First Step - Observing Colleagues - Look, listen and learn

13th March 2009 at 00:00
Watch other teachers and then try their techniques - and avoid their mistakes

Many of the best ideas are stolen, or so it is said. Observing lessons not only develops an appreciation of learning styles and abilities, but also can help you see how not to teach.

For Michelle Martin, 22, a new teacher at The Highway Primary in Orpington, Kent, discovering that she should employ a range of behaviour management techniques for different pupils and classes was one of the most helpful things she learnt from observing colleagues.

"All classes are different, so it's important to watch a range of teachers and lessons and then test the techniques to learn what works best for you and your class," she says.

Observations will provide you with tips for approaches you might not have considered, such as how to get the attention of the class without screaming, says Tom Hughes, an experienced teacher and foreign languages co-ordinator at St Mary's Primary in Halifax. He suggests holding your hand in the air until everyone in the class has noticed and copies you in silence.

You might also get ideas for appropriate reward systems for good behaviour and punishments for bad behaviour. "All teachers have copied how they do these things from someone else," says Mr Hughes.

Lesson observations are a requirement on most training courses. You may have a mentor who arranges them on your behalf, but you can also take the initiative and approach teachers you would like to observe. While they are not obliged to let you, most will be happy to, as they were in your shoes once.

Nevertheless, it is important to think about how you approach your colleague. Offer yourself as a support teacher who could work with individuals or small groups, suggests James Williams, a chartered science teacher and lecturer in education at the University of Sussex.

Aim to watch teachers across a range of subjects. Not only will you pick up different teaching methods, but you will also get to see how pupils react in different lessons.

"Seeing them in history and then science, for example, can show pupils in different lights. The shy scientist could be an enthusiastic historian," Mr Williams explains. "Once you know this, you could engage that pupil in science by injecting a little history of science to your lessons."

You should also watch lessons conducted by teachers spanning a range of levels, including teaching assistants, says Sara Bubb, a specialist in teacher induction at London University's Institute of Education. "Don't always observe experienced and successful teachers. You'll learn a great deal from watching other trainees, new teachers, assistants and supply teachers," she says.

Before you sit in on a class, decide what sort of observation you would like to make and what you want to focus on. Consult the teacher on this; he or she might even appreciate you making notes on something that could help in improving their own teaching. Ideally, you should link the session to something that you have problems with or want to develop, such as the pace of your introductions, says Ms Bubb.

Many newly qualified teachers have a tendency to focus on classroom and behaviour management during observations, Mr Williams says. Try to avoid this and make sure you look at the other key aspects of lessons, such as the plan and content, the use of resources and particularly the learning outcomes, he advises.

Whatever focus you decide on, try to get involved, says Mr Hughes. "Be helpful and ask questions, even if they seem trivial. And try to do the majority of your note-taking after the lesson if you can. This allows you to take part and is also likely to make the teacher feel less nervous," he suggests.

At the end of your observation, see if you could construct the lesson plan, identifying starter activities, points where new learning was introduced and times when the teacher found out what the pupils knew.

Finally, take care of what you note. Don't write anything that you are not prepared to share with the teacher as they may ask you for a copy, as well as feedback.

How you present your feedback is important, says Mr Williams. "Remember that no teacher is perfect and we can all learn from others. Acknowledge that people approach teaching in different ways and that there is no one right way to teach," he says.

Next week: Being assessed


- Sit in on lessons covering a range of subjects, led by teachers at different levels.

- When approaching teachers to observe, offer your assistance as a support teacher.

- Decide on a focus for the observation; link it to something that has been an issue for you.

- Discuss your focus with the teacher before the lesson.

- Be prepared to give a copy of your notes and any feedback to the teacher.

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