This Blog looks at the observation process at the British Council Bangkok

Organisational Background
I work for the British Council in Bangkok, Thailand. I am a Senior Teacher for Young Learners and Recruitment. I currently manage a team of 6 teachers working in a language centre.

I have been in this role for one and a half years. My main duties are to line manage teachers and ensure the quality of our programmes by maintaining