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Watch closely, there's a lesson to be learnt

Teacher observation has a vital role to play in continuing professional development, says David Halliday

ALL over Scotland there are teachers drowning. The majority are, of course, afloat - from those we envy, who seem to be walking on the water, down to that horde of good to mediocre swimmers. As for those who are drowning, we often don't notice them until it is too late. They wave to us over their coffee cups in the staffroom or as they dive into their classrooms in what, even in the 21st century, is still a very solitary job - that of the teacher.

While people perpetually surround us, they are invariably our pupils and there are few opportunities to collectively reflect with colleagues on how well we are teach-ing. Despite all that has been written and talked about improving teaching and learning, little is practically done to improve a teacher's ability to teach once they have gone through teacher training and their probationary period.

Unfortunately what we have done is jettison teacher observation - despite its vital role in teacher training - to rely instead on experience transforming that novice into a competent practitioner. Needless to say experience is invaluable but without creating a framework and environment where teachers can observe and routinely learn from each other, as Scottish education has dismally neglected to do, we are woefully failing to develop a critical area.

The key problem is that most schools are not interested. Astonishingly, opportunities for teachers to learn by observing their colleagues are rarely identified in school, council or national education plans or priorities as an essential tool. Many teachers are reluctant to have anything to do with observation. There are numerous reasons. Perhaps one is that Scottish education, for all its pride in its communal approach, is based on the interaction between teacher and pupil - the antithesis of a co-operative endeavour.

What may be an even more serious obstacle is the understandable fear of having our weaknesses exposed before colleagues and senior management, perceived by some as more preoccupied with appraisal than staff development. The anachronistic view, unfortunately still prevalent, that it is up to the individual teacher to sink or swim has no place in an education system that is serious about improving quality.

Finally, however, it has to be acknowledged that part of the unwillingness of teachers to have anything to do with observing colleagues is the inept way some schools have attempted to introduce and use observation to identify so-called "failing teachers", resulting in their humiliation and isolation in the eyes of their colleagues, pupils and sometimes even parents and the wider community.

Such an approach to observation fosters the myth that observation is like a lifebelt only to be used in an emergency to throw to those that are drowning. In the post-McCrone world, with greater emphasis on collegiate responsibility, there is a real opportunity for teachers to take much more control of their own continuing professional development. A successful programme that encourages teachers to share by observation and discussion the undoubted skills that exist in the profession needs to be voluntary and as inclusive as possible. Instead of being imposed, a simple framework should be established that encourages all teachers to open up their classes to one another to allow them to pool their collective wisdom.

This is undoubtedly an enormous mental challenge, especially to those of us who have been working in solitary confinement for decades. But the prize of a substantial improvement in our teaching should drive us forward.

Participation should be based not on failure, but on the fact that we all have something to learn from one another - whether we have been teaching for two or 20 years. Perhaps it is time to stop tinkering with changes that seem to offer at best a modest prospect of improving the quality of teaching and learning, and concentrate on making schools practical communities where teachers share strategies that work - whether for homework, class discipline or motivation.

Such an approach, based on teacher-led shared observation, would not only save some teachers from drowning, it might just contribute to keeping the Scottish education system afloat.

David Halliday teaches history and business education at Eyemouth High School.

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