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Just pretend I'm not here

Lesson observations should not be things to dread. Self-evaluation should be the focus, writes Rebecca Catt

Being observed: some staff love it and see it as a chance to share good practice and show their teaching prowess. Others hate it, seeing a lesson observation as a parallel experience to being stripped naked and forced to perform conjuring tricks as part of an Inset session. But it's not only those who are being observed who feel the pressure. What about the observer, who is expected to offer support, praise, constructive criticism, helpful advice - all with limited training and guidance?

Observing someone teach is an intimate affair and giving another teacher feedback is notoriously tricky. It involves a relationship with an uncertain power balance in a situation which is often not voluntary.

There can also be an uncertainty as to what teachers want from being observed: some want instant solutions to long-term issues, others want to impress, others just want to be reassured they are doing a good job. So how can we bridge the gap between the observer and the observed and make it a positive experience for both parties?

It does not seem long ago that I was an NQT desperately looking for guidance and approval on what I was doing in the classroom. My first observation was disastrous. I decided to be "flashy" and do an all-singing all-dancing speaking and listening assessment. An incident involving an orange and an open window and much more speaking than listening (or shouting on my part) meant I was not hopeful of a positive report at the end.

However, to my surprise, my mentor pushed me a piece of paper with a sketchy outline of the lesson, gave me an embarrassed smile and thanked me for my time. When I alluded to the fact the lesson did not go exactly to plan, she admitted there could have been "improvements" but did not elaborate. I felt disappointed; how could I begin to improve when a more experienced colleague could not offer me advice?

When I relayed this story to my NQT friends, I found they had each had different experiences of being observed. One recalled how her mentor had reduced her to tears by a harsh and rigorous analysis of her teaching.

Another said his mentor had praised him in an unadulterated torrent of positivity even though he knew the lesson had not been that good. His respect for her dwindled; if she did not have the knowledge or courage to point out where he could enhance his skills, he felt there was a limit to what he could learn from her.

A few years on, I am faced with the same problem from a different perspective. I am now the proud mentor of a shiny-eyed NQT called Belinda.

I first saw her teach a meticulously planned lesson with a noisy Year 8 class. The activities were engaging, the learning outcomes explicit; the only snag was that the pupils did not listen to a word she said. At the end I went through what worked well and praised her ideas.

Then there was a pause. Crunch time had come. I suddenly realised how difficult this was. I felt woefully inexperienced; after all, I was only two years out of being an NQT myself and Belinda and I often have a laugh together in the staffroom. I saw our relationship disintegrating. She came to my rescue. "They don't listen to me do they?"

We spent the next half-hour discussing why that was and how she could work with the class to assert her status as "teacher". Using self evaluation, Belinda had enabled us both to discuss her lesson comfortably and constructively.

My school recently started an initiative for teachers called "peer coaching". The term "coaching" has different connotations from "mentor".

Mentor implies experience and hierarchy; to coach someone is to guide him or her. Peer coaching involves two colleagues observing each other through choice; because they want to share good practice or see how another department works.

During each observation, the teacher writes a detailed account of what happens in the lesson, without passing comment or opinion. The pair then sit down together using a series of open-ended questions designed to prompt analysis and reflection without being influenced by the impressions of the observer:

"Why did you choose the seating plan?"

"What made you decide to move Ben at that point in the lesson?"

"What do you think the pupils learnt by the end of the lesson?"

The most difficult thing about this process is remaining impartial.

Teachers are used to giving praise and I found it hard not to say what I enjoyed about the lesson or what I myself had learnt.

Next time I observe Belinda teach I will do her a favour and say very little. Giving a colleague advice can be valuable, but enabling them to help themselves is much more constructive. After all, we spend our days encouraging our pupils to think independently, take responsibility for their performance, and to reflect on their own actions. Why should our relationship with our colleagues be any different?

Rebecca Catt teaches English at a Reading secondary school. Names have been changed

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