Watch closely, there's a lesson to be learnt

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Under the threshold: How to make class observations work for you

The words lesson observation can strike fear into even the most experienced teacher's heart. While there are obvious benefits to being observed, such as the opportunity to demonstrate strengths and acquire constructive feedback, many find the experience highly stressful.

Naomi Jefferson is one such teacher. "I'm in a good school now, and it has a more positive approach to lesson observations," says the Northamptonshire primary teacher. "But I'm still smarting from some bad experiences early in my career, which means I still get really anxious.

"In my previous school, we'd get only a day or two's notice before an observation - hardly time to prepare. Feedback was scant and you'd feel as thought you were being judged rather than observed. We all dreaded that note in our pigeonhole telling us we were about to be observed."

Andy Ballard, branch secretary for Somerset at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), says Ms Jefferson is not alone: "Lots of teachers get freaked out by having 'the boss' watch them. This is particularly common with less experienced teachers, who may worry about jeopardising their chance of promotion."

The good news is that more schools and educational organisations are developing models of good practice in relation to lesson observations. As Mr Ballard explains: "The ATL has a set of protocols which have been adopted by some LEAs as good practice. It certainly puts the whole exercise on a professional footing and is much less threatening as it promotes a supportive model and reduces stress for everyone involved."

The ATL principles include guidelines on what should happen before and after a lesson observation. Recommendations included teachers and observers agreeing on the focus of the lesson well in advance and prompt verbal and written feedback (within two working days).

At Kingsmead primary school in Cheshire, head Catriona Stewart has held two Inset sessions this year on lesson observations. Staff worked collaboratively on establishing purposes and protocols for lesson observations. "We have three kinds of observation," she says.

"There's peer observation, when colleagues act as a 'critical friend' to one another. Staff request these observations themselves, as appropriate.

They are required to give written feedback, which I don't see. Then there are observations from subject co-ordinators or team leaders and the focus is usually around our school development plan.

"Then there's headteacher observations. We'll try to give each other feedback - verbal and written - on the same day, if possible. Although it's in the early stages, the system is working well because staff have been fully involved in the decision-making process."

Ms Stewart's advice for teachers is to "give it all you've got". "You get some teachers who'll say 'Oh well, I'm just going to do what I'd normally do. They'll have to take me as they find me', but I think that's wrong. You have to give it your best - it's respectful to the observer," she says.

Thorough preparation and planning are crucial. Activities need to be appropriate to the age and ability of the class and demonstrate your ability to differentiate and facilitate tasks which appeal to a variety of learning styles.Brief teaching assistants on lesson content and include details in your plans of how they will be employed during the lesson. Any ICT equipment or resources should be given a trial run in advance of the lesson.

More experienced practitioners may advise "playing it safe" during a lesson observation, but innovation - providing it is well planned - can impress, as Merseyside-based English teacher Abi Watts recalls: "When I was an NQT, I was teaching The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes to some low ability Year 7s.

"I had this crazy idea about dressing up as the characters and getting the students doing some role play. When I strode into the classroom 'Zorro-like' complete with eye mask, tricorn hat and black cloak, I thought I'd made a big mistake, but the children loved it. Afterwards, the head shook my hand and said it was the most entertaining lesson he'd seen in years."

When being observed, it also pays to be a "clock watcher". Use a simple lesson structure - with a starter, main activity and plenary - and stick closely to your timings. Take your eye off the clock and you may find yourself galloping through half your meticulously planned lesson.

Don't be afraid to be flexible, however. If an activity isn't working, or is working better than you thought, it is fine to deviate a little from your lesson plan, as long as you can explain your reasons for doing this to the observer at the end of the lesson.

Evaluation time is vital. Use the plenary activity for students to demonstrate what they learnt in the lesson, preferably something they didn't know at the start.

So what happens if the observation doesn't go as well as anticipated? If you can identify where it went wrong and suggest strategies for improvement, the observer should be satisfied. Another solution, says Mr Ballard, is to ask for another observation: "Observations should be viewed as an opportunity for development, so when they go wrong, it shouldn't be the end of the world. Giving it another crack can help the teacher to restore their confidence."

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