I know that one of the ways in which I have been really lucky in my career so far, is that I have been able to go into many, many different classrooms and observe teachers. It is something I love to do, not least because you always learn so much from observing others. Being observed, however, is quite a daunting thing at times. I know that at the start of my career I used to be incredibly nervous when I was observed. My memory tells me that my first observation as an NQT was nothing to celebrate. My observer told me that during the lesson I said “OK” 76 times. Now I’m not sure if I have remembered that number accurately, but I can believe it. I was so nervous. Teachers are on the whole masters of their own domain and so to have a rival authority figure in the classroom does make you question your judgements. I also remember that when I was inspected in my first post, it included a dismal lesson observation that was probably the worst lesson in history. I was so demoralised and embarrassed at how badly I had performed. It really matters that when you are observed you feel like you have shown your best to others. I knew I hadn’t and there were so many things I learnt from that horrible experience. What’s interesting is that I can remember details more vividly from these lessons than I can from the numerous more successful observations over the years. I bet if you asked a few senior leaders they could also tell you some juicy details from terrible lessons they taught, that had been observed.
The thing about lesson observations is that whilst no one particularly is desperate to be critiqued – note critiqued not criticised – it’s the way you learn. This is why I entitled this blog as teachers being too darn nice, because one of ways in which lesson observation can be least effective is when all observers say is that it was really, really good. There are going to be many outstanding practitioners out there and many outstanding lessons, but we all want to get better. Would we think the teacher was any good, who gave back an essay to an A star student with the comment “really great, I learnt a lot“. There are many reasons why feedback from observations tends to be more praise than guidance and I will look at just a few of them.
1. Who am I to judge? Teachers often are humble souls and so they frequently question whether they are experienced enough to be able to suggest improvements to colleagues. Of course it is all about sharing experience because teaching is all about having choices. None of us will respond in exactly the same way each time we are faced with a challenging subject, topic, class or pupil. We select from our great array of strategies as to which would be the best approach at that time. Therefore we should see lesson observation, particularly peer observation like a game of Top Trumps – swapping cards on the best, highest scoring tactics. In recent years I have spent a lot of time observing PGCE students and NQTs, learning so much, because you don’t just learn from people who have been teaching longer than you!
2. Nobody has ever taught me how to do it! Very true. When we train to be teachers we learn how to plan and teach, we don’t learn how to mentor. I do think to be a good mentor you need to work on very different skills. We all know that when we ourselves have been observed, some people have been better at giving feedback than others. If you feel a little uncertain about your mentoring skills then get yourself to some INSET training on it or ask your school to put some training on dedicated to it. It’s an important part of development so definitely worth the investment.
3. Teachers are just too darn nice. When teachers are working collaboratively, boy are they collaborative. It’s all about encouragement and therefore we have to super positive because of the overwhelming sense of solidarity amongst colleagues. There are of course problems with this. Firstly observation just becomes all about back slapping. It’s lovely to be praised and you will frequently find me tweeting that not enough of this goes on in schools (@imisschalk), but bland praise with no substance becomes meaningless. The other problem with this is if peer observation is all lovey dovey it can then make it harder for managers to observe (for example as part of appraisal) and to fairly critique; ‘oh it’s so demoralising, all they do is criticise‘. It is not being nasty to suggest alternative ways to tackle something. If someone were to say to me, ‘this has worked really well for me, you might be able to adapt it for your class’ I think I would be able to take it and not to rush to the staff room in floods of tears.
Teachers are all about having high standards and if outsiders (and by outsiders I mean newspapers and politicians) suggest our standards are slipping we are outraged. Therefore we should carry that through to our observations. If a lesson plan is confusing then say so. If class noise levels got just too loud then ask if they thought so too. If you didn’t understand the main concept or objective then focus discussion on it, it might just be you, but it also might be that several students had the same experience as you. The discussion that can follow from that, carefully managed of course, could be really exciting and a chance to discuss underlying aims, approaches and goals.
It’s been such a tough time in education recently with oh so many changes and it is really easy to forget all the good stuff going on. So many teachers are keen to share good practice that now is the time for really useful observation feedback. This is about standing up for standards, discernment is a good thing! Work scrutinies across the country are looking for comments in pupils’ work that move learning forward, using numerous strategies, so why shouldn’t we want that for ourselves as well? After all that work you put into your planning, do you really just want a ‘Well done!’ or ‘You are working really well’ for your feedback.
So, stop being too darn nice and start being real.