Don’t tell teachers how, ENGAGE them – A bottom-up approach to teacher observation.

 

Have you ever worked at an institution where you were frequently observed? If the answer is YES, you’re probably very well acquainted with observation forms, in which most of your teaching is defined as a set of boxes which you either tick or not e.g. did you give successful instructions? Did you focus on meaning rather than form? Did you use concept check questions? Did you have a board menu? I find all these descriptors useful (though not always efficient, it very much depends on the learners we’re dealing with), however, observations which focus entirely on assessing the quality of the teaching based on external principles or recipes do not necessarily lead to professional development nor do they improve student performance.

 

How can we therefore make observation more useful to both teachers and students?

I see teaching as a combination of bottom-up and top-down strategies. I genuinely believe that one should make informed decisions based on research and science, but I also think that those books and principles do not define the class a teacher has.

In fact, Art-Craft conceptions of teaching claim that “teachers should not set out to look for a general method of teaching or to master a particular set of teaching skills but should constantly try to discover things that work for them, discarding old practices and taking on new ones.” (Richards 1998: p. 46).

Therefore, I strongly believe that our observations should reflect this, in order to help teachers solve problems and enhance learner performance

These are the steps I’ve been following at the institution where I work to make teacher observation more bottom-up:

  • The first step is,pre-observation meetings, where you find out about the class. The teacher tells you about the things they think work well, and what they think doesn’t. You ask them to describe the learners, and they will tell you about the problems they have with some of them e.g. “X” does not pay attention, “Y” finishes before everyone else, etc.
  • Agreeing with the teacher on what will be the main focus of the observation, and what task you will conduct in order to help them with the challenges they have mentioned in the pre-observation meeting. E.g. sitting behind a learner that the teacher finds particularly problematic, and take notes of everything that learner does and how they respond to the teachers’ instructions / tasks, etc.
  • Having a feedback meetingwhich reveals the findings of the observation task you agreed on, and together involves hypothesizing and coming up with solutions to solve the problem.
  • Written feedback summarising the points discussed during the meeting.
  • An action plan with follow up steps as to how to tackle the issuesdiscussed which may require observing another teacher, doing some background-reading, or even team teaching with a more experienced teacher or coordinator, in order to see how students’ would react to other teaching skills.
  • Professional development interview to reflect on progress.

Although the approach above, may appear time-consuming, I believe that if you’ve observed a teacher ten times and that person has shown no change whatsoever, that’s a waste of time. Nevertheless, when you observe someone to help them solve a problem, it is more likely that the person will make a stronger effort to make changes to their practice, as an attempt at solving those problems should ultimately make the teacher’s life easier. It also makes the observation circle a lot more personalised and goal-oriented.

In general, I have seen that most teachers have shown improvement with this approach to observation. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to follow all the steps mentioned above, given all the other admin tasks coordinators have to comply with.

If you’re a teacher trainer or academic manager, and like me, you’ve felt you’ve been wasting your time doing observations, to solely tick boxes, why not give this approach a try? Perhaps you already have! It’s certainly not new and has been described in the teacher education literature many times.

Below, are some examples of written feedback, which aimed at tackling issues mentioned by practising teachers at our school.

 

X gets bored and he finishes the activities before the others. Even though you follow the ABC to giving instructions in the sense that you explain the exercise clearly and you elicit an example, you are handing out the worksheets before you give instructions and that isn’t a very good idea.

X was doing the exercise whilst you were giving instructions, mainly because as he’s older, it’s easy for him to predict that he’s got to complete the blanks using words from the box.

You could draw the box and write the example on the board, and after you’ve checked instructions, you can give them the worksheet. That way, you won’t have a student who has finished before the others started the exercise.


You could also elicit instructions from him.

 

Another suggestion, demonstrate more and explain less. See Scrivener’s chapter on instruction giving.

 

 

 

 Students lose concentration or stand up and chat in Spanish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a rather large class, and students are tired after having spent 8 hours at school before coming here, so I understand they may stand up.

Obviously, busy kids tend not to misbehave, which is why, as we’ve discussed on the feedback meeting, we need to come up with a plan to avoid dead time in class, which is when a student is doing nothing, wandering round or simply bothering someone else.

Here are some of the tips we discussed to prevent dead time.

 

A) Instead of checking homework as they arrive, check them at the end, when they line up to leave the classroom.  There were a lot of late comers and you spent 20  minutes trying to check homework before moving on to the next activity. You were really busy doing this, which is why you probably didn’t pay attention to the fact that some were literally sitting down and waiting or standing up and chatting in Spanish. You did notice that (student)  was standing up and chatting, and I understand he gets distracted very often both here and at his Primary School but I do think that overall you’re coping well with him, and that less dead time, will help him to behave more appropriately.

 

B) Class routines: It’s good to see you’re incorporating some routines. To trigger classroom management issues, I’d suggest the following:

  • Have students line up at the beginning of every class. Ask them a question, or get them to ask you a question, and sit them where you want them to sit down (without leaving gaps so that pair work is easier to set).
  • Have a routine at the beginning which involves some production, ask what day it is, what the weather is like and have a student write the next on the board.
  • Make sure you’ve got a board menu. That way, students know what’s going on, and you remember that there shouldn’t be a lot of dead time.
  • Combine stirrers and settlers. Before each class, think about in which activities students will be chatting, standing up and/or moving around and in which activities they will sit down quietly. Young learners need movement and they also need quiet moments to learn. The ideal classroom should have a combination of both.  After you did the course book listening, you moved on to dictation, that’s two quiet activities in a row, and that can be quite tiring for the learners.  See this link on the topic http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/stirrers-settlers-primary-classroom. If you’ve already seen Task 5 – Routines course, you might have noticed the noise thermometer, that may help your learners to know when it’s ok to speak and when they should be quiet.

 

 

 

 

 

Are you a teacher? Have you ever been observed? Was it useful? Are you a teacher trainer? Do you currently do pre-obs’ meetings? How do you conduct observations? Please post your comments below!

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