Just an observation

6th May 2016 at 00:00

I’ve never had a bad observation. That isn’t to say that my classes don’t, like most people’s, veer from “high-fiving myself” to “skip full of shite” (they usually linger somewhere between the two). But the experience of observation never fails to be of use.

I defy you to hear anyone talk about observation without using the tired old “snapshot” metaphor. The term is so overused that it’s drained of meaning to me, like “calories” and “alcohol units”. We all know that a peep at your practice doesn’t represent its daily ebb and flow, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of value.

I’m due four observations in the next few months as part of a teaching qualification, so I’ve been thinking about why my relentlessly positive experiences are different to those I’ve heard about from colleagues. As my observations have taken place across the five organisations where I’ve worked and were conducted by a range of observers, it’s clear that the factor they have in common is me.

I would love to tell you that the reason for this happy experience is my pedagogical mastery, my powerful love for my students and my megawatt charisma – that observers have no choice but to fall in wonderment down the rabbit hole of my outstanding teachery. Unfortunately, none of that is true. The reason is ego. Nowt else.

Yes, owing to my whopping ego I’ve never viewed an observation as a judgement. Well that’s not quite true, there has been judgement, but the transaction was in the opposite direction to what was perhaps intended: I have done the judging.

Let me explain. I have always perceived observations as a personal mentoring session with someone whose purpose was to help me to improve my performance. That’s why I’ve relished feedback and quizzed observers to the hot edges of their patience. If their feedback doesn’t give me the means to improve, then the whole exercise will have been a pointless waste of time for both of us. And I take at least some responsibility for making sure that doesn’t happen.

None of this need be addressed from a position of hostility; I can’t think of a time when defensiveness has helped me. Owning my observation as an opportunity for personal growth is most important when the session includes extremes of triumph or disaster.

At best, it’s tempting to nod, look the observer in the eye and whisper “you’re welcome”. At worst, it’s tricky to avoid crumpling into a mess of snot and apologies, then skittering to a toilet cubicle to eat Crunchies and whimper for the rest of the day. Neither are of use. Learning from it is the point.

So as I look forward to a slew of observed sessions that I hope will make me better at my job, I urge you to greet observations in the same manner and ask: “What’s in it for me?”

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands


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