Monday, December 20, 2010

Observations For Teachers and Supervisors

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.

For Beginners

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.

For Supervisors

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.


Comment from Ninos Ishaia
December 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Dear Tamara,
I really enjoyed your article as if it were by my own immediate supervisor, albeit he never exists. Why is that? Because things turn out really catastrophically nasty when supervisors do nothing except sitting around, showing off, and shouting commands! I mean there has to be some sort of understanding, as it were, for the supervisor to take a little part when they’re attending some class.

Comment from Tamara
December 21, 2010 at 4:20 am

I agree that the success of an observation depends on how much the teacher values and respects the supervisor’s opinion. I prefer that my observers not take part in the class. In my opinion, they should be flies on the wall, so to speak. If an observer participates, their focus is divided, and this defeats the purpose of the observation.

Comment from oriel ortega
December 21, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Hello: Teacher Tamara

All what you have said is so true. In my seven years of experirnce, it happens over and over again. I worked as a English teacher(elementary school). It always happens. When you see your supervisors at the door of your classroom, you get nervous.But your comments about this were really helpful to me. Can you send more???,


Oriel (Panama)

Comment from Tamara
December 22, 2010 at 2:19 am

I am glad you found this blog helpful!

Comment from Abu Hassan
December 29, 2010 at 11:07 am

Very nice topic actually. Thank you so much for presenting it.

But I have a question, I wish you answer it.
What should the teacher being observed do if his or her students are of very low level?
Because having such kind of students often embarrasses me and makes me resistant to being observed by even my colleagues.

Waiting your reply!

Thanks in advance!

Comment from Tamara
January 3, 2011 at 4:33 am

I don’t think that the level of the students is necessarily an indication of a bad or good teacher. Whether or not the students are learning can depend on such a wide variety of factors, such as their motivation, their family situation, or even their age. When I observe teachers, I am not concerned with the level of the student; rather, I focus on the strategies the teachers use to reach their students of all levels. Ideally, an observer should focus on how the teacher interacts with the students, organizes his/her lesson and presents information. The level of the students really shouldn’t be a factor, in my opinion.

Comment from Sarah Yin
January 6, 2011 at 5:28 pm

I cant agree with you more about what you said. I have observed and been observed as well within my over 20 years of teaching. To be honest, I kind of enjoy being observed because I can always learn to see my own lessons from the questions asked by the person who observed me except ONE situation-when the teacher who observed me did not even know to observe. I can actually see if a person has a potential to become a LEARNING or a THINKING teacher from if he/she knows how to ask or if he/she even asks questions after the observation. I must I got lucky that I was observed by few very good trainers. They were not judgemental at all. They were not intimadating or trying to patronize me. Instead, they threw lots of thought provoking questions to push me to think and justify my own lessons and the reason why I did what I have done. Therefore, I always enjoy being observed by people who know how to observe. Thanks a lot for raising the awareness of the value of observation.

Comment from Tamara
January 10, 2011 at 2:09 am

I think you are right on about the importance of the observer asking questions. That gives the teacher a chance to explain his/her rational. And, as you point out, questions force teachers to think about WHY they are doing certain things in the classroom. That’s a great way to grow as a teacher!

Comment from lili barati
March 16, 2014 at 7:32 am

Hello.thanks for your helpful comments.I am à supervisor in an English institute in Iran.when I enter à class to observe I see that the teacher has stress specially the new one.In your idea is it

better to announce them the time or the session I want to observe them or no?

Comment from Tamara Jones
March 16, 2014 at 8:31 am

That’s a great question! I think it’s better to let them know so you they can be prepared. I don’t mind impromptu observations, but if I know in advance, I can be sure to prepare a lesson which will highlight my teaching strengths.

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