This article was published on the ELT NEWS website, Japan as part of the ‘Think Tank’ regular feature.
This was part of my life for years, and it’s the oldest teacher-training method. Teachers are reluctant to open the door to outsiders. I had to do it for years, partly training new teachers and partly because the school I worked at had an endless stream of agents who wanted to observe lessons. My hardest experience was in Budapest, in the early 90s. I was asked to teach a class of 13/14 year olds with my own text book while I was observed. I didn’t realize that I’d be teaching them in a hall with about forty teachers sitting watching me from the balcony above. Tip- I asked for ten minutes on my own to get to know their names at least.
The toughest feedback I ever had was when testing out video exploitation material while writing the Activity Books to Grapevine videos. My co-author and wife, Karen, watched me with some classes so that we could get an observer’s feel of the material. Her first comment was, ‘You were much better five years ago. Definitely getting rusty on technique.’ Another hour of detail followed.
No one likes being observed. I always used to quote Robert O’Neill on observation: “The teacher and the prostitute have much in common. They both engage in an activity which only takes place behind closed doors.”
So, let’s open the door. Anyway, a few tips follow.
Don’t sit where the teacher has eye contact with you. I used to sit in the front corner, so that I was slightly behind the teacher, watching the class. If the teacher has eye contact, they will tend to teach directly to the observer.
Don’t take notes if you can avoid it. It distracts teacher and class. If it’s vital, you’ll remember it. The only notes I used were a sociogram of the teacher and students on which I’d mark lines of interaction, with circles for pair and group work. At the end you can see the radial pattern of a teacher-centred lesson, or the interlocking circles of an interactive lesson, or the cross-lines created by question generators (Ask him / her / me). It needs little or no explanation.
Don’t give feedback on the whole lesson. Focus on one or two points – student interaction or classroom management or presentation of grammar or question technique. The observed teacher cannot focus on everything.
Let those you are going to observe first observe you. It’s only fair. I once observed a “superior” in my first year, and was greatly relieved to see that he was a dreadful teacher. Well, I felt better!
Don’t EVER participate on the teaching side. Don’t be tempted to be a resource or a dialogue demo partner, or answer questions. Never, however bad the lesson is, take over. Joining in with a student on pair work with is OK if there’s an odd one out, but it’s preferable not to. You can’t watch the classroom management techniques while participating.
It is only fair to watch a whole lesson. This should not need saying. It’s disruptive for the class to flit in and out, and unfair to the teacher to observe phases in isolation. Once, I appalled a government inspection team by telling that we had a rule that only whole lessons could be observed. Our students were paying customers and I wasn’t allowing people to wander in and out of lessons. They accepted it.
Teacher-trainers can’t double up as supervisors, or directors of studies. As a head of department I also had to observe teachers to decide who to employ long-term. You cannot do teacher training at the same time! Of course you can at a later stage – once their job is secure.
OK, your teacher-trainers said ‘make use of any real stimulus.’ However, do not take this as meaning an observer. Don’t try and involve the observer in the lesson. They can observe or they can participate. But they cannot do both.
You will not do your best. A wise observer will not expect you to. All the little jokes and asides you might make when you’re relaxed and alone with your class will wither before the gaze of a native-speaker observer. Try to preserve them. Do not be embarrassed by the observer. The students are your “customers” not the observer. Ignore the observer’s presence and TRY to do what you’d normally do. Including silly jokes, clichés etc. Never ask the observer questions about grammar, nor to agree or confirm with what you’ve just said.
Don’t try too hard to please the observer. I stopped doing observation when I realized that teachers used either Streamline or Grapevine in an attempt to curry favour. And then used the teacher’s notes exactly on the grounds that it would be hard for me to criticize the lesson plan. I did though – insufficient personalization of the material!
If it’s important (like an exam) I would avoid anything too way out. One trainee asked me to observe her doing a silent way lesson. It was impressive. I advised her not to use it in the exam. She was first-rate at a more conventional lesson too, and I wanted her to pass. Some examiners are broad-minded, but why bet on it?
Be prepared to place the observer where you want them, not where they want to go. As above, I suggest in a front corner out of your eye-line.
If you’re being observed for an exam or a job, insist that you have at least one lesson on your own with an unfamiliar class first. You need to establish some rapport before you’re in the firing line.
As in all teaching, remember the students’ names. If you don’t know the students well, have them put name cards on their desks.