I’m wasting my time and yours
Teachers blog a lot. And every teacher, it seems to me, eventually blogs about observations. As a manager, I too have blogged about them and even went to the extreme of writing a dissertation about them (that ended up concluding that they were pretty ineffectual and not worth doing). Recently I have read some blogs by @TessaLMatthews, @samshep, @tstarkey1212 all of which have touched upon observations. I am going to still the waters and present forthwith the definitive view on this troublesome phenomenon. All other views are now rendered irrelevant. This is the way to think. Question ye not no more!
Bloody things. They are the most inefficient means of quality control that I can think of. And yet, the argument put forward by all -Senior Management teams, middle managers, even goddam teachers- is that you need to see what is going on in the classroom. Do you? Do you reeeeaallllyyy???, I invariably hear The Voices mutter (on the days that they are being charitable. On greyer days they plump for Do you heck! or words to that effect).
Bloody job. For a long, long while, I rejected observations as an effective means of teacher development (when done by a business dressed person with a clipboard. Done by a teaching colleague with a Free Tibet and Save the Whales t-shirt, they have potential), but I saw them as being a reasonable -if not always pleasant- tool for quality assurance. Much like a trip to the dentist, you don’t look forward to it, and it’s never pleasant, but it is for the greater good.
Bloody bosses. I tried for a while to coax my senior management team away from observations. My arguments didn’t fall on too stony ground, but in the case of at least one of the managers, that was principally because she wasn’t really listening. I trotted out all of the usual arguments…snapshot blah…window dressing blah…showcase lesson blah…stressful blah…defensive blah…who-am-I-to-pass-judgement blah…dodgy criteria blah…tickbox blah…hmm, given the array of counter arguments, it is surprising that observations ever got off the ground. Usually, whenever that happens, a useful rule of thumb (or heuristic if we want to get dirty) is the Secret DoS’s Wry Maxim #45: When the arguments do not support the continuing existence of any particular phenomenon and yet said phenomenon continues to exist, you can bet the house that there is a rather more distasteful rationale for the damn thing. Taylor Swift…no…hold on…that can’t be right…Taylor Webb wrote a damning paper back in 2005 in which he unmasked observation as a tool for surveillance and forced compliance. He drew my attention to the Foucaultian notion of a disciplinary tool. Observation, I inferred, was a tool that was meant to coerce and punish.
Bloody cognitive dissonance. But this knowledge didn’t stop me wielding the hammer of observation around the head of some poor teacher whose students frequently complained about her. Even though I knew what observation was really all about, this teacher was still subjected to a wave of observations that were aimed at setting her (back??? no, I don’t think so) on track to effective teaching. What they did, instead, was set her on a path out of the language centre where I ruled. Imperiously. In the end, it was probably a good result for everyone, but it certainly didn’t feel that way as we danced our danse macabre. I thought of her as I read Tessa Matthew’s latest blog and my head dipped a little. Possibly out of shame.
Bloody work. I set forth with a temporary conclusion that the answer was to highlight to one and all the dichotomy between observations as a tool for professional/personal development and observations as a tool for quality assurance. As a manager, I decided that the distance between me and the Minions was too great to allow me to effectively contribute towards their professional development. They first of all needed to want to develop and they secondly of all needed to hunt out their sources of development themselves. Anything I did would be tainted by my managerial mittens. My job, I convinced myself, was to wade in with my Bludgeon of Compliance and say to teachers, “I’m coming for you, boys and girls, and the only reason I’m coming is to let you know whether you’ve been good or bad.” I was like some sort of Institutionalised Santa Claus. The past tense disguises that we are talking about the Me of Last Month.
