Monday, December 20, 2010
By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
Very few words strike fear into the hearts of teachers like “Do you mind if I stop by and observe your class next week?” Being observed, either by a supervisor or a colleague is rarely a completely comfortable experience. It is natural to be nervous and, when something goes wrong, it is natural to have a few moments of panic. However, if done with tact and care, observations can be a really positive experience for both the teacher and observer.
I’ve been on both sides of the clip board, so to speak. As a beginning teacher, I observed my more experienced colleagues; as a more experienced teacher, I have been observed by my supervisors and by other teachers; and as a Lead Instructor, I observed other teachers, both new and experienced. I have never failed to learn something from any of my experiences.
As a beginning teacher, the opportunity to observe more experienced teachers was an invaluable accompaniment to the theory I was studying in my CELTA/RSA Certification. I was able to see the methods in practice and decide for myself what I wanted to try and what I might be comfortable with. Teaching can be a very isolating profession, and observations help to bridge the gap between a new teacher and his/her field.
For More Experienced Teachers
As a teacher, although I don’t look forward to being observed (who does?), I really did appreciate the thoughtful comments of my former supervisor, whose opinion I respect very much. I looked at the observations as an opportunity to learn from my supervisor’s many years of classroom experience. Her comments were usually largely positive and the suggestions were clear and based on examples of my behavior in the class. (In my case, they often had to do with slowing down during instructions, something I still struggle with.)
In my previous school, the observer was required to complete a form with plenty of space for comments. After the observation, the teacher and observer scheduled time to go through the form together. I valued the verbal feedback and I was given a chance to explain the choices I had made in the class.
Some teachers may worry that something will go wrong. They are right; it might. I once observed a teacher who sat on a wet chair in the middle of her lesson. She had to excuse herself to dry off her pants. These things happen. (They happen to me all the time, in fact.) As an observer, I was more interested in how she handled the situation quickly and gracefully. In observations myself, I have neglected to queue up the cassette tape and forgotten essential pieces of an activity. Again, these things happen. The important thing is to move on and realize that they have most likely happened to the observer at some point, too.
As an observer, I have also learned a great deal from my experiences. Teachers often scramble to show the flashier parts of their lesson plans, the games and interactive activities. But I also really enjoy watching how teachers handle the mundane daily tasks, such as roll call and homework checks. I first learned the great benefits of writing the lesson plan on the board in an observation of a less experienced teacher. (Even though I have been teaching for a while, it is possible for this old dog to learn some new tricks.)
In order for the observation to be successful, the supervisor has to be in a position of legitimacy. Trying to offer suggestions to a teacher when you have little or no teaching experience yourself will inevitably cause anxiety. Also, just as with grading papers, the feedback sandwich is important: one compliment, one suggestion, one compliment. (Observations are a great opportunity to boost a teacher’s self confidence.)
Finally, I strongly believe that it is important to offer the teacher a chance to defend his or her own choices. They may have a reasons for what they are doing that isn’t immediately apparent to you. Also, supervisors need to keep in mind that (thankfully) not all teachers have the same style. Your noisy, lively class management style might work for you, but another teacher might be just as successful with a more subdued approach.
As I said, being observed is rarely a completely relaxing experience, but there are a lot of potential benefits. In my current teaching situation, we don’t have any formal observations at all, and I have to say that I really miss the feedback and the opportunity to learn.