From The Editor - Just my observation, but feedback is your friend

13th July 2012 at 01:00

Last week Lauren Dalgarno was named teacher of the year at the TES Schools Awards. She won because she is a fantastic teacher whose imaginative lessons not only inspire her pupils but also energise her colleagues. In fact, so keen are they to learn from Ms Dalgarno that they stuck her in a classroom with a two-way mirror. Observation at her school is a thing to be celebrated. Good teachers there want to learn from exceptional teachers.

That does not seem to be a universal view. Observation, as far as some unions are concerned, is toxic (see pages 26-30). It is a tool of management deployed to undermine teachers who should be left undisturbed. To be observed is to be suspect. So heads should only be allowed grudging viewing rights: three hours a year.

From September that limitation will end. And two unions are threatening strikes to protest against, among other things, the prospect of unlimited observation. Why is a practice deemed praiseworthy by some viewed as anathema by others?

For a start, the name doesn't help. "Lesson observation" suggests that a teacher is being watched to detect deviant behaviour or suspect polyps. There is no indication of honest feedback, no suggestion that it should be an open transaction between professionals hoping to improve their practice. It's a label a clinician would apply to the process of assessing a mildly disturbed patient.

And it has been abused. Some heads have used lesson observation to intimidate and undermine. There again, a few unscrupulous heads have misused all kinds of measures to intimidate and undermine. That doesn't invalidate those measures. It merely shows that some heads are bastards. Using the unacceptable behaviour of a few to trash lesson observation is akin to dismissing democracy because Indira Gandhi stuffed a ballot box or two.

The real problem is perception. If observations are perceived to be about performance rather than development, if teachers aren't seen as partners but as victims, then the process will be skewered. But most teachers can distinguish help from intimidation. Most teachers and heads start from the same perspective: they want to learn and improve for the benefit of pupils.

This simple truth seems to escape the NASUWT in particular, which has become slightly unhinged over the issue. It seems to equate observations with dental visits, a practice to be endured not embraced. By seeking to limit observation to a few hours annually, it implicitly labels the practice as suspect, unpleasant and generally to be avoided.

Yet there is hope. Even the most conservative organisation can adapt. Years ago, the original NASUWT, founded to campaign against women teachers and equal pay, fought under the slogan "Men teachers for boys!" Its successors, realising that some slogans really don't travel well over time, have warmed to women to such an extent that they now have a female general secretary. The most unpromising students can surprise.

Perhaps, given time, even it will learn to accept that good teachers, like good professionals everywhere, benefit from being observed, that honest feedback is a necessary component of improvement and that observation should be welcomed not feared. And maybe one day it will stop raining and a Brit will win Wimbledon .


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