Online class observation insights

Throughout my teaching career, I have been formally observed or have observed my colleagues on many occasions. However, during the online teaching period, I only had one formal observation. In this post, I’d like to describe the experience and explore the question of whether online class observation is different from the ‘real thing’, i.e. face-to-face observation, at least from the point of view of the observee.

Now, the observer (the principal of our school) told me far in advance that I could choose the lesson I wanted her to see. It was not a hard choice; my only selection criterion was this: do the students voluntarily turn on their cameras? There were only two groups where I knew for sure that this wouldn’t be an issue so I chose the older students – simply because it was more convenient time-wise.

I should say that in my online lessons, I typically experimented a lot; I would try out new apps, websites, approaches to presenting content and materials, etc. The question I asked myself before the observed lesson was Do I want to experiment or do I want to play it safe this time? I opted for the latter because a) I didn’t want things to go wrong (they always do when technology is involved) and b) I didn’t want to give an impression of someone who is trying too hard to impress. Technology was intrinsically embedded in the lesson anyway (it was a Zoom lesson after all), so I didn’t want to impose more unnecessary pressure on me and the students just to prove that I’m tech-savvy.

Of course, I didn’t go completely conservative, either. I used breakout rooms, for example, because that’s what I would always do in my Zoom lessons and that’s what my students were used to. However, right from the start, I was aware of one potential problem: what do you do with the extra member – the observer? When dividing the participants into groups, anyone, including the extra member, is automatically or manually sent to one breakout room and unlike the host, they can’t just wander about popping into the other rooms. Obviously, it would have made no sense for the observer to linger in the main room where nothing was happening in the meantime. To deal with this, as soon as I sent her to a particular room, I joined the group myself and stayed there for the whole activity. Yes, the other students were left to their own devices, but it was the better option; it would feel strange to leave the group while the principal was still present. Obviously, I could have moved her manually each time I wanted to join a different group. But it didn’t occur to me back then since I had a lot on my plate already. So it was after a new activity was introduced when she was asked to join another group. In the end, she had seen four different groups, which was perfectly fine for the sake of demonstration. Also, I should stress that prior to this, she had not been particularly experienced in using breakout rooms, so she seemed genuinely pleased to see how the whole thing actually worked.

What I appreciated most was the fact that after a short pep talk at the beginning of the lesson she switched off her camera and stayed invisible and muted for the rest of the lesson (except for a few minutes at the end of the class when she said s few nice words and a goodbye). So, we were all aware that she was there all along, but her presence wasn’t disruptive in any way. This may seem quite surprising because normally, muted microphones and switched off cameras are a nightmare and such a type of ‘silent participation’ is usually pretty maddening. But now that I think about it, being invisible and inaudible is not a problem at all once you are the observer. On the contrary, I believe it would have been awkward for her to be ‘displayed’ on the screen all the time. It might have also been unpleasant for the students (don’t forget, she is the principal!).

Anyway, I was pleased that the students behaved quite naturally and participated actively although I hadn’t told them in advance that the lesson will be observed. Actually, I only told them a few seconds before I invited the principal into the main room. The reason why I had deliberately withheld the information from my students until the very last minute was that I didn’t want them to feel nervous long before the actual thing, plus I suspected some of them might choose to skip the lesson. It wouldn’t be too surprising; as we all know, back then, it was perfectly feasible to stay away from school with all the potentially plausible excuses at hand that simply had to be accepted. Ultimately, what can you do if a student’s internet connection isn’t working that day? Not much really.

In the end, I got some really nice feedback from the principal, which was truly satisfying, especially under the given circumstances.

In conclusion, online observation doesn’t necessarily have to feel very different from face-to-face formal observation. In fact, it can even be less daunting in some regards. First of all, your 3d presence has shrunk into a 2d space, so to speak. This may pose some disadvantages but eventually, all you have to worry about is your voice, facial expressions and a few classroom management skills. Also, you can’t control what’s happening in your students’ homes but you have some unique options for how to discipline them, for example. All in all, once you have got the knack of how things work in a specific online environment, you can become more confident and feel less nervous than you normally would when observed traditionally, i.e. in the classroom.

Observation or Presentation nerves – #ELTChat summary

020520153826As the title suggests, the topic of the 13/5-noon #ELTchat was Observation or Presentation nerves – how to avoid them or overcome them. The first question was posed by the moderator, Angelos Bollas: ‘Who is nervous during observation?’ While few participants said they are hardly ever nervous because they take observation as any other lesson (@TheRedFellow), many of us admitted some kind of uneasiness during formal observation (@juliacphang). It is the fear of the unknown – the unpredictable – which may be one of the sources of this anxiety (@juliacphang). However, @Shaunwilden argued that it should be the observer’s job to limit the unknown.

