Why teaching is about much more than the perfect lesson

Lesson observations only see a fraction of what teachers do - pupil relationships matter most, says Colin Harris

Colin Harris

Lesson observation doesn't give a true picture of teaching, says Colin Harris

Into my room, during the third Ofsted inspection we had endured in five years, strode my experienced Year 6 teacher with a look of utter exasperation on his face.

He had just been debriefed by the inspector on the maths lesson seen earlier that day. 

“I just don't get this teaching lark,” the teacher said. “The inspector thought that lesson was ‘outstanding’ when it was the same lesson I have done for the last two inspections. Last time it was ‘good’ and the time before ‘inadequate’.”

Negative lesson observation

Exactly the same lesson? Perhaps not. 

But the point is that any observation is based on what is seen by the observer in those few minutes. It is subjective, and based on the theory that those watching could actually produce "outstanding" lessons themselves.

This subjective intrusion into the teacher's classroom witnesses only a tiny, tiny fraction of what that teacher does, day in and day out. 

And yet, when those visitors arrive, the teacher is expected to produce that “perfect lesson”, while the observers slink into a corner with clipboard in hand.

Observation can be such a negative element in a teacher's life. But it is seldom recognised as such. 

Usually presented as a positive process, observation too often eats away at the fragile confidence that many teachers have. The teacher doesn't celebrate the positive feedback, but instead dwells on the negativity. And they are always left striving for perfection when it can never be achieved.

What makes a good lesson?

All that said, there are, of course, certain elements shared by those lessons that are better than most:

  • Sharing high expectations for success.
  • Demonstrating expert subject knowledge.
  • Having the ability to communicate effectively.
  • Differentiating across all groups.
  • Engaging and motivating everyone.
  • Developing independent and resilient learners.
  • Continually assessing what children have learned and knowing how to move on from that position.
  • Challenging the most able and supporting the most vulnerable.
  • Using technology to have an impact on pupils’ learning.
  • Using support staff appropriately to move a lesson forward.
  • Demonstrating effective classroom management.

This all sounds so easy when written down. But the reality is that teaching has a set of variables present at every lesson: the children.

Teacher-pupil relationships

What matters most in every single lesson is that we recognise pupils’ individuality. If we don’t do this, then everything else becomes irrelevant. 

And guess what? The observers rarely see the work that goes on in creating these relationships.

Of course, there is a need for observation. But at present the model encourages all teachers to aim for the perfect lesson.

I’m sorry to have to disillusion the lesson observers, but teaching is so much more than that.

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were 'outstanding' across all categories

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