“You’re being observed next week…”
Such a simple sentence as this strikes fear and dread into the heart of teachers throughout the nation, regardless of whether they have been teaching for decades or are in their training year. But this should not be the case.
During my training and throughout my NQT year, I saw observation as a right of passage that I had to endure in order to become a ‘proper teacher.’
Not once did I question the feedback I was given, or did I query the judgements that were made.
I saw observers as fonts of knowledge who knew what they were looking for, and I believed that they were right, whatever their views. I was consistently a ‘good’ teacher for these two years and settled into the thinking that that was it; I was a good teacher and that’s how I was going to stay.
My second year of teaching brought the rude awakening that as your classes change year on year, so too does the experience you have with them. My status as a ‘good’ teacher was seriously in peril having received ‘satisfactory’ (on the old framework) judgements in several observations. But again, I never questioned or queried those observing me and the judgements I was given. I naturally assumed my teaching had gotten worse and that perhaps I had never been ‘good’ in the first place.
Thus, over the coming year or so I participated in numerous programmes designed to improve my teaching and make me a ‘good’ teacher again. Examples as follows:
- Good to Great
- Voluntary CPD sessions
- Peer observations
- Teaching books full of activities and strategies
For the following 2 years I was consistently a ‘good’ teacher, never once dropping below that crucial threshold in any judgement. Quality of teaching = good. AFL= good. Learning & progress= good. I’m pretty sure I could’ve reeled off the entire Oftsed descriptor for ‘good’ if I’d tried.
- I didn’t understand that observations are not about ME per se
- I was trying to use every strategy and new policy idea under the sun to impress observer!
- I forgot the most important thing: LEARNING
- I didn’t realise what an amazing CPD opportunity observations essentially are- I saw them as a threat to my career.
Reorganising those points, these were my revelations:
- LEARNING is the absolute goal of any lesson/observation/activity
- Good quality observation & feedback provides a real-time form of CPD– it is not done to you, it is done with you.
- I’m not interested in the observers judgements but rather WHY they have made those judgements- more often than not, that’s got nothing to do with me as a person.
- Gimmicks are just that, and they have no place in an outstanding learning environment.
Since my revelatory moment, I have been graded as consistently ‘outstanding’ across all Key Stages. Impressive right? Wrong. The observation records on a piece of paper tell only a fraction of the story- what is far more important is the typical experience of students, day-in day-out in our lessons.
The notion of typicality has been championed by @TeacherToolkit (http://teachertoolkit.me/2014/10/04/typicality-and-support-by-teachertoolkit/ ) and he has shared some excellent views on how to understand and achieve it in schools.
For me, typicality in lessons is about the reality of the classroom and the learning experience students have every single day they are at school. It’s about consistency, routine, expectations and relationships. (Note: typicality isn’t always positive!)
When looking for typicality, the best places to look include:
- Students books: does marking differ over time? Is it absent? Do students respond to it? Is marking moving learning forwards? Is there an absence of learning evident in books? e.g. almost no written work in subjects like History or English for example.
- Behaviour: how much time is spent on managing behaviour? Are expectations embedded in the lesson? Do student behaviours reflect the standards and expectations of the teacher?
- Tracking data: does the data indicate progress over time? Are there inconsistencies? Does assessment data correlate with observation gradings and student surveys?
- Observation data: how does the teacher perform on average across an academic year? Are there recurring areas for development? Does the teacher have clear strengths?
- Student- teacher relationships: what are the characteristics of the relationship? Warm? Hostile? Distant? Over-friendly? How well do students & staff respond to each other?
- Student surveys: what do students think about their lessons/learning/teacher/school? Do their views change depending on year group/time of year/ Key stage?
What is crucial to understand is that these features of typicality cannot really be investigated in isolation– typicality is a combination of all of these things (and a hundred more that there just isn’t room to explore here) on a daily basis. If you want to gain a real sense of the typicality in your classroom, do what Bill Hybels calls ‘taking a flyer’ (Axioms; 2008) – find out what other staff and students really think about the learning in your lessons. It may not be comfortable viewing/listening, but it certainly will facilitate reflection and growth.
observation as a process
Since becoming a Second in Department and then later a Lead Practitioner I’ve been fortunate to experience the observation process from the other side. I am also very fortunate in that my academy firmly believes in all staff understanding and benefitting from the observation process.
So to come back to the overall theme of this post- why I stopped being terrified of observation- I want to share my thoughts on how I now see observation (see diagram above).
- The focus of any observation is the LEARNING and the STUDENTS– not the teacher. For example, if the feedback is that the teacher needs to improve their questioning, then such a comment must be based on concrete evidence from the learning in the lesson, and only when such a comment would drive the learning forwards.
- Once the condition of the learning has been established, then the observer can consider what the teacher has done/is doing to cause this learning to happen (for good or ill)
- Reflection/diagnosis must then take place regarding what would have helped push the learning on even further, whether that means something the teacher needed to do or not do, or something students themselves need to do/not do.
- Feedback absolutely must help the teacher develop and cause greater learning in the future– if this doesn’t happen, the feedback is pointless. But it is not enough just to feedback; the nature, timing, and level of dialogue in the feedback are all crucial.
- Feedback should be a two-way conversation, an adult-adult conversation, and not a parent-child conversation involving blind acceptance of what is being said. Professional dialogue and collaborative reflection are an essential part of productive feedback.
- Feedback is more important that the grade given- I have made it a habit to ask for feedback first and grade last; after all it is the feedback which helps me improve and helps me understand the experience my students are having.
I’m immensely proud that my academy is this year experimenting with a range of alternative forms of observation, rather than the oft-used 30 minute, thrice-yearly endurance test. It’s only now that the academy is in the position to be able to do this; training is targeted and well delivered, CPD is plentiful and 92% of teachers have delivered an outstanding lesson(s). It is right for us that we now find a way to make observation even more meaningful and draw more value from it. I myself am taking part in the ‘Standards over time’ trial, involving 3 shorter observations with the same class over a 3 week period. This process will be repeated at several points throughout the year.
If I’m honest, I would rather be observed every week of the year than have my quality as a teacher judged on 3 x 30 minute blocks of time with 3 different classes- in my view, an observer is more likely to see the typicality of my lessons on a weekly basis, than on 3 snapshots of time.
So to sum up, I stopped being terrified of observations when I started truly focusing on the learning of my students. My moral purpose is to improve the lives of my students and help them become better; how can I be scared of something that helps me help them?
- How can schools help staff overcome their fear of observation?
- What can be done to ease the burden/stress of observation cycles?
- Ultimately there still needs to be accountability, and observations form part of this. But, is there a way to have the rigours of accountability and a positive relationship with observation?
- Why does the quality of feedback given after observations differ so much?
- Do all observers actually focus on learning?
- What if all observations were no-notice?
- What if observations were purely developmental and had no formal grading attached? Is this feasible as a whole school model?