The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

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?

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04 Jun 2013 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings

27 Comments »

  1. In my view, not being resistant about observations involves a lot of trust. I agree with you in saying that there needs to be clarity about the criteria determining what kind of learning should be taking place, but there also has to be a lot of trust that in deed the administration, faculty, and students all believe (and act!) like they are in the learning process together. Observations are wonderful if you know you will have the possibility to explore what’s going in the classroom and reflect about it with colleagues without judgment. Needless to say, you also have to be the kind of teacher who does embrace reflective practices in order to value the conversations that take place after an observation. Perhaps having a system of more teacher observation (and PD around this topic) would help make the manager’s observations be accepted more?

    Comment by Laura Adele | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Hi Laura – thanks for your comment. Your point is a key one: we need to trust each other. And we need to trust ourselves. We need to know that the rigour of our selection process means that we get the best teachers and that the standards that we uphold within our institutions are such that those great teachers just get better.

      I also agree with your view that observations are wonderful – for the observer! being able to see a wide range of teaching practice is fantastic for me and provides me with a great opportunity to reflect. Unfortunately, in my experience, my role as a manager (and as a labeller) means that many of my colleagues don’t share this view.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

  2. Some brief comments before I rush off to class.
    Great post (as usual).

    I wonder if you could say a bit more about the post lesson feedback session in the situation you describe?

    My thought at the moment is that much of the common practices for post lesson feedback are from a developmental point of view. If yours is not what sort of feedback (if any?) do you tend to give?

    Comment by mikecorea | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks, Mike, for the kind words. My post-lesson observation has varied from year to year. It has gone from the naive “helpful advice” that was poorly received to the other extreme of “you tell me what you thought of your lesson and I will sign it off unless I radically disagree.”

      We are a biased audience on the internet. In most cases we have chosen to read blogs and expand our understanding of the work that we do day in, day out. In my staffroom, I am the exception that proves the rule. This is important to bear in mind because the feedback that I could give to my colleagues might be intended as developmental (“I read a really good blog that addresses this…”), but because I get to grade the lesson, this developmental stuff falls by the wayside because teachers want to know if they are a 1, 2, 3, or 4. Once the grade is delivered, they are either pleased as punch or as hacked as the Pentagon (should be interesting to see the blog stats triple with that combination of words).

      I think managers might convince themselves that their role is beneficial and supportive by buying into the myth that the feedback is developmental. And I am sure that there are those who would point to how their manager’s feedback has been of enormous benefit. But myths need some grounding in reality if they are to survive.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

  3. I wonder if the climate of observation that pervades education dates back to the technical-rational era, when educational practice was dominated by the method concept, and the observer’s role, therefore, was to ensure that the method was being implemented correctly? ‘I noticed you drilled the target sentence before you had modelled it. I suggest in future that you … blah blah’. When learning (and language learning) moved ‘indoors’, as it were, and was construed as a purely cognitive and largely invisible process, the need for observation should, in theory, have become obsolete. How can you notice noticing, for example? Now – with the ‘social turn’ – where learning has become exteriorised again – the observer may have something useful to say about the teacher’s scaffolding procedures, the social dynamic in the classroom, the interaction, and so on – in the spirit perhaps of an ethnographer: ‘The natives seemed restless tonight, etc’ . Nevertheless, there’s also a danger that the ‘method concept’ will rear its ugly head again, and observation becomes simply an instrument for shoring up a set of prescribed procedures, this time all the more insidious since the method isn’t inscribed anywhere except in the observer’s head.

    I can’t help feeling that Foucault would have something to say about all this… but it’s 8 in the morning and I haven’t had my coffee…

    Comment by Scott Thornbury | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Hi Scott. I like the idea that the climate of observation comes from a desire to make sure that the right thing is being done. Indeed, our mainstream colleagues in the UK are full of examples of how OFSTED pursues an ideological line (This is how teachers should teach; all else is wrong!!!) Re-constituted marxist that I have never been, I suspect that the reality is more mundane and has filthy lucre at its source.
      I note that judges are perhaps more required to follow a rather less flexible method when working; I don’t know of any observation procedures for judges. The same goes for lawyers, accountants, solicitors and possibly even doctors. Teachers are different.

      What else differentiates a teacher from judges, lawyers, doctors, accountants and the like? Well, teachers are more likely to come from a wider section of social strata – might it be a class issue? teachers are also less likely to be suitably renumberated for their work: perhaps it is no more than the suspicion that if you pay peanuts, you’re going to get monkeys?

