The other day, I attended a training/development session about observations. For most of the time, I had to swallow my bile as the usual hackneyed dross was piped out. How should we give feedback? Supportively! Always focus on the good! Point out areas “for development” and the recalcitrant teacher will see the light. “In every lesson I observe, I learn something myself!” WHAT THE ACTUAL FLUX?! C’MON, SHEEPLE! To paraphrase (somewhat criminally) R.E.M., Everybody sucks, sometimes. In the style of Rafa Benitez, here we go:
FACT: I am not entirely opposed to the idea of observing teachers
I used to be, but I have changed my tune. These days I see a role for managers observing teachers purely in the interests of quality assurance. No need to say some nice little words about the rapport you have with the students. No need to gently suggest that perhaps 90 minutes of video might be better if supplemented with a worksheet. No need to wonder obliquely if English teachers wouldn’t, perhaps, you know, maybe want to give some thought to actually teaching some English. Just a simple, that teaching clearly meets/falls short of/has never even considered our teaching standards.
FACT: Observations should be informed by clear and agreed standards
When the trainer asked our group what the essentials were for a successful observation, I think the majority of answers were windchimes, soothing tones and patchouli-scented dreamcatchers. My curmudgeonly offering was agreed standards of teaching and evidence that these had (not) been met. “You mean,” asked the trainer, dismissively, “tick boxes?” Not really, I replied, I mean “agreed standards of teaching and evidence that these had (not) been met.”
I don’t have the Microsoft Word skills to draw little boxes that are perfectly aligned with the standards, so I’m not overly obsessed about the presence/absence of quadrilaterals. But I do think that if teachers and managers (and possibly even students) can reach agreement about what constitutes good teaching, this is what the observer should be looking for evidence of. A colleague uses competencies, but these only need to be evidenced “if appropriate”. Wouldn’t the checklist be better if it was slimmed down to stuff that you’d reasonably expect to see in each and every lesson?
In every lesson, wouldn’t you expect to see that the teachers were working to build and maintain student engagement? In every lesson, wouldn’t you expect to see the teacher communicating effectively with the learners? In every lesson, wouldn’t you expect to see the learners…ummm…learning something new and useful?
FACT: Grown-ups can take criticism of their shortcomings
Much was made of the need to be gentle and positive in the observation feedback. We are to always find something to praise. We are never to say that something was missing. Every teacher can teach us something. We need to remember that our views are not the Word of God.
Right…look here…this is nonsense. We praise things that need praising: effort, hardwork, full-on commitment. Great! But I’m not going to praise dull, ineffective teaching that has students being told to talk to each other just because in language classrooms students are expected to be told to talk to each other. I want to be able to see why they have been told to talk to each other. I want to see them struggling to talk to each other effectively but then surmounting whatever challenges that are in their way.
I want to be able to say, “I looked for evidence that the students were learning something new, but I just couldn’t see it. They seemed to be recycling existing knowledge for most of the lesson and they did that pretty poorly too. You didn’t intervene and correct them or quiz them. You only ever looked for feedback from the strongest members of the class and the fact that everyone in your class got the answers to the reading correct did not seem to floor you in the slightest. Might it not have been way too easy for them?”
It is my view that negative feedback (aka constructive feedback, or developmental feedback, or pearly-coloured rainbow wishes for a brighter future), is nothing to be feared. When all is said and done, we are not criticising the person who is teaching, we are criticising the teaching that the person is doing. They might still be a lovely person, worthy of the kindest epithets and most tear-wrenching elegies. But if their teaching is shit, wouldn’t it be kinder to say so?
FACT: Managers cannot force people to develop
There was the feeling in our group that managers should be helping people develop all the bleedin’ time. When we observe, it is -apparently- our job to spot opportunities for the teacher to develop and pass them on.
OK, maybe it’s just my way with people, but I have rarely (she wrote exaggeratedly) seen any teacher who has embraced any suggestion for change that has come about as the result of an observation. I have seen them dispute it; I have seen them say that they normally do that sort of thing anyway, but today, well, the cat had died in childbirth and the sight of them helpless little kittens… ; I have seen them say they will look harder at this, but once Real Life (TM) flooded back, the good intentions were seized by the Tartarus Road Building Corporation.
