There is a knock at your office door: it's a teacher from the English department. You offer her a seat. As you both settle yourselves, you try to judge her mood: is she here to report an issue or to ask for advice? You prepare for the worst. And then she says something surprising: "I was wondering if you could come and observe a few of my lessons."
The scenario may seem unlikely: many teachers fear observations and will do anything to avoid one. However, this is not usually to do with observation per se but how it is carried out. Too often observations are punitive, hostile investigations seeking fault. They should be the opposite: a way for the teacher and observer to work together to improve practice, where positives are celebrated and negatives are identified, targeted and followed up. If you create this environment, there is no reason why a teacher would not ask for an observation. So how can we, as observers, make sure this happens?
Remember to smile
Enter the classroom with a smile on your face - you have not snuck in to catch the teacher at their worst, you have entered with the hope of seeing their best. A smile communicates this. You should ensure that the teacher feels as comfortable as possible with your presence so they can focus on the learners rather than you. This is achieved by subtle behaviours that alter the power within a space, such as coming in with the students rather than waiting in the empty room for both teacher and learners to enter. Intimidating the teacher is counterproductive to your quest for quality.
Focus on the learners
You are not there to assess a teacher's "performance"; rather, you are there to assess how much learning has taken place during the observation. This means that you absolutely should not sit at the back of the room for the duration of the lesson - how can you check the learning from there? Instead, you need to sit among the students, talk to them (when it is not likely to affect the lesson) to assess whether they are clear about learning objectives and how their tasks will help to achieve them, check their notes and look through their folders. Immerse yourself in the lesson in order to assess learner progress.
Start the conversation by asking the teacher how they felt about the lesson - did it go well? Did it go to plan? If they reply that it didn't and go on to outline what went wrong and why, you have a highly reflective teacher who knows what good teaching, learning and assessment looks like, and recognises why they missed the mark this time. Here, it is often prudent to ask whether the teacher would like to be observed again at a later date.
One of the most enjoyable parts of being an observer is being able to tell a teacher that what you experienced in their classroom was exceptional teaching, learning and assessment. To be told that you are doing an amazing job is a wonderful feeling and being in a position to tell a teacher such news is a privilege.
Be cautious when views differ
When the teacher disagrees with your judgement, tread carefully. You do not want to sap their confidence. It is productive to be honest with them about your concerns but be positive about the actions they can take in order to overcome the issues impeding effective learning. It is also important to clearly signpost the support available to them.
Don't take it personally
Invariably, some teachers will be upset by aspects of your feedback. Don't take this personally - your observations would have been matched by any other observer (as long as we assume effective standardisation processes exist within your school or college). Just make sure that the teacher's line manager is aware of the situation and ready to offer support for their development.
Plan for improvement
The lesson observation process is futile if not supported by Smart (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-related) targets for how a teacher can improve.
The most effective way to achieve this is to set out an action plan after each observation, created in partnership with the teacher. This should outline what the issue was, how the teacher can work to overcome it (with support), what improvement will look like and a date for when improvement will be assessed. Such a plan gives the teacher the ability to manage their own performance.
Action plans need to be reviewed regularly by the teacher's line manager, the quality team or both. They should form a perpetual track of a teacher's progress and improvement.
Hayley Ryan works for a general further education college on the South Coast