      Foucault, as you rightly say, had a lot to say about this: he used the metaphor of Bentham’s panopticon: an architectural design for a prison wherein compliance was achieved through secret surveillance of the inmates. Foucault saw observation as serving the same purpose. He talked about punitive measures such as muddying the standards and never making them explicit as strategies for ensuring that the teachers learnt how to police themselves. This is expounded upon quite wonderfully by Taylor Webb in his paper “The anatomy of accountability”, published in the journal of Educational Policy, 2005 20/2, pp. 189-208. If you use the #icanhazpdf hashtag, quote doi.10.1080/0268093052000341395.

      To reframe observation as surveillance is quite a slap in the face…and leads me now to address Bob’s comments below…

      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

  4. Having come late from a business environment to the world of TEFL, I fully accept the need for teacher observation – let us rephrase it as quality control. As an office worker I was given annual reviews on my performance and assessed on my standard of customer service.

    Working in a private language school with lots of local competition we need to ensure that our school and its staff meets standards. We too are in the business of customer service and it is too late to whine if the students – our customers – have all disappeared to the opposition and we have no work.

    I will freely admit that I have bad lessons, when nothing seems to go right, who doesn’t? What differentiates a good teacher from a bad teacher is how you react to these bad lessons. If you are not experienced enough to know what is happening then it is good to have a more experienced colleague observe you, give you guidance and challenge your thoughts.

    As a teacher of 12 years, I still get very nervous before an observation even though I know that I am being observed in my best interests and the interests of the school and I look forward to the feedback sessions afterwards. I am lucky that all the DOSes who have observed me have been open and supportive and I appreciate that there may be some who are not.

    Observers need to be trained in observing and giving feedback – I think most are these days – and teachers need to be encouraged to see it as a positive experience with benefits even if it is only that we have a job next year.

    Remember we are a customer service industry and industries require standards to ensure customer satisfaction.

    Comment by Bob | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Welcome, Bob. This blog thrives a broad range of opinions and yours as a teacher who approves of observations is a particularly welcome one. If we are going to have to do them, then I am all in favour of them…as long as all teachers think like you. Regrettably, there are many who feel that even the law of the market does not justify somebody criticising their practice.

      And it is because these people exist…and because a trawl of the literature on observations would have you conclude that these people account for the vast majority of teachers…that I am not convinced that observations are necessary until there is cause to believe that they are necessary.

      The teacher who knows that lessons are going badly and who can call upon a colleague (managerial or not) to come and observe is looking for developmental help. This is a very different set up to the type of observations I am writing about.

      Observations for quality control speak to me of institutions who are dubious of their staff and, by implication, of their own recruitment procedures. At a deper level, they may even be dubious of the training that people receive. You should ensure that the school and its standards are met by recruiting the best possible teachers and providing them with an environment that is conducive to their professional development. If they are the best teachers, they will flourish.

      Nobody is questioning the need for standards. But I am questioning the efficacy of observation in policing those standards. Annual reviews, feedback both solicited and unsolicited from the students, evidence of ongoing professional development – all of these speak to the standards of teaching that are being upheld. What does an observation ever really tell you? That for fifty minutes (out of a potential 40000 where I work), the teacher performed to a satisfactory level. That’s 0.125% of their annual work load. Can I really be expected to monitor quality based on such a small dataset?

      And how do I know that whatever feedback I give will ever be acted upon? how do I know that it is right? How do I know that my presence as an observer did not fundamentally alter the dynamic of the class that I was watching?

      So let’s have standards, by all means. But let’s be critical about how we monitor them, guarantee their maintenance and work towards their enhancement. I am yet to be convinced that observations are the answer!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

      • Replying to your first comment I would say that anyone who is not open to observation, for whatever reason, has no place in teaching and probably any other business. They should be the boss of the company and then see what happens when they don’t observe/implement quality control. Are these people also as closed to their students?

        But I do agree that it is difficult to make a qualitative decision based on 45 or 90 minutes observation but until someone can come up with a better solution ……..

        From my experience in business I also welcome customer feedback and have even implemented some of my own (anonymous ) feedback forms – the idea of anonymity is that if anyone wants to pass critical comments they can. I also ask one of the students to take the feedback forms to reception so that I appear even more hands off. (The school do the same too in L1)

        Another activity I have used is to get the students talking about language learning – preferences and hates and I am monitoring language. The students are used to me monitoring language from previous lessons and I can sometimes pick up useful tips this way – either for myself or the school. These groups are mixed from different classes but they all know me and are happy to talk freely as they are actually discussing things with each other and not telling me anything.