And I have sat in many lessons where I, for the life of me, couldn’t actually think of suggested improvements: ehhhhhmmmm, it would have been quite the sight were you to deliver a similar lesson while balanced on a unicycle and juggling scimitars. Although it pains me to admit it, us managers are just humans too. We have limits and mine fall well within the boundaries of imagination and creativity.
I see only two openings for development in managerial observations: one is when the teacher says, Please, could you give me some feedback on… In this case, the teacher is either genuinely concerned that they are doing something less-than-perfect. They need reassurance that the way they are doing it is clearly the best that they are able to and that it is reassuring to know that they have identified it as an area for future development. If the manager knows of someone, somewhere or something that might help this poor child, then of course they should pass on the love. Secondly is when teaching falls short of the standards. This is when it is time to engage in Difficult Conversations.
FACT: There are no difficult conversations.
Or at least there shouldn’t be – not in a professional context. You see, the only really difficult conversations are along the lines of I know you’re married, but I have to tell you – you are never out of my thoughts. I love you!
In the case of substandard teaching, the message is quite simple: I looked for evidence that you met standard A, but I couldn’t see any. How do you think you measured understanding of all the students of each thing that you were teaching? Da-da! Nothing to it. It might be that the teacher gets angry and swears at you, but that will possibly be because they see the criticism as being of them rather than of their teaching. In fact, this has yet to happen to me.
I usually check that what I am saying is not news to the teacher: You put the students in pairs and asked them to work together. What was your thinking there? Teachers often put students in pairs because Pairwork is Good. There’s rarely much thought that goes into it. Do you think that the pairwork added anything to the task? Teachers will not infrequently say “yes”. Did you assess this? No. Was it one of the aims or the objectives of the lesson? No. How would the students know why they were being/had been asked to work in pairs? They wouldn’t.
All of this would lead me to say that I couldn’t -in all good conscience- say that I had seen a lesson where the students knew what they were doing and why; nor a lesson that had been built around helping the students progress towards meeting the aims and objectives. Now I would need to suggest that in the next observation, we would want to see evidence that something had been done to address this shortfall. Did the teacher feel that they needed help/advice/guidance/training? If so, this would need to be made available to them.
FACT: When the standards talk about essentials, there are no excuses
I know that I am not the only manager ever to have sat in an observation and thought Holy Fu…Schmoly…to teach like that is baaaad. But to teach like that knowing that you are being observed by a manager, well, that is…HOLD ON A MINUTE…that is DAMNED INSULTING!!!
Oftentimes, there is an excuse of some sort: the teacher was feeling ropey; the whiteboard wasn’t working (GO TECHNOLOGY!!!); the registers weren’t available; the teacher didn’t see; student X is a pain; the Rapture is upon us; who could have foreseen the mysterious appearance of bunny rabbits in the classroom etsoddingcetera.
But if the standards which the observer is looking for are the bare bones of what makes a good teacher, there is no excuse. In our line of work, students are often paying top whack to sit in a room with us and listen to what we are going to say. They may be unmotivated; they may be truculent; they may be detestable; lazy; feckless; spoilt. But they are still entitled to expect that the poor sod in front of them has been trained to such a level that they will be able to use whatever strategies necessary to ensure that learning might reasonably be expected to take place. The teacher should still be able to highlight the need for commitment to learning. And another etcetera to stop the list getting too long.
FACT: This is my conclusion
So there you have it. I know that a lot of people I respect see no value for observations whatsoever. I know that I wrote an MA dissertation that -surprise, surprise- confirmed my own suspicions that observations were a waste of time. But my incisive enquiry did not rock the Pedagogical Universe and my Senior Managers insisted that I do observations. I needed to rationalise my participation in this utterly worthless exercise, so I did. If a manager is going to come crashing into an underpaid and overworked teacher’s classroom, I thought, it can only be to say that Yes! This teacher meets the minimum requirements for Good Teaching! Carry on! Alternatively, Oops! This teacher cannot teach in a style that meets the requirements for Good Teaching! They need help!
Perhaps I sound like a conservative Conservative. Perhaps I sound like the wisest of all people. I know not; I care not. The important thing is that I can sleep at night without nightmares and with no need for patchouli-scented dreamcatchers.