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Teacher Observations as a Positive Experience

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Classroom observation and feedback have often served as a valuable tool to improve teaching skills. It's a means to share ideas. It's allows an opportunity to raise questions and concerns. Of course, this is only possible if done properly.

Consider the following benefits:

1: Teachers benefit from one another's experience. This doesn't have to mean one person is a better teacher than another. Each instead comes to the classroom with different strengths and weaknesses. Observation allows another's perspective to enter the discussion, in part because it's much easier to spot the positives and negatives when not conducting the lesson.

2: Observations, when done well, create a system of support. If they are conducted only when problems pop up, then teachers will keep questions and concerns to themselves. They won't seek support and collaboration. There should always be someone at the school with whom to share ideas and address concerns.

3: Companies and schools which invest time, money, and energy into a training program produce happier staff. It sends a clear signal that superiors care about performance. It serves as one means for continued professional development. This of course assumes that the training isn't all top down.

Feedback is key to observations. Most teachers have several horror stories regarding observations. The whole process can be stressful and intimidating, especially when done infrequently, or only when it comes time to renew a contract or decide on a pay raise. As a trainer, I spend a lot of time working with groups of teachers. I spend even more time one on one. Observations can, and should, be a positive experience.

Before I get into the hows of conducting an observation, an important distinction should be made with evaluations. An evaluation rates a teacher, usually marking deficient areas that need improvement. It goes without saying that evaluations cause stress and near-universal dislike.

An observation, though, removes the element of judgment. The purpose is to gain a different perspective for feedback, on both the positive and the negative. Positive feedback lets the teacher know what he should try to repeat in future lessons. Comments on the not so good in the lesson create opportunities for discussion that can result in improved teaching ability.

When conducting observations:

Schedule enough time before the observation to have a meaningful discussion. The observee should have the chance to describe the upcoming lesson in detail. He should explain how he will present the grammar, for example, or why he has chosen a particular set of activities. Thirty minutes usually works well here.

It's very important to note that the observee isn't justifying his decisions, but rather sharing them with his peer. This means that a conversation should take place, with suggestions and/or alternative ideas placed on the table by both sides. The conversation should promote qualitative thought. The teacher may also be encouraged to try new ideas, or to explore alternatives in the classroom (if not today, then in the future). Additionally, it's important to talk about anticipated student behavior, problems, and concerns.

As the observer, you should also specifically state the point or points you will look for in the lesson. This helps remove the element of surprise, namely the observee continually wondering, "Why does he keep writing and writing and writing?!" It's best to base the focus on past observations, stating positive and negative comments from previous lessons. This allows you to offer continued guidance.

But remember: In the end, the observee always has the right to accept or decline suggestions. It's his class, after all.

Take notes during the observation. In fact, take a lot of notes. I prefer to write down everything that happens. In doing so, I won't have any gray areas later, nor will the observee and I scratch our heads while trying to remember specifics. Details are important to the feedback process.

Me: Your instructions weren't very clear to the students, so the activities often started slowly. A lot of the students were confused.
Teacher: What did I say?
Me (with poor notes): Well, I don't really remember. But like I said, everyone was confused. You had to stop two of the activities and explain again.

This isn't so helpful. How can the teacher improve without specifics? Compare:

Me (with detailed notes): You have trouble adjusting your language to the level of the students. Here's one example. You said, "What I'd like you to do now is, um, get into pairs, right? So everyone find a partner, um, the person next to you will work fine. And then ask questions from the worksheet. Question, answer. Question, answer. Okay? Go!"

Now we have something which, through conversation, we can work out. We can find ways to pare down instructions for clarity. This will improve student performance and, ultimately, lead to better retention because they can jump right into the activities for practice. Valuable class time doesn't get wasted.

You can always choose to take notes about specific points rather than on the entire lesson too. For example, perhaps previous observations indicated that the teacher had trouble adjusting his language. During the lesson, you then only watch how he presents the grammar and instructions. Of course, if any very strong or very weak points pop up elsewhere, then definitely make not of these too. Otherwise, you can stick to the points you had planned to observe, and which you discussed before the class began.

Lastly, schedule a meeting after the lesson. Again, make sure enough time is scheduled to go through all the relevant points, hold a meaningful discussion, and answer any questions. As the observer, you aren't there to criticize, but rather to provide feedback from your unique perspective as a non-participant of the lesson. Be sure to provide detail; objectively offer information; cooperatively help the teacher understand the comments; and encourage him to assess and try some of the comments and ideas.

As a final note, do the following when giving feedback:

1: Give feedback ASAP. The longer you wait, the less relevant the information becomes. The specifics get fuzzy, and the observation won't benefit anyone. And don't focus on the negative, but include the positive too.

2: Talk about a few points that the teacher can change. If you point out too many weaknesses, you end up with a frustrated and demoralized teacher.

3: Avoid sarcastic, personal, or condescending comments. You want to offer support and encouragement. Even the best intentioned joke can prove hurtful in this type of setting. Focus on actions only.

4: Explain how to repeat the positives and minimize (or eliminate) the negatives. You want the teacher to succeed, not to fail. A mistake often happens because the person doesn't know about the problem, or has no idea how to fix it. Help solve problems through open discussion. You thereby improve the working atmosphere, as well as engender trust.

5: Remember there are more ways to reach goals than the one you recommend. Although you have a unique perspective, your ideas, answers, or advice may be only one of many methods. Share ideas to start discussions, as opposed to taking a "do this" and "don't do that" approach.

6: The teacher should feel comfortable with experimentation. Let's say he read about an activity or approach, then tried it in the class. Unfortunately, it didn't go so well. I would rather see failure from experimentation that a "teach by numbers" approach to the lesson. Active experimentation and implementation of new ideas makes us all better teachers. What's more, improvement is the purpose of observations. Both the observer and the observee can now discuss the activity/approach together.

Remember that feedback sessions should motivate the teacher to improve his teaching ability. Hence it's very important to create a supportive atmosphere. Meet before and after the lesson, and take notes that will allow objective rather than subjective feedback. With the right mix of collaboration, trust, and respect, teacher observations can become more than a hated ritual. They can become truly beneficial to continued growth and improvement.

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