Formal observation observations

IMG_20150622_152041Like every semester, I have just started a round of classroom observations. I’m required to see each English teacher in our department at least once in six months, which has been part of my job since Septemeber 2014. The main purpose of the observations is to help my colleagues to improve their teaching. However, officially, the observations are also conducted for the purposes of job-performance evaluation.

One of the problems related to both aforementioned purposes is that some of my colleagues have been teaching for a longer period of time than I have. In effect, there’s only one teacher who’s got less teaching experience than me. This, obviously, makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I mean, it’s ok when you do peer observation; the amount of experience doesn’t really matter because you’re both in equal positions. However, once you’re in a situation when the observee feels they must perform well because their performance will later be reflected in the overall evaluation, such a type of observation will never be seen as a genuine tool for professional development.

Here’s what I’ve been doing to diminish the impact of the inequality inherent to every formal observation. When observing a lesson, I take a lot of notes on a separate sheet of paper, but eventually, I have to summarize, and, to a certain extent, depersonalize, the feedback by transferring it onto a prescribed template. There’s lots of ticking there, which, to my mind, is a chore and doesn’t really say much about the actual lesson, and there are boxes where I’m supposed to record the amount of TTT as opposed to STT. This is noted down in the form of a percentage. But how could I possibly measure this accurately? Needless to say, I don’t bring along a stopwatch, which, by the way, might be a great idea, except that it would scare the teacher as well as the students, plus it would probably cast doubt upon my sanity.

Anyway, most of my colleagues already know that the ‘ideal’ ratio of TTT to STT is around 30% to 70 %. In other words, students should be engaged in plenty of speaking activities (if it’s not a writing lesson, for example). So, if there’s a decent amount of meaningful pair/group work, the observee will get the ideal ratio. Once I feel there’s space for improvement in this area, I leave the box empty.

Another thing that makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable is the two boxes titled POSITIVES and NEGATIVES. For one, they are too small. If I could design a new template, I’d definitely make them much larger and I’d rename the NEGATIVES one. I was thinking of something like THINGS TO CONSIDER instead. This sounds much better, but most importantly, it’s more acceptable for the observee, who might otherwise feel as if being criticized or even reprimanded.

When sharing feedback with the observee after the lesson, I take advantage of the separate piece of paper where there are all the ‘negatives’ (not called negatives). Eventually, I only copy the conclusions into the POSITIVES box and I leave the other one empty.

There’s also one more thing that bothers me and that is the final ‘grade’ the observee is supposed to get from me. The range is from outstanding to poor. I believe grading the observee’s performance in this way is not the best thing an observer can do. Not only is such a simplified conclusion very subjective and says nothing about the lesson, but anything except outstanding will always be somewhat discouraging for a professional, let alone a highly experienced one. So I also leave this box empty. Sue me.

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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.
This entry was posted in Education, Observation, Personal challenges, Professional development. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Formal observation observations

  1. HL says:

    Thanks for this great (and very timely) post Hana!
    I am also about to observe and be observed, as November is our official evaluation observation time. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I feel the whole process has to be meaningful, and often it’s perceived as an isolated, twice-yearly, box-ticking task. I love how you have morphed that rigid evaluation form into something meaningful for teachers .
    This year, to make it more of a process rather than isolated event, I’ve been trying out 2 things:
    First, ‘unobserved’ lessons, where the T plans formally and we chat about the lesson, but I don’t actually go in. We have a quick post-lesson chat too and the T sends me their reflection notes.
    Secondly, we do informal observations where no formal plan is required – just a general idea of what the T expects to happen – and it focuses on one main point, chosen by the T (How’s my classroom mngmt?, Are my instructions clear? Etc). This is followed by a quick, informal chat about how the T thought it went.
    So, by the time the formal, evaluative observation swings by, we have developed a relationship based on planning and observation and everything about the observation makes more sense. I can’t change the observation form, but it has a proper, more positive context I hope. Even though I only have 2 or 3 teachers to observe, it’s all very time-consuming, but we will see if it pays off.
    I’m sure the teachers you observe appreciate what you do, stopwatch or no stopwatch 😉