        Obviously this method depends on the teacher and whether or not they can be trusted to be honest and not selective with the feedback to the school and also the quality and openness of the questions. I am lucky that I have the trust and support of my School Director.and DOS.

        Comment by Bob | 05 Jun 2013

      • Thanks for sticking in there, Bob! I would like to venture forward a better solution: firstly, have a rigorous recruitment procedure. Make sure that the best people for the job are hired and give them the terms and conditions that are needed to ensure only a healthy turnover. Guarantee that time and resources are set aside for ongoing professional development and encourage as much sharing and learning from each other as is possible.

        Ensure that management is clear that the teachers working in the institution are the best that they can possibly be and that they are expected to be striving to understand their job more and more. The role of high expectations is crucial for this to work.

        Ensure that managers have freedom to act when high expectations are not being met. The freedom to act means the freedom to try and understand what is stopping this highly motivated and ultra professional teacher from doing as good a job as they normally do and the freedom to help them in whatever way might be best (change of class, fewer teaching hours, peer support, a short break…).

        In the rare cases that something goes wrong and we have a teacher who really doesn’t seem to be capable of meeting the high expectations, or perhaps not willing to meet them, ensure that the procedures necessary to part ways are swift, painless and supportive. We have all taken on work that we would rather not have done – mortgages need to be paid, vices need finance. But ultimately it is in everyone’s interests that the uncommitted employee is helped through the door. Why waste time trying to convince somebody who doesn’t like teaching that they can be a good teacher?

        Hold teachers accountable for the standards of their work. Accountable means that you have an expectation that they can provide a good account of what they have done and of any problems that they have faced. You draw supervisory data from a range of sources: observation of commitment in the staffroom, feedback from students, evidence of CPD. You may even choose to draw inferences from a lack of feedback: if nobody has ever said anything positive about Brenda’s teaching, is it fair to draw an inference that Brenda might not be performing to the high expectations that are set? Should Brenda be asked if she can account for the lack of praise that is coming her way? Why not? After all – it is only a dialogue and she might have a very good explanation.

        In the case of doubts being raised, then as a manager you can tell the teacher that you need to see what is going on in the classroom. This is done with an open mind – maybe what is going on in the classroom is quietly magnificent. But observations are prompted by concerns – not by procedural routine.

        On a final point, I think that everyone can be trusted – everyone is capable of honesty. Similarly, everyone can be distrusted. Everyone is capable of deceit. The key here is how we choose to see the default option. It is naive to assume that everyone is good from the outset. Psychopaths most certainly may not be. And psychopathy is a scale of behaviour. Personally, I think that the most sensible default option is to consider that the degree of trust that a person is entitled to should correlate with the amount of autonomy, mastery and purpose that they are permitted. Someone who is denied these is someone deserving of trust! If, as Dan Pink, these are the conditions for intrinsic motivation, it follows that their absence is likely to lead to an absence of motivation: if somebody is not doing the work because they love it, what are they doing it for? More importantly, are they doing it?!

        Comment by thesecretdos | 06 Jun 2013

  5. This is a really good post, and I think it’s useful for all teachers to see a manager’s perspective about observation.
    Unlike most ELT managers, I work in a context where I am not allowed to observe my staff, unless they invite me in (yes that’s right – NOT ALLOWED). The idea is that taking the appraisal role away from line managers protects teaching staff. I don’t think it works that way though, as I previously blogged here: http://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/why-its-in-teachers-interests-to-be-observed/

    Comment by stevebrown70 | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Indeed- I think your blog is my inspiration. I think it’s ridiculous that the unions have created a situation in which managers are not allowed to do anything – just as I think it’s ridiculous that institutions create situations where teachers are not allowed to do things. As adults, we should be given enough trust to always do the right thing (thank you Senor Love Daddy).

      However, I’m going to pick up on the idea that an observation is the same as an appraisal. I know that in many contexts the two terms are synonymous, but they shouldn’t be. I also think that observations should NEVER be more than just an aspect of the overall appraisal (if we have to do the bloody things). A teacher’s contribution to the team, their commitment to professional development, their willingness to go the extra mile etc. – all of these should form part of an annual appraisal.

      At times, God forgive me, I look to the west and nod approvingly of how the US education system extends contracts depending upon how well a teacher has worked over the period. I’m not averse to the idea, I am ashamed to admit. Stay good or find new work! Perhaps this is liberating for all?

