Classroom practice - How to be the real you in a lesson observation
There is an alien presence in the classroom. The students know it. You know it. But no one acknowledges it. There's nothing to see here, OK? We're all behaving completely normally. This is just another ordinary lesson ...
That's the theory, anyway: being observed is meant to have no bearing on how or what you teach. There may be someone in the room who is responsible for your continued employment, someone who is judging your every breath and look, but don't think about that. They want to see the real you.
But for even the most confident teachers, this is completely impossible. Having someone in the classroom changes how a teacher behaves and how a class behaves; make that someone an official observer and those changes will be even more pronounced.
Often, this will have a negative impact on teaching, leading to forgetfulness, talking too much, being over the top or behaving unnaturally with students. But excelling while being observed is far from impossible. There are strategies that can help you to get as close as possible to being the real you, while ensuring that the lesson - and your teaching - is as good as it can be.
The four areas you need to focus on are: preparation, damage limitation, knowing yourself and reassessing best practice.
Preparation is partly about feeling safe. When someone feels unsafe they tend to act irrationally and often fixate on previous criticisms. Told that you're not lively enough? Mini fireworks are not the brilliant idea you think they are: being "on fire" literally rather than metaphorically is a distinct possibility. Criticised for lecturing too much? An experimental lesson where you communicate only in mime is not the answer. Behaviour management questioned? Corporal punishment is still banned in most countries, so put the big stick down.
Obviously, don't ignore issues with your teaching that have been picked up on before: good preparation is about proportionally assessing the particulars of the criticism and working on the advice given. If the feedback was not comprehensive enough, seek out better feedback.
Preparation is also about looking at the framework by which you will be judged. Find out in advance what criteria the observer will be using: it should be no secret, and if it is you should question whether the process is fair or legitimate. Take this criteria and ensure that you meet the objectives in the lesson. That is not to say that this should dictate your practice, but it should definitely inform it.
Which brings us to the practice itself. The lesson needs to be well planned. You need to know why and how you are doing things so that when you enter the classroom you are completely confident. So confident, in fact, that you should feel comfortable taking a couple of minutes when the class are working or after the lesson to give the observer an insight into your thinking. The observer sees only the surface of your lesson; they do not see the reasoning that led to your decisions. So tell them.
Things go wrong in classrooms. Although you can't predict with any accuracy how children, technology, ageing buildings, the weather, leadership teams or colleagues are going to behave, you can have a good guess and plan accordingly.
You need a back-up plan, and that plan should employ a little perspective. For example, the projector breaking down is a surer bet than the classroom ceiling caving in, just as a troubled student running out of the room is more likely than the class clown setting fire to the wastepaper bin.
For the pastoral side of things, if you have the ingredients in a class that make an incident likely, be ready for it. What will you do if a child leaves the room in tears? What will you say to a student who kicks off at you and other children? If something like this does happen, you need to ensure that you are able to deal with it effectively.
In terms of practical elements, have a back-up plan for the most likely problems. Print off a set of slides: you can work from these if the technology fails. Have two or three generic activities ready, just in case; these should be ones you use regularly and always work well. Prepare a "holding activity" that you can use, if necessary, to give yourself time to assess any unexpected situations.
Although we may hide behind a facade of ego, we all know where our bad habits lie. Part of the game of teaching is cultivating certain habits of personality in order to be successful and suppressing aspects that are of less help in the classroom.
The only way to ensure that your bad habits don't shine through is by keeping control of yourself in the act of teaching, listening to yourself, and assessing what you are doing and why you are doing it. This is hard to do while under the pressure of delivering a lesson and being observed, yet it is essential. So plan ahead.
If you tend to talk too much, set yourself a time limit and monitor the clock discreetly to make sure you don't overrun. If you speak too quietly when you are nervous, ask at the start whether all the students can hear you and, if they can, maintain that volume. If you tend to snap at children when you are under strain, count to three quietly every time you get the urge. And if you fail to listen to questions properly when you are under time pressure, build extra time into the lesson plan so that the pressure on you eases.
Reassessing best practice
Even the best teachers can get complacent about their teaching, and complacency can often lead to a stale lesson. Cast your mind back to your training and ask yourself the questions you posed back then. What makes a good lesson? What is good lesson structure? How do you engineer student engagement? How do you grab attention? How do you manage disruption or extreme behaviour? Don't just answer these questions using your own store of knowledge. Instead, seek out the latest thinking on these topics from colleagues, research journals and publications such as TESS.
Use the observation to challenge your own preconceptions. This can help you to fine-tune your existing strategies - make this plenary a little sharper; make that activity a little more focused - while introducing new ideas. The only note of caution to sound is that you should practise using a new idea before someone observes you doing so. It may look good on paper and even work well for colleagues, but it could prove completely incompatible with your own style.
And maintaining your own style is arguably the most crucial element of excelling while being observed. These strategies will help you to be as good as you can be within the context of the observation criteria, rather than get you to teach in a certain way. You may not be completely the real you while you are being observed, but excelling is about being the best you possible under the circumstances.
Mike Gershon is a teacher and trainer who has published a number of books on classroom practice. He shares his resources on TES Connect. His booklet How To Excel While Being Observed is part of the Teaching Compendium series available to members of TES Pro. Find it at www.tesconnect.comobservation.