My first formal observations

This week I’ve done a couple of observations (precisely three with the one I described in my previous post). I really enjoyed the opportunity to see some decent lessons. I’m supposed to see every English teacher employed at our school once in the term; i.e. twice in the academic year. There are five English teachers, which then makes ten observations per year. This is my new duty which I was assigned when I became the head of the English department, and it’s the duty I was most looking forward to because I believe this is the most interesting and meaningful part of my job. 
I must admit that a year ago my observation feedback would have looked totally different. Not that I wasn’t competent or something – I had just finished my tough teacher training after all and I knew what to expect and say – but I saw things from a slightly different angle than I do now. One year ago I would have looked for flaws and improvements. I mean, not that I wouldn’t have told the teacher what is good, but I would have felt my duty is to help them become better teachers and that meant, at that time, fixing the flaws. Well, not that I don’t want to help my colleagues fix what I think is wrong with their teaching, I just doubt that I have the right to preach what’s wrong. The only thing that matters is whether the students learn. 
When observing the first lesson in question, I thought: Well, to my taste it’s a bit too quiet and calm in here; just some regular coursebook stuff. But then I realized that it was a perfect opportunity to concentrate on things which would otherwise remain unnoticed; either behind the glamour of the lesson, i.e. the teacher’s fantastic performance including the mastery of various gadgets and cool tools, or the noise the students usually make when having fun during super cool activities. There were no cool tools and no showing off on the teacher’s part though; the students worked quietly, but they did work all the time. The teacher spoke a little; she only spoke when asking questions, giving instructions and eliciting language from the students. The students produced most of the language. What I loved most was the eliciting part. It was when I realized how important and valuable it is to ask before you provide the answer, if you need to provide it at all. This information gap invariably attracts the students’ attention. I loved it when the teacher zoomed in on small words which were crucial to the overall meaning and successful completion of the task. From time to time I stopped observing and for a while I only kept listening with my eyes fixed down on the feedback form. It was when I could hear that the students were learning something. I knew; I could hear it.
Then I looked up again and saw the fantastic board work the teacher had produced throughout the lesson. My eyes could see and thus my brain could absorb and process. I suppose that’s how the students felt as well. Learners learn when they listen, but the spoken word is fleeting if not recorded in some form, at least the most salient parts. Putting things on the board and asking the students to copy them results in making these things permanent. Making a vocabulary or a grammar item permanent results in helping it find its way into the student’s memory. And thus learning occurs again. And this is what happened in this lesson.
Based on the lessons I’ve observed this week I’ve come to believe a couple of things. First, I truly believe that the best teachers spend most of the time drawing attention to language features. They make students notice what’s important. Good teachers then make the learners produce what they have noticed, either in writing or speaking. They recycle the language in a well-thought way. Secondly, when you observe a good lesson, you stop focusing on the teacher at some point – the teacher simply recedes into the background, even though you’re still aware of their presence. The students are in the spotlight of your observation, even though you actually came to see the teacher. Thirdly, there’s a huge difference between an effective and an impressive activity. An effective activity can be but doesn’t have to be impressive. And vice versa, an impressive activity may turn out totally ineffective. 
Finally, the question the observer or the observee (or any teacher in general) should ask at the end of each lesson is: What have the students learnt and how do I know? Both parts of the question are hard to answer. Every student is different and not all students pay attention all the time; some of them are unmotivated and they even hate being there. Thus it’s better to ask: What valuable learning opportunities have I offered and how do I know? I mean, sometimes the teacher does her best but the students don’t care. You cannot force people to learn things; they can only learn out of their own will. Hence the second question makes more sense. So when I’m sitting there as the observer, paying attention, I think I can judge whether the observee is offering learning opportunities. Alongside with the students, I’m the most objective subjective judge at the moment. And this should be the core of the subsequent feedback.
What do you think the students learnt and how do you know? This is the only thing I’m entitled to do: to ask this obvious yet challenging question. I’m not there to tell the observee that I do/would have done things differently – there’s no point. I’m not there to say that what the teacher did was wrong. No method is wrong if it helps people learn. So the only thing I can doubt question is whether learning occurred. If no learning happened, it wasn’t a good lesson. It was a waste of time and the kids may well have stayed at home watching an English movie or play a PC game instead. If learning did occur, the next question could be: Could I help them learn even more? This is the kind of reflection we should do together – the observee and I. This is the kind of reflection that will help us both, but it’s the students who’ll finally benefit most. 

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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5 Responses to My first formal observations

  1. Lumara says:

    What an excellent reflection you have made from a daily experience I go through as well. I work in an all girls school where I teach biology to advanced students in high school and I am also the head of my department.
    I have been teaching some years now and totally agree with your observations of the class, the important thing in education is that students learn; sure that gadgets are cool, especially the technological ones but they do not guarantee that a student will learn, sometimes they are more of a distraction.
    In my school in Puerto Rico we have the latest tools you can use in education and I must say that it always comes back to the basics, nothing substitutes pen/ pencil and some paper for making the best brain connections a student can develop.
    By no means do I have the intention of thinking less about what can the use of IPADS, apps, etc have in education, but I really believe that the use of some of the basics achieve a lot in learning.

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  2. Lumara says:

    Just wanted to add:
    “What valuable learning opportunities have I offered and how do I know” an excellent question every teacher should ask herself/himself at the end and beginning of each class.

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  3. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks, Lumara. Like you, I also have nothing against technology in general as long as it serves the primary purpose – helping Ss learn. I use technology moderately myself and I usually need a lot of time for adjusting to a new gadget. I never use something unless I have tried it out and unless it's absolutely natural for me to use it. As you say, nothing substitutes pen/pencil and paper for making the best brain connections. By the way, why would we still make kids learn handwriting? They say that the way a kid moves their hand while writing is closely related to their brain development and processing. My little son is learning to write at the moment and it’s awesome to watch him try hard to produce the letters and numbers. He may as well hit the key but that wouldn’t have the same effect, would it?

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  4. Ahoj Hanko!
    I thought this article was really perceptive and it resonated with me on several levels. I particularly liked the differentiation between an effective and impressive activity. That might be applied to a lesson or teaching in general, I thought.
    Having done both peer observations and also the more evaluative CELTA observations, it's good to be reminded of what the crucial part to be looking for in a lesson is. Only with that in mind is the whole observation / feedback procedure worth while. How simple it sounds when you ask “What do you think the students learnt and how do you know?”
    Thank you.
    Dita

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  5. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Dita,

    I'm happy to hear that my reflection resonated with you. Well, it seems that the more experienced I get the more difficult it is for me to answer the question regarding the outcomes of the lesson. With all the mixed-level and mixed-ability groups I teach, it sometimes seems almost impossible to tell how much and what exactly my students learnt – because everybody takes away something different. And honestly, the more effort I put into finding out, the more confused I get. It‘s definitely much easier to see things clearly from the observer’s viewpoint; that’s why observation is so important in the reflection process. Anyway, thank you for stopping by and taking the time to leave a few encouraging words.

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