      Comment by thesecretdos | 05 Jun 2013 | Reply

  6. When I was DOS at ESADE in Barcelona, I was supposed to observe over 60 teachers, so I spit the work with the HR director. I knew I made some of them very nervous, so I’d offer them the choice of either having me sitting at the back or videoing their class themselves – 2 cameras, 1 at the front, 1 at the back (a trick John Faneslow taught me). I tried to use Faneslow’s observation template, but found it much too complicated, so I, like you, told them what the criteria were and we’d either watch the video toogether, or, if I’d been in the class, go over my notes. I’d always let them say what they thought they’d done well or badly, and they were always given a second chance if things had gone horribly wrong. Just thinking about it makes me shiver! I hated it I agree – it has to be done, and I agree that when you do it, you have to put the school’s interests first, because that’s what they pay you for. ! think you have to be honest, there has to be trust,and mutual respect, and all that and all that. But as you say, it’s still a wierd thing to have to do to a professional colleague, and I never felt comfortable doing it. Definitely the worst part of the job. .

    Comment by geoffjordan | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

  7. Well, I work with Steve and he’s not allowed to observe me although he’s my manager. However, in our FE college we have Teaching and Learning advisors, me being one of them.
    Our college creates a culture which promotes the benefits of peer review and the focus is on the observed teacher to reflect on their practice. It’s not my role to judge teachers, but rather to support them to self-evaluate and come up with their own developmental aims.

    I think it’s important that it’s not always the manager who does the observation, as long as the observer is trained in observation and feedback.

    I wish all teachers could trust their observers and see the value of observations. However, so many are made to feel like that they’re being scrutinised, judged or inspected.Trust needs to be earned and it shouldn’t be the automatic right of the manager.

    Comment by Daljit Kaur | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • I would echo what Daljit is saying in that the generation of a supportive approach to observation is definitely a good thing, and our teaching and learning advisors do a fantastic job in this respect. Taking the potentially scary/threatening/judgemental/intimidating line manager out of the equation can have a positive impact in this respect.
      The problem as I see it, though, is that managers are going to make judgements about their staff whether they observe them or not. We’re human and we can’t help it. If we observe our staff teaching, at least this allows us to judge their ability to do the job based on what we have seen them doing in the classroom, even if it is not a completely accurate representation of what they normally do. Without having observed a teacher, a line manager is still going to make judgements about that teacher’s professional competence, but all they will be able to base it on is what they see the teacher doing outside the classroom. A teacher may be doing a fantastic job during their lessons, but if they are a bit sloppy with their admin, or if they don’t appear to spend much time planning, or don’t liaise very well with their co-teachers, this is likely to make the manager view this teacher negatively.
      As well as being a manager I am also a teacher. As such, I would rather be judged on my performance inside the classroom than on my ability to keep my class record books up to date, for example.

      Comment by stevebrown70 | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Welcome Daljit and thank you for this contribution. With the exception on the actual prohibition of managers entering a classroom, I think this sounds like a good way forward. I’m a little bit sceptical about the necessity of creating a title for the observers, but that might be nit-picking. In general, I am wary of having too many tiers to the hierarchy – to the extent that I sometimes wonder whether the role of a DOS is actually ever really necessary.

      Similarly, I think it’s important that the manager never does the observation. Observation should really be for the developmental aspect – I will go into your classroom and see what I can learn from the way that you teach or I will collaborate with you and give you my opinion on the way that you teach in the hope that it helps you learn something. But this “I” is not a managerial “I”. It’s a peer-I.

      Teachers can’t really be expected to trust observations unless they are engaged in the process as equals. When managers step into the room with sheaves of paper, depersonalised criteria and the dual objectives of determining if a teacher is any good plus helping the teacher become better, it is no wonder that the teachers feel defensive.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 06 Jun 2013 | Reply

