, it risks being too cosy, of perhaps perpetuating the status quo - and even mediocrity.

On the other hand, there's potential for offence and upset and damaged relationships. Teachers need to be trained in peer observation techniques and protocol - poor observation and feedback experiences make people defensive. Teachers' egos are fragile. Everyone needs to buy in to the principle of peer observation equally and to trust each other. They need to know that their peer isn't going to go bad-mouthing them in the staffroom or to the head.

Peer observation takes time and organisation. Who will cover the teacher who is observing? It needs planning and discussing beforehand as well as after the lesson. Observing so that one gets something out of it is not easy. There's so much to see that it's easy to be overwhelmed. People need to have a focus.

But when it works, it's great. For a teacher on The TES website's online staffroom, it was just right: "I was told a few times that I needed to give my lessons more pace - which I fully accepted - but I wasn't able to work out how do this, or which parts of my lessons weren't pacy enough. It was only when I saw a newly qualified teacher in my own subject teach a lesson that I got what they meant about pace, because she was too slow as well."

Roy Watson-Davis, an advanced skills teacher at Blackfen school for girls in Bexley, Kent, has helped departments set up buddy systems where advice and support come from peers, not managers. They become more effective without the fear about "judgments from above". He favours "learning threes", where three staff members are teamed up across subjects and uses the "plan two, deliver one" approach where they help plan each others'

lessons, then observe each other teach. He warns of pitfalls, however, if there isn't what he describes as "an element of structure and formality".

Three newly qualified teachers at Telferscot primary in Balham in Lambeth, south London, have been encouraged in peer observation by their induction tutor, Eliza Head. Behaviour was an issue for all of them so they decided to focus on that for their observations.

When Year 1 teacher Rebecca Self was observed, she made an effort to use as many strategies for behaviour as she could, not only to help her friends but to prove to herself what she could do. Nursery teacher Becky Willson was reassured that she was doing fine because there were so many similarities across their teaching. She found that she was able to learn more because everything was more relaxed than in an official observation.

Because Ms Willson and Ms Self casually pointed out how often Lucy Stewart, who teaches Year 3, used the word "excellent", she's now varying how she praises.

Peer observation is stressful - so in a sense things get worse before they get better, but it is worth getting over initial discomfort or reluctance and shyness about being observed and sharing problems with colleagues. Ms Steward admitted: "Filling in an observation feedback sheet on your friend is scary: there's such a responsibility to get it right."

The conversations after the observation are where the real learning happens - what the General Teaching Council has called "learning conversations".

For instance, Ms Stewart noticed that one or two of the children in her colleagues' classes were "away with the fairies, which reminded me to think about those kind of children in my class".

It's cheering to see that everyone has similar problems and fascinating to study the different ways people manage them. One person says: "While watching exemplar teachers gives you great techniques that you strive to emulate, watching inexperienced teachers shows you more effectively why certain things that you are doing aren't working much better than a feedback report does."

Sara Bubb's new book Helping Teachers Develop will be published in September by SagePaul Chapman and The TES

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