‘The nightmare of graded lesson observations is ending, at last – and some good can come out of it'

Once they’re completely dead and buried, there might be something we can resuscitate which will genuinely help teachers' personal professional development, argues one teacher-writer

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Sweaty palms; panic-stricken dashes to the photocopier; a meltdown as you missed the inclusion of numeracy and literacy in the lesson plan; swift checks of registers to see which angels and demons will be in class. This was me, back in 2008, at the end of my initial teacher training, preparing for another formal observation.

In those days, these one-off, hour-long ordeals were make-or-break, do-or-die gigs. If they went well, it was ecstasy: “I’m such a good teacher – I’m doing such a good job." If they went wrong, an outbreak of anxiety, self-doubt and painful introspection could easily follow.

In 2009, I experienced the latter after an observation I had with a local education officer. It was a kind of rehearsal for an official inspection. Up to this point, I thought – from everything that I had done and was doing – that things were great. But in this particular lesson, I didn’t have time for the plenary. Back then, this was enough for the lesson to be graded a 3. The feedback was: “Good lesson but no plenary." The bit I remember isn’t the feedback itself, but a couple of colleagues telling each other that they were good and outstanding, following their own successful observations. I wasn’t – I was "requires improvement".

Back then, such an outcome really meant something; you were only ever as good as your last result, as they say in the Premier League. The funniest thing was when a teacher renowned for being awful was graded outstanding. Not only did they genuinely believe they were outstanding, but the two years of middle and senior leaders giving feedback to the contrary was metaphorically flushed down the toilet. This did happen.

These pieces of theatre didn’t happen before about 1990. The introduction of league tables by an inspectorate with teeth ushered in an era of unprecedented accountability. Furthermore, a generation of adults had come through who had experienced some pretty poor teaching when they were kids. Their experience of school was in some cases shaped by dictation, the cane and, above all, teachers who sat at desks and didn’t seem to do a whole lot. From this perception sprang the “teachers leave at 3pm and have 13 weeks of holiday” brigade. It was time for revenge. And through the lesson observation, they had on opportunity to serve it up cold on anyone they wanted.

Suddenly education was dealing with the high-stakes roulette wheel of the “one-off graded lesson observation”, still in existence in a number of schools, still causing the turmoil it always did. In a recent (unscientific) Twitter poll, of nearly 2,000 teachers, some 34 per cent said they still experienced the one-off, graded lesson observation as a form of performance management.

'Change the culture around observation'

Nevertheless, times are a changing.

Since circa 2010, we have seen more and more schools adopting a holistic approach to judging teacher quality. So, while yesterday’s teacher was rated on three lesson observations over a school year, they are now judged in a similar fashion, but using a much wider range of factors including; book reviews, learning walks (mini-observations), student data and even student voice (talking to students in and out of lessons). In other words, rather than three points of judgement, it’s now about 30. That doesn’t mean the stakes are lower, not with performance-related pay, but certainly there’s a broader palette being used.

As much as I still struggle to believe that teachers can be evaluated successfully and consistently using any system, this one seems better.

While the future of the observation as a tool for judging teacher performance might be on the wane, its value in terms of teacher self-evaluation could rise. Personally, I hope it does. I got so much out of filming myself teaching during my NQT year; most notably I realised my over-reliance on the word “folks” – using it about 18 times – ouch. Recently I spoke to Greg Thornton, a teacher at Meols Cop High School in Merseyside, where the top brass has offered staff the opportunity to have their lessons recorded. It’s not enforced, but every teacher has an option whether to share their recording with colleagues or not.

He told me this of his experience: “The option to have your lesson recorded has been available for the last couple of years, but I finally thought I would give it a go. After initial nervousness, you soon forget the cameras are in the room and it becomes just a regular lesson. It was once I reviewed the footage that I realised the power of this tool.

“I have watched it a number of times following the class, looking at key parts of the lesson, making notes and reviewing exactly ‘What went well’ and ‘Even better if...’. I’m lucky that I have such supportive colleagues – I don’t have any concerns about sharing my footage with my team and manager.”

When observations are zero-stakes and filmed, the power can be transformative. Firstly, it takes away anyone’s personal perception on the progress of students. Second, it can be less obtrusive with some companies now offering technology allowing teachers to be recorded without another adult present (to get a more genuine reflection). 

I have also witnessed an “observation room”. This is a classroom with a sound-proof “fake” mirror installed at the back, allowing for groups of teachers to observe a lesson and discuss it in real time without physically being in the room. Different teachers are timetabled into the room for “normal” lessons and teachers can come and go as they please. I think this is a brilliant idea.

But again, this will only work if the culture and ethos surrounding the word “observation” can be changed. It will only happen when critiquing your own performance and that of others comes at no risk or cost. Perhaps we can get there. I sincerely hope so.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory

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