  8. I’m one of those weird teachers who quite likes observations, and who finds them very useful. Even the Delta observations, which were like pulling teach, and which I failed two of, were useful lerning experiences. But I agree that most teachers don’t feel the same as me.
    It’s refreshing to see someone acknowledge that one of the functions of observation is purely and simply to make a value judgement on quality. Maybe in that dream world where managers have more time, it’s possible to make every observation developmental, but sometimes it’s simply not possible. As others have already said, this is why it’s so important that CPD and peer and self-observation are integral to the organisation.
    I think one reason why observation is key to development for teachers is that we know we learn so much from doing it. I’m not sure how much a doctor can learn from another doctor, or a judge from another judge. These seem to me like professions where you’re doing it right, or not. Teaching seems to be much more nuanced. So much depends on the teacher, the students, the location, the time, the weather, the colour of the students’ notebooks… But if you can see how other teachers deal with those factors, it makes it easier for you to cope with them. But as a value judgement, there really doesn’t seem to be much of a way around it.
    One kind of appraisal which it seems to me is missing from language schools (with all my wide experience of the 3 I’ve worked in) seems to be the idea of a 360° appraisal. This involves a person being appraised from all angles, not just from the top down (manager-teacher), but also by students, colleagues and anyone elsethey have to work with. It would also be useful for management to be appraised in this way, as it could reduce some of the resentment, and open a channel of communication for managers to get feedback too. Of course, if handled badly, it cold become an opportunity for mud-slinging or pettiness, but even that would tell you a lot about the person/organisation concerned.
    Thanks for letting me air those views – I’ve been thinking about the 360 thing for ages, but this is the first time it’s seemed appropriate!
    Sandy

    Comment by Sandy Millin | 04 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks, Sandy. I agree that supervisory observations are difficult to avoid – not helped by one of the major accrediting bodies within ELT stating the ideological expectation that they take place. If you want to be accredited, you need to be keeping an eye on your teachers. Great! Thanks for that…

      I also like the 360 evaluation and have done one before. I think it is essential that the manager opens up as many channels for communication as they can with their team. It can get very lonely in the middle – depending on your context, you may have a senior manager who doesn’t really trust you sufficiently to make you privy to all of the events that are about to unfold and then you have a team that regard you as One of Them for not giving them the information that they are convinced you knew about.

      Unfortunately, the best way to gather such information is anonymously – people feel that they can be more forthright if the comments can’t be traced back to them. But what is really needed for any information to be useful is dialogue. Geoff Jordan made a comment recently which left a big impression on me. It was to the effect of texts having no meaning. We each extract our own meaning from whatever is said and sometimes what we understand is far, far from what the message was. Dialogue and communication help us to narrow this gap.

      I remember some years ago being labelled defensive. Leaving aside that this is one of those words that seems to have become a lexical zombie, I couldn’t understand what was possibly meant by this and I responded to this characterisation by rebutting it – a class defensive manoeuvre! These days I am prepared to accept most characterisations and ask myself, “What is it in my deportment that allows this individual to see me in this way?” Sometimes it’s simply not possible to uncover the ofending behaviour in which case it is a question of asking the individual, “What could I do to help you feel that I was less…” For many wiser souls, this is probably blindingly obvious. For me, it was a damascene moment – brought about by a number of unpleasant moments detailed elsewhere in this blog.

      In short, 360 evaluations are worthwhile only as long as they open the opportunity for dialogue. You may be interested in looking at http://www.ere.net/2012/03/05/the-top-40-problems-with-360-degree-employee-feedback-processes-part-2-of-2/ for a critical review of this mechanism.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 06 Jun 2013 | Reply

      • Thanks for that link – interesting reading.
        Sandy

        Comment by Sandy Millin | 06 Jun 2013

  9. I agree that peer observation is an excellent way to promote good teaching. This was very popular in the school where I worked, as were team teaching sessions, and “guest appearances” by other teachers in their colleagues’s classes.

    Alas, as the Secret DOS points out,, management has a responsibility to do some check-up sessions, and the trick there is, as others have said, to make them as non-threatening, etc. as possible.

    Comment by geoffjordan | 05 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Hi Geoff – thank you for sticking around! I love the idea of “guest appearances”. Where I work, the offer is open for teachers to go and watch each other work. We don’t pay extra for this, but are happy to provide cover for a class if a teacher wants to observe somebody who is working at the same time as them. Unfortunately, not many people take us up on this offer.

      I really don’t think that it is possible to remove the threatening and intimidatory aspect of supervisory observations because I think that they are, ultimately, a threatening and intimidatory punitive measure. They are aimed at securing the compliance of a poorly-paid and under-resourced group of individuals and they are very much an iron fist inside a silk glove.

      Of course, I know that there are teachers who welcome them. As a teacher, I never saw anything to fear from an observation and regarded them as a catalyst for professional development. But I know that the majority of people do not feel that way.

