What a performance when an observer calls

19th March 2004 at 00:00
It's 9.30am and you're standing in front of 30 demanding 10-year-olds, persuading them that changing a mixed number to an improper fraction is not only easy, but also useful and fun. By 11.30, you're being equally enthusiastic about writing a book review. And by 2.30pm, you're encouraging these same children to paint a landscape, having, half an hour earlier, supervised their experiments on floating and sinking. And all the time someone is observing you doing it, assessing not only every nuance of your performance, but also the reaction of the class. That you feel under considerable pressure is an understatement.

Despite monitoring becoming part of the school fabric, even excellent teachers find it anything but routine. Their hearts sink when they hear they are to be observed; their confidence disappears. But why are lesson observations such an ordeal? Why do they lead to such stress - stress that will increase with Ofsted's recent proposal to inspect with little or no notice?

All professions have to account for what they do and are scrutinised in some way, but I'm not aware that they spend their working lives dreading it, as teachers do. In most other professions, monitoring is done in a specially convened meeting. Working methods are examined, performance is discussed. Questions are asked and explanations given. And that's the difference - teachers don't just discuss their performance, they must live it in front of an inspector. Bizarrely, the outcome also depends on the compliance of 30 or so unpredictable children. No wonder it's an ordeal.

And as any actor will confirm, a performance requires a high level of adrenalin. It puts the performer under pressure.

Any lesson that doesn't "go well" can dent a teacher's confidence. Several less-than-good lessons can shatter that confidence with disastrous results.

Thus teachers find the monitoring process a strain and so deserve the courtesy of being allowed to prepare for a performance that can affect their career. I recently heard of a school in special measures where the staff were given no notice of observation to prevent them preparing special (and, by implication, unrepresentative) lessons. There's a myth that a warning results in exciting - but phoney - lessons. Not so: teachers who are incapable of exceptional lessons will not suddenly produce them because they're told in advance of a visit.

Would you say your performance in the classroom sets the children on fire with enthusiasm? Most teachers would say it does some of the time, but not for every lesson of the teaching year. You can't work on a permanent high.

Most primary teachers still teach all day, every day, without respite and with no non-contact time. It's unreasonable to expect them to be consistently brilliant. Sometimes they need to do a straightforward, good, but relaxing lesson. And sometimes their long-suffering pupils also need a break from responding with huge swathes of enthusiasm.

Teachers dread being observed because they feel they're on trial in a way that seems unique to the profession. A relationship between a teacher and his or her class can also be personal. They feel this relationship is being examined, as well as the lesson itself, and see this is as intrusive. A sensitive and considerate approach to observations should include the opportunity to know when one is going to take place. After all, if you're going to give a dazzling performance, you might as well do it while an inspector is watching.

Sue Leyland recently retired as a Year 6 teacher. She lives in north Yorkshire

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