Just an observation…
It was inevitable that I would one day revisit the area of observations. As a manager, they are something that falls within my remit and yet they remain highly problematical for me. It’s that time of year that I am required to barge into my colleagues’ classes and pass judgement upon them. It’s also that time of year -it’s always that time of year- when I have a million and one better things to be doing and I really don’t need to spend my time tying people down to meetings, observations, meetings, report writing and the like.
Yet I do buy into the idea that the manager’s job is largely about ensuring that quality is not only achieved, but maintained and enhanced. A lot of the reactions to observations that are available come from teachers and seem to resent this role of the manager. The demand is that peer observations are just about acceptable but the managers need to keep out of the classrooms. Teachers don’t need to be told what to do or how to do it better. Nobody has the right to judge another. Well…I beg to differ…
First of all, let’s be clear about one thing: when I step into your classroom as a manager, my main function is not to give you formative feedback. The chances are that you will not see formative feedback as formative precisely because I have stepped into your classroom as a manager. The main reason for me being there is to make a value judgement about the quality of what you are doing in your classroom. Scratch that. The main reason for me being there is to make a value judgement about the quality of what is being done in your classroom. It’s not about you. It’s not about the way that you do anything. It’s quite simply about the quality of learning and the quality of the management of learning. There is always the assumption that you can do better. Presumably, this is an assumption that you yourself share. But this is to refocus the purpose of the observation towards professional development. I’m not there for that purpose. I am there to determine quite simply whether or not the learning and teaching is good enough.
Secondly, you are entirely within your rights to demand that the criteria for good enough is made clear. In the kind of world that we would all want to live in, you and your colleagues would be instrumental in setting down these criteria. The criteria should be observable and should form the minimum requirements for effective teaching. In my experience, this is where teaching observations tend to fall apart. The criteria are often unfamiliar and when familiar they tend to have been imposed from on high. Many criteria have managers as well as teachers scratching their heads and wondering, “What the dickens does this have to do with anything?” Or words to that effect. What are these criteria? Well, I opt for simplicity: is the teacher teaching anything? Can what is being taught resist any attempt to dismiss it as worthless or outdated? Is the teacher measuring learning as they go along? Are they adjusting their teaching to the situation as it develops? Do the learners seem engaged? Does what is being taught fit into a coherent program?
Thirdly, an observed class cannot be used to pass judgement on a person or on their practice as a teacher. Teaching is only part of what we do as a teacher and an overall evaluation requires much more examination than an hour in the classroom on a wet and windy Wednesday. We go into the classroom to determine if quality teaching and learning is happening. If we conclude that it is not happening, then we need to ascertain why it is not happening. We are not going to hold the teacher accountable. Not yet, anyway. A poor lesson (i.e. one where nothing is being taught or where nothing seems to be being learned or where nothing meaningful, purposeful, challenging or justifiable is being taught/learned) is an indication that something is awry. Is the teacher responsible? Maybe. Is the manager responsible? Maybe. Is the institution responsible? Maybe. Are the students responsible? Maybe. Might it not be a combination of any or all of the above? Maybe. In that context, the manager needs to be able to state explicitly, “Well, look – I’m afraid that I didn’t consider that to be a very good lesson.” Let’s not pussyfoot around. If it was crap, let us have the freedom to say so. And let the teacher have the freedom to say, “I know. It stank.” It’s not their fault.
There’s a lot of resentment about this I feel. Who gave you the right to tell me that the lesson was crap? Could you have done any better? That’s missing the point, I fear. My job is not to do any better; my job is to say whether or not the teaching and learning is good enough. Does it meet the standard? The person who gave me the right to make this decision is the person who pays our wages. They employed me to look at the quality of work that is being done and to decide whether or not it was up to scratch. They employed you because they felt that you were capable of meeting the standards that they set. They still feel that way. But on this occasion the standards weren’t met. It is in the interests of all of us to determine why not.
But why does this happen to teachers? Should it happen to teachers? Is there another profession where people stand over you and watch what you do with a view to passing judgement as to the quality of it? Does a judge have to be observed by fellow judges? Do doctors, lawyers, solicitors, accountants, managers…managers…have to submit their practice to observation? Do they have to demonstrate to their employer that they are good workers and worthy of being left alone for another year? What is the subtext here?
And here is where I begin to feel distinctly uneasy about this aspect of the job. It is hard to justify the necessity for observations unless you subscribe to a view of teachers that is implicitly distrusting. Teachers, the view would have you believe, are more likely than any other profession, to be bad at their job. Like a factory worker who is utterly alienated from their labour, the teacher needs somebody standing over them to make sure that the standards don’t slip. In the same way that the people on the assembly line at McVities don’t really give a fig for the fig rolls and are only working to pay the bills, the teacher could give a toss for the students and is only hanging about for payday. The biscuit maker needs to be watched and chivvied and poked. The teacher needs the same.
And so, I end by restating my belief in the role of a manager as somebody whose job is to oversee the achievement, the maintenance and the enhancement of quality. This doesn’t imply that I believe in observations. I believe in achievement through effective recruitment. I believe in maintenance by the effective resourcing of developmental opportunities. I believe in enhancement by the facilitation of such opportunities. When faced with evidence that quality has slipped, I believe in the responsibility of the manager to investigate -quite feasibly by means of observation- with a view to getting standards back on track. But as an annual requirement that happens regardless of whether or not there is cause for concern? An utter waste of time.
Does anyone want to offer me a job?