First Step - All eyes on the prize

6th March 2009 at 00:00
Take full advantage of being observed at this stage in your career. Your colleagues are there to help, not hinder you

Kate Baty was at a dead end. Strategies to avoid the disruption caused to her lessons by persistent latecomers had failed and she was left wondering what to do next. It was only when she asked a more experienced colleague to observe one of her lessons with the class that she hit on a solution.

Her observer suggested she ask the latecomers to wait outside until she had finished giving out instructions, and then she would talk to them about the lesson. So far it seems to have worked.

"It was getting to the point where I didn't know how to deal with it, so it was useful to have someone else watch me and give me ideas," says Mrs Baty, a newly qualified part-time English teacher at Sandbach High School and Sixth Form College in Cheshire. "It gave me more confidence in class, rather than having pupils wandering around for the first 10 minutes of the lesson."

The best advice she has had about being observed is not to try to make the lesson a special, all-singing all-dancing affair. "You have to make an effort, but they don't want to see that you're throwing everything at it," she says. However, even though being observed can be useful, it doesn't make it any less nerve-wracking. Mrs Baty says formal observations can be daunting. "It is scary. I get really, really nervous," she says.

It helps to agree a focus for the lesson observation beforehand, whether it is classroom management, a particular topic or how an individual pupil is responding. Asking the observer to concentrate on one thing can also give you a sense of control over the experience.

"The observation has to be owned by the person being observed," says Richard Cox, induction tutor and deputy head at Valley Primary in Bromley, Kent. "If they ask you to look at one area, then they are more likely to take notice of the comments you make."

Informal observations can complement the six mandatory formal observations in a probationer's year. But even this is a stark change from the PGCE year, when a teacher is present in every lesson. "The feedback is always helpful," says Alex Dunlop, who is taking a secondary science PGCE at London University's Institute of Education. "You always get constructive criticism."

One change he has made as a result of an observation is to pick pupils at random to answer questions, rather than waiting for them to put their hands up, which can mean the same pupils answer all the time.

Mr Cox says that NQTs should take advantage of the opportunities being observed gives them. "It is not there to damage you; it is there to support you," he says. He also encourages them to observe lessons themselves.

One mistake many new teachers make when being observed is in trying to stick too closely to their lesson plan, Mr Cox says. "They think you are going to criticise them if they don't keep to their lesson plan. But you want to see them assessing as they teach and how they react to what is happening."

Another common mistake is a tendency to rush a lesson; and it is easy to concentrate on either the most able or the least able children, neglecting those in the middle.

But what do you do if you are being observed and it all goes wrong? Often, the trick to surviving is not to despair, but keep on going. During Mrs Baty's PGCE training at Manchester Metropolitan University, trouble loomed when the interactive whiteboard would not work. Fortunately, she had printed resources and could carry on with the lesson. "It felt like the biggest disaster," she says. "But afterwards the observer said I hadn't seemed fazed. I managed to hide it quite well."

Next week: Observing others

WHAT TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK

- Make the lesson as normal as possible, at least for informal observations. Feedback will be much more useful if it is your usual type of lesson, rather than one where you've pulled out all the stops.

- Speak to the observer about what they are going to focus on, and suggest areas you would like them to look at, where possible.

- Be prepared to adjust your lesson plan to take into account what happens in class.

- Have many observations - the more you have, the less nerve-wracking they will be.

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