We agreed that although a certain amount of anxiety can be beneficial, and even a good bit of adrenalin (@juliacphang), when there’s too much of it, it can interfere with the observee’s performance (@angelos_bollas). However, once we get going, it’s ok. Students usually soon forget the observer there (@juliacphang).

The next question that emerged at the beginning of the chat was ‘Do you do something special to overcome anxiety?’ One of the tips suggested by @angelos_bollas was to imagine the audience being naked, which, as some of us admitted, never worked, though. What also helps, for example, is 1) a 5-minute walk in fresh air (@BobK99), or 2) having observers very frequently, preferably once a week or more, which helps you stop feeling it’s strange (@GlenysHanson). Also, the more you observe others, the more you relax about being observed yourself (@TheRedFellow). The moderator concluded that it’s a matter of getting used to being observed.

Another part of the discussion revolved around the observer. Who is the observer? Is it a colleague, the administrator, a tutor, the manager, an inspector, or a parent? There seem to be different kinds of anxiety depending on who observes you (@angelos_bollas). For example, some of us said that parents don’t make us feel nervous because they aren’t professional observers, and they are primarily interested to see what their kids can do. Others argued, however, that the parents who come to observe their lessons are psychologists, educators, or teachers (@rmoyano5). Glenys Hanson, for instance, mainly had observers who were colleagues, only interested to see what she was doing. Also, she observed colleagues in order to learn from them. She argued that if the teacher feels the observer is there to judge, it’s bound to be anxiety inducing. Angelos Bollas later maintained that the less formal the context, the less stress one would feel. I added that the aim of the observer is also important; it makes a huge difference if s/he wants to see what the teacher can do or what they can’t do. The moderator concluded that the aims should be known to both parties before observation.

For the rest of the chat, the concept of observation intertwined with the concept of presentation. While class observation can be somewhat unpredictable, presentations are relatively predictable, some argued (@HanaHainsworth). One of the unpredictable elements of formal observations is the students. Generally, they are better behaved when the class is observed, but they may have a tendency to show off, or sometimes they just do things you don’t expect. With a presentation, on the other hand, you know exactly what you’re going to say (@juliacphang). One way or the other, there is a huge difference between being a teacher and a presenter (@Shaunwilden).

Another point related to a rather high degree of unpredictability of observation concerned the fact the observees don’t always know in advance that/when they will be observed. Personally, I believe that we teachers should have the right to choose when we would like to be observed since the opportunity to prepare more thoroughly than usual diminishes the level of anxiety. Others argued, however, that they don’t mind experimenting, getting negative feedback, and learning from their mistakes (@Shaunwilden, @angelos_bollas).

A large bulk of useful tips was shared by the participants on how to prepare for a presentation. Here are some of them: Start solo, then do a presentation in front of small groups, and finally, present to the whole class (@TheRedFellow). ‘Fake it ’til you make it’ seems to work for @MrHoika. Some participants revealed that they like recording their voice and then video themselves before an observation/presentation (@angelos_bollas), while others admitted that they can’t stand listening to recordings of themselves (@TheRedFellow). Shaun Wilden argued, however, that it is a useful way of finding your faults. You can learn a lot from the recordings, and you can change things that need to be changed, such as timing, pausing, intonation, etc. (@angelos_bollas).

Another interesting idea was proposed by the moderator again, who believes that when it comes to professional presentations, what helps is presenting something online first before you do so face-to-face. @HanaHainsworth finds it best to find an audience to do it with because that way you can get feedback. A very practical tip came from @rmoyano5, who summed it up as follows: 1. Good knowledge of the topic 2. Anticipate questions 3. Good nite’s sleep!

Towards the end of the discussion, @teflgeek suggested that feeling positive beforehand may help a great deal because it’s not the presentation that causes nerves – it’s our thinking about the presentation. He argued that there’s a difference between preparation in terms of content, and nerves and anxiety in terms of delivery. We were advised against making the assumption that the presentation will go wrong. Also, there is no difference between pretending to have confidence and actually having confidence itself. So, we shouldn’t anticipate a reaction, we should just experiment by giving the presentation and seeing what reaction we get. Angelos Bollas concluded that perhaps, it’s a mindset difficult to teach, and I tend to agree; one either has it or not. I’d say it’s a question of experience rather than conscious learning.

Here’s the link to the transcript.