      Were I to have a school, supervisory observations would be done as part of a probationary period and after that only if there was cause for concern about a colleague’s work. Peer observations, aimed at helping teachers develop, would take place regularly.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 06 Jun 2013 | Reply

  10. Excellent post. I agree with it in its entirety. Some years ago when i used to actually keep my blog updated I wrote something vaguely similar (though nowhere near as insightful) http://adhockley.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/the-role-of-teacher-observations/

    I’m not entirely convinced the analogies of judges, doctors etc. holds up entirely though. Judges are carrying out their primary function under the watchful eye of other professionals in their field (lawyers in their court room). Doctors are doing so surrounded by other doctors and nurses. Teachers on the other hand are, for the most part, not in the company of other professional educators in the classroom (unless you happen to have a teacher in your particular group of students). I agree wholeheartedly that we should, in Semler’s words,hire adults and then treat them like adults, and observing for the sake of doing so or to check on quality is somehow untrusting (I just think the comparisons don;t really work)

    Comment by Andy Hockley | 05 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks Andy – I really enjoyed your blog and found your book From Teacher to Manager to be invaluable. I had exactly the same reservations as you voice about the analogy. I stuck with it because I thought that the power differential between a judge and a lawyer was so great that one could not really consider this to be a regulatory force on judges to get it right. Lawyers really act in the way that I hope our students would – if they think that the judge is a complete barmpot, they raise their concerns by lodging an appeal which is judged on its merits (by somebody who would be analogous with the DOS) and action is taken as required. Similarly, doctors -and GPs are more analogous to teachers once the door of the consultation room is closed- only ever come under closer scrutiny once a complaint is made. Nevertheless, teachers are expected to have a manager come in once every X to sit there and say if they can teach or how well they can teach.

      I think of the other people who work in our learning (or teaching?) centre. The office staff are not observed; the managers are not observed; the cleaners do not have a day of the year when the quantity of polish used is measured or the speed of emptying the bins is recorded. Only teachers have to submit themselves to this ignominy.

      As the yoot dem say, WTF?

      Comment by thesecretdos | 06 Jun 2013 | Reply

      • I do agree with your sentiments on observations but although there is not formal observation I suspect that observations are ongoing. If the managers are not turning in a profit then they are answerable to the owner of the school (or the bank manager) If the cleaners aren’t doing their job properly customers and other staff will say something pretty quickly and action will be taken to rectify the situation.

        Like the teacher the cleaner is paid by the hour with fixed hours and if the job is not completed the cleaner will be looking for a new position.

        The comparison with doctors is quite apt, if you are not happy with your doctor and it is a result of a serious error you will go through the complaints procedure. Most people really can’t be bothered just because they are not happy – they will vote with their feet and find a new doctor, the same as our students. And they will tell their friends and family too. (As will the unhappy student.)

        Most schools are in a competitive market for students these days and cannot afford to lose students simply because they are not happy. A great deal of time and money is spent on advertising, open days and other similar and all of this money can be wasted if you have one influential unhappy student.

        By the same score a happy student will also tell his friends/family (albeit not as many as the unhappy student) and will bring you more business. I took over a class which was failing – the students had complained to the director and I was given the class. I have just been told that all students have signed up for next year, bar one who is relocating to another city. If the students hadn’t complained but voted with their feet that would be 10 students less and their friends would also be less likely to come to us. If students had dropped out one at a time over a longer period it may have just been seen as natural drop out rate and not been flagged up as a problem until too late. If this teacher had been observed earlier in the course, then corrective measures could have been taken then, with follow up obs as necessary.

        Just my business biased 2 penn’orth !

        Comment by Bob | 07 Jun 2013

  11. I’m a bit confused here (nothing new!) Steve sometimes answers posts and seems to be part of the “team” running this site. I know you’re not going to tell us who you are secretdos, but what’s the set up?

    Comment by geoffjordan | 07 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • I think the layout of the replies is probably to blame for confusing you! Regrettably, I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Steve, so I can assure you that there is no subterfuge. I, and I alone for now, am the secret DoS!

      Comment by thesecretdosthe Secret DOS | 07 Jun 2013 | Reply

  12. I love that phrase Sandy used (#8): ‘Delta observations, which were like pulling teach’.

    I have not done a DELTA myself, but over the years (!) I have had various opportunities to do peer observation and tandem teaching. This is really great, working with colleagues in the classroom and learning from each other, the key to doing it successfully is building an atmosphere of trust. That in turn relies on the quality of feedback that colleagues give each other. Teachers should relish feedback, and share it freely with each other in a spirit of commitment to continuous improvement. This is the great strength of peer observation. When the feedback is coming from someone further up the ‘food chain’ it can seem like something very different.

    Comment by eltcriticalmoments | 07 Jul 2013 | Reply


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