No cabaret act, just good at doing our jobs

8th September 2006 at 01:00
Observation devalues experienced teachers who might not have the spark of NQTs, writes Colin Padgett

What do you think formal lesson observations are for? We're told they support staff development, but often they simply seem to put teachers on edge. At their worst, they do little more than help managers justify their non-teaching existence.

After 30 years of informal observation, I've come to the conclusion that teachers have three responses. First, there are those who don't mind being watched but refuse to put on a show just because someone with a clipboard is in the room. (Ironically, they seem to be the ones who end up on "capability".) Then there are those who rarely produce a recognisable lesson plan, fly by the seat of their pants and ignore national subject criteria and school policies. More irony: this same preference for "winging it" also enables them to prepare a one-off tour de force. Virtually everyone else fills the third category. It doesn't matter whether you are good, bad or indifferent, you feel nervous when you're watched and therefore perform poorly.

You could say formal lesson observations help us put people into categories. However, I've never needed to do a formal lesson observation to know which category a colleague occupies. And they're not valid because teachers' performances are responses to being watched. Advocates insist they are for support. This might be true for informal peer observation, but my experience is that all other observers use them to aid the delivery of judgments.

To test this, consider the contexts of formal observations. They are part of performance management and may be linked to promotion or redundancy.

They are also linked to upper pay spine criteria, and are often connected with moving off a salary point which you've been stuck on for years. They can be part of an internal school review, so senior management, driven by their own accountability, will always find something that we need to do better. And finally, good old Of-sted. They have removed the months of waiting agony, but their fewer observations are targeted and will make staff all the more anxious about their eventual judgments.

Not only are observations judgmental, but they ignore what make teachers of significant value to their school: experience and record. I do not believe a teacher should be "immune from prosecution" just because of longevity, but, unless weaknesses have begun to show in a number of ways, is it sensible to assume that someone with many years of experience can easily do the "all-singingall-dancing" of a 25-year-old? Furthermore, if the experienced teacher's classroom is orderly and quiet (one less room for senior managers to be called to because of behaviour problems) is it not counterproductive to tell them to stop being reliable and consistent and start being "sparky"?

And then there is "record". A teacher's lessons might be deemed dull, by current definitions, but if hisher exam results are as good as, better than, or at least more consistent than colleagues' results, should he or she be failed for not "ticking all the boxes"? The obsession with lesson styles and the narrow adherence to criteria demoralise decent staff and elevate the status of inexperienced teachers.

We have all seen bright NQTs deliver "box ticking" lessons, with laptop, projector, interactive whiteboard and surplus energy. Yet have we not also wondered why the children did not stop talking? Similarly, many of us have supported these colleagues by having their bad pupils in our rooms, or by going to their room to "read the riot act", or even having to send for a senior manager. Yet how many of us have nevertheless been told by our managers that a lesson observation of that same teacher ticked all the boxes, so we ought to try to teach the same way?

I would like all the observers to resume teaching. I invite them to stop giving us facile judgments of our teaching styles. If they must clamp down on approaches to teaching and learning, could they begin by demanding that the children conform to some sort of ideal first? Only non-teachers will then be surprised to discover how many teachers turn out to be successful.

Colin Padgett teaches in north-west Essex

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