It might well be that my selling skills are rusty but in the four years I have been running Input on Education, there is one service that school owners favour the least and this is the topic of this month’s column: observations and how we can use them as a tool for development and not as a means of intimidation.
By Maria Sachpazian
Why on earth do we need observations?
Indeed, why? Looking at them from up close, observations feature an array of faults. For one thing, they are too objective. If we assembled a panel of experts and asked them to design a template for observations, they would definitely include some standard items but for the best part their templates would differ. If the same experts observed lessons led by the same teachers, they would draw different conclusions and pick on different issues. Let us be honest, though, if two different teachers were asked to grade the same composition, they too would come up with comments which will not be identical. This has not led us to abolish writing!
Secondly, observations are difficult to organize and if carried out properly they can be time-consuming. In the present situation when most school owners teach a full programme, freeing up time for them to go around classes and observe teachers can be challenging. Last but not least, there are a lot of issues which are open to discussion. For example, should teachers know when they will be observed or should the school owner barge in at any time? Personally, I feel that all the players of this game should be well informed and fair warning must be given for preparation to the teachers who will be observed. When I mention that, though, the reply I get is that then observations are a staged performance and not the ‘’real thing’’. Let us get one thing straight: no observation will ever give us a clear picture of what exactly goes on in that classroom. Observations can only give us indications of what is weak and needs strengthening and what needs to be left as it is. This happens because every class is a group with its own private socio-dynamic balance which is upset once an extraneous body (an observer) is added to the group. This phenomenon is called ‘’observer pollution’’ and can destroy the findings of any observation if the observer does not consciously try to limit his/her presence.
The reality about observations
Observations are one of the tools we have in schools to monitor the quality of the teaching provided within school units. Through observations we can ensure that the school continues to function on the same main principles, which need to be common and respected by all members of staff. As far as Continuous Professional Development is concerned observations play a key role in helping us identify the training needs of our staff. Based on the findings of observations and the Teachers’ Portfolio we can ensure the progress of each member of our staff, which in turn ensures the progress of our school.
Thinking of observation under this light one has to wonder why they have developed such bad reputation.
Three ways to use observations effectively
1 Involve the staff in the process
As the school year starts, set out to design an observation programme and ask the staff to contribute ideas as to when it would be best to hold these rounds of observations. If decisions are made within the staff, they are more likely to be respected by all. Needless to say, teachers should be given time to build some rapport with their classes, especially if they are dealing with new groups or if they are newly-hired teachers.
Another interesting idea is to involve the staff in the process of observing as well. Peer observations are a great way to encourage teachers to work in pairs or teams; they are unofficial and therefore less stressful. The findings of peer observations are discussed only between the two teachers but in order to promote bonding between teachers and to ensure that peer observations are always geared towards identifying the best in the other person’s teaching, we can ask the observers to share just one positive feature of their colleague’s lesson. Peer observations might also encourage teachers to keep a journal of their teaching, so they can become the first step towards more introspective and reflective teaching.
2 Do not use observations as a means of intimidation
If observations follow right after complaints have been made by parents or emerge after some disappointing exam results or even worse are announced at the expiration of the school year with the distinct comment that those whose teaching is not satisfactory will be fired, there is a great chance that what we will observe will not be conducive to us drawing useful conclusions.
Observations should be held regularly, but not too often, and they should not always be aimed at the same teachers. Holding observations twice a year is enough, with a third circle left as an option in case there are teachers who need or want to be re-observed. These two rounds should be aimed at different aspects of teaching or they could concern different levels. This will help reduce the workload of the teachers as well as their stress. Finally, observations need to be a transparent process. Teachers need to know what they are observed on and on which criteria. Much like we familiarise our students with oral exam routines and marking schemes we ought to do the same for teachers as well.
3 Use the findings creatively
Based on the findings of the observations, school owners are in a position to decide how the teaching material works, how the teachers have developed it and which teachers need to work together to maximise their potential and that of the school. Observations can help a school owner decide on the training needs of the staff but they can also show which teachers have grown too comfortable at the level they are teaching and are not trying to expand their range of teaching. Identifying all these areas in advance will give the school owner enough material to work on in anticipation of the new school year, thus ensuring an unbreakable quality circle.
A final word of warning needs to be added. When observing, beware of holding a very strong magnifying glass too close to what you are observing. Ultimately, observations need to be confidence boosters not mechanisms of destruction.
Maria Sachpazian BA education / RSA dip/tefl (hons) is the Academic and Managing Director of Input on Education a company which provides academic, business support and consultancy to Foreign Language Schools. She is also an educational management specialist who has worked as a teacher trainer and materials’ developer. Maria works as an EFL teacher at the Straight Up Markoyannopoulou schools