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The spying game

Classroom observers can be a great help or a nuisance, depending on their methods. Sara Bubb on how to watch and learn.

Teachers are being observed more than ever before. At best, it can give them a clear picture of their work and can be used to help set focused objectives for professional development. But too often its impact is reduced because it is done poorly. Too little attention is given to training in observation techniques and practice.

The value of observation depends on how well it is planned, carried out and discussed afterwards. Performance management means it is more essential than ever that it is done well.

Being an observer demands complex skills which need to be learned and practised. It is essential that observers consider the context and focus of the observation.

Before the observation * Agree dates and times not only for the observation but also for the feedback, giving yourself time to reflect and write notes. Work on the assumption that every hour's observation will need a further hour-and-a-half for reflection and preparation for the oral and written feedback.

* Ensure that you and the teacher are clear about the purpose and focus of the observation. What will you be looking at? Why?

* Discuss ground rules such as how your presence is to be explained to the class, whether a lesson plan will be available, what you are going to do, where you should sit, your time of arrival and departure.

* Choose a format that will help you record what you need. Write prompts about whatever your focus is.

During the observation * Read the lesson plan, paying particular attention to the learning objective. Is it a sensible objective and how is it shared with the children? Annotate the plan showing what parts went well, when the pace slowed and so forth.

* While the children are busy, move around to ascertain the effectiveness of the teacher's explanation, organisation and choice of task. Look at several groups to see if everyone's needs are being met.

* Make notes, focusing on the agreed areas, but keeping your eyes open to everything. Try to tell the story of the lesson by noting cause and effect. For instance, what was it about the teacher's delivery that held th children's attention or made them fidget?

* Think about the pupils' learning and what it is about the teaching that helps or hinders it. Note what the children actually achieve. Teachers are not always aware that some children have only managed to write the date and that others have exceeded expectations.

* Don't interfere.

* Remember that your presence will have an effect on the pupils; they will often be better behaved. It is sometimes useful to leave the room for five minutes and loiter nearby to see if the noise level rises. Get a feel for the atmosphere as you go back in. This can also be used when the lesson is going badly because it gives the teacher an opportunity to pull the class together.

* Look friendly and positive throughout, even (and especially) if things aren't going well. Say something positive to the teacher as you leave the class. The teacher will be very anxious, and will almost always think the worst unless reassured.

After the observation * Think about what you have seen, focusing on its strengths and areas for development. You need to have "the big picture" to convey it to the teacher.

* Plan what you'll say. Remember that it needs to be useful. You should avoid the extremes of crushing the teacher or giving the impression that things are better than they really are.

* Ask the teacher how he or she thought it went, and why. Try to ask questions to guide their thinking about the children's learning, but not in a way that intimidates or implies criticism.

* Summarise what the teacher says. This will help you concentrate on what is being said and give you a clear understanding of what the teacher thinks.

* Be positive and upbeat throughout. Sandwich potentially negative comments between positive ones. Be sensitive to how the teacher is taking your feedback, and ease off if necessary. Give a copy of the lesson observation summary notes to the teacher.

Sara Bubb teaches primary PGCE students and runs courses on monitoring teaching and induction at the University of London Institute of Education. Her book, The Effective Induction of Newly Qualified Primary Teachers: an induction tutor's handbook, will be published in June by David Fulton

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