Bloody teachers. Moaning again about being observed. Who really cares? So you’re going to be observed. You take the King’s Shilling. Doesn’t the King have a right to know if his money is being well spent? Aren’t you accountable in any way, shape or form? Get over it! Teach for your lives! Show how good or how bad you are! Embrace the Feedback! Validate my Authority! We had a one-sided conversation about standards and acceptable criteria for measurement. I both lamented the lack of engagement from teachers and accepted the fact that the whole thing was too damn abstract for them to really engage with. In any event, I used the silence-is-a-form-of-consent argument to impose the standards that I thought were acceptable and indisputable. Why? Because they had emanated from the bowels of the British Council, defender of all that is good and holy in the world of ELT.
Bloody world in which we live in (I know…I know…it’s a nod and a wink to David Crystal). I’m not a bad person. Why do I become a bad person when I get to work? Qui cum canibus concumbunt cum pulicibus surgent. Google translate got me there; Google translate can get you back. We live in a paradigm of accountability. Most of us follow the herd. Only a few are smart enough to realise that the herd is following the interests of the leaders. I am not one of those who is smart enough. For a while, I swallowed the idea that teachers need
to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by those of us who have neither the right, nor the knowledge, nor the virtue. To be [a teacher] is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonoured. That is [education]; that is its justice; that is its morality.
Merci, M. Proudhon.
Comrades! No more!
Here, then, mes lecteurs, is the definitive word on observations: take a pen and paper and note this down: observations should be focused entirely upon what the teacher does well. No longer do they serve to identify which boxes cannot be checked. No longer to they tease out the gaps between the stones. No longer do they seek to fill the voids that cannot be filled.
A manager should walk into a classroom with a view to identifying ways in which the teacher does not militate against the accrual of knowledge and the development of skills. Following each and every post-observation conference, the teacher will emerge from the encounter safe in the knowledge that somebody in authority has witnessed them do the job that gives the title to their profession and has seen just what it is that they do well.
The manager will go into each and every skirmish determined to sniff out the evidence that shows how standards are being met. They will not go into the classroom of another adult human being “with an open mind” in order to determine if standards are being met. They will create a culture of acceptance and of recognition that education takes many forms and will consequently be accepting of the many forms in which an education can manifest itself.
Rare is the teacher who thinks that they are utterly useless. Plentiful are the managers who think that some of their teachers are bereft of skills. What does that tell us? Does it reflect more on the teachers or on the managers? My argument, esteemed colleagues, is that it is more helpful to identify the strengths of a piece of work than its weaknesses. And, my suspicion, mes amis, is that the prey might be more willing to seek advice about their weaknesses if they know that the hunter is on their side; if they know that the hunter values their contribution; if they know that the hunter really sees them.
Teachers! Demand these things from your managers! All helpful criticism that is critical is fake! From now on, stop the lips of those who tell you What I would have done…What I think you should try…Have you ever thought about…Why didn’t you…How do you think it went… Listen out for sentences that include What I really liked…Another thing I thought went really well…I was really impressed by…was another thing I thought was great…
And when things go wrong, as they’re oft wont to do
and you observe a duff class that’s a whole pile of poo,
Don’t look for kind words that are empty and fake
Or smile a faux smile as your hopes you forsake;
Ask the teacher what they thought they did rather well
And stop up the clanger that sounds the death knell.
We all have off days; we’ve all struggled to shine;
and we all know these moments don’t capture the times
when it all went much better but nobody saw,
because managers hid behind managers’ doors
with lists of criteria and boxes to tick
whittling away at their measuring sticks.
Because even the teacher that can’t teach for toffee,
whose teaching has peaked and is now in atrophy
is a person who suffers and can’t sleep at night
when they’re told their hard work is a cankerous blight.
For though learning is sacred and knowledge is too
They’re both pretty abstract, unlike gnus or bamboo.
And a gnu with bamboo is worth ten times as much
As a concept that’s abstract and cannot be touched.
Worth probably more than a gnu with bamboo
is the teacher whose teaching was smelly dog doo.
If they’re in the wrong job, help them walk to the door
With their heads held up high and their feelings secure.
But this needs to stop; I’ve run out of juice.
Apologies, readers. And you, Dr. Seuss.