    Like

    • Some great comments here, Hana. Are you in a position to rewrite the observation form? For our CertTESOL course the observation notes are divided into three columns: what happened? how well it worked and why? suggestions? The idea of having positives and negatives as headings sounds a little off-putting!
      I love Helen’s suggestion of an unobserved lesson as I think that can be a very useful style of observation – the teacher is still given a moment to formally reflect on the lesson, without the stresses many feel of being observed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hana Tichá says:

        Hi, Teresa. The same template is used by all subject teachers at our school and from time to time, all the observation forms are collected by the administrators (I guess they want to have a proof that observation takes place). So my answer is: I shouldn’t change it out of my own will. But I’m pretty sure that if I really insisted on changing it, my superiors probably wouldn’t object too persistently. However, it’s not the template that is important in the process of observation, so for the time being, I’ll probably let things be as they are. 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

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    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for your comment, Helen. I’m glad to hear you find my post useful 🙂 You say you love how I have morphed that rigid evaluation form into something meaningful for teachers. Thank you. Last year, when ‘formal’ observation of my team became part of my job, I didn’t feel very comfortable at first; most of all, I felt I might sound somewhat patronizing during the feedback session – my colleagues are my friends, after all. Even now, some of them half-joke about the fact that I take it too seriously and responsibly; that in the past the observation was much less formal. Some teachers would only pop in for 10 minutes and during those ten minutes, they would do their own stuff, like grading tests, doing paperwork, etc. In other words, observation, especially peer observation, which we are also required to do regularly, was looked at as one of the duties that had to be done – regardless of the quality or its potential merits. I don’t know about you, but I would never like anybody to see my lesson for just 10 minutes – they should either see the whole lesson or do something else instead. Each lesson has a specific structure and seeing just one part of it is like having one piece of an interesting (hopefully) puzzle jigsaw.

      Unobserved lesson sounds like a great idea and, when I think about it, we actually do this from time to time, even though only unofficially – we chat about our plans in the staffroom and then we share the observations after the lesson.

      By the way, I don’t see the lesson plans at all because we are not required to hand them in. As an observer, I should know beforehand what the main aim of the observed lesson is and then I just sit and enjoy the lesson (taking tons of notes). 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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  3. Zhenya says:

    Hi Hana

    Thank you for the post – and for motivating me to write my own in response (hope can link to yours)

    Have just read the suggestions in the comments and like the idea of making it a process rather than event by Helen, and about working on the observation form/task instead of a report form by Teresa. Something I found out about ‘managing other teachers’: it is a lot about them trusting you, or not trusting you to observe the lessons. ‘Trust’ is even more subjective than a report or grading, but once it is there, a lot more outcome can be observed.

    Thank you for sharing – as always, a chance to learn.
    Zhenya

    Like

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks, Zhenya. I’m really happy that I motivated you to write such a wonderful post. I loved it, as usual. My view on the process vs. event dichotomy is this: I believe that even if you only see a teacher once in six months, which is a rather sporadic event, they know you’ll come again. Based on my experience, the observees remember what you talked about during the feedback session (especially if it’s something which caused disagreement) and if they are flexible, they take it into consideration. When you come next time, you notice that what you talked about previously is perfectly reflected in the lesson you’ve just observed. So, my point is that a single event can actually start a wonderful process of change and transformation. Of course, as you say, it’s all about trust, which, in this case, is the opposite of fear.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Hana,
    Thanks for writing this post.
    Having just finished the first of three rounds of formal observation at IH Bydgoszcz this year, it’s interesting to see how another school manages the observation process. It’s a shame that the template you’re using seems to be quite judgemental. Do observers in other subject areas feel similarly to you? Maybe a group of you could go to the administration and ask to change it?
    On the observation sheets here I’ve used the phrase ‘action points’ which was stolen from CELTA – I don’t know if that’s more or less problematic than ‘problems’! I try to say what general area the teacher needs to work, then offer one or two specific suggestions for what they can do. I’ll put as many positives as I can manage onto the sheet, and a maximum of three action points, as realistically I don’t think anyone can work on more than that at once. Teachers can choose what to focus on first, and there are about 6 weeks until the process begins again and we’ll see what’s changed.
    The way the sheet works for you is the most important thing – it sounds like the experience is a supportive, positive one for the teachers, particularly during the post-observation feedback, which is all we can hope for in the end.
    Sandy

    Liked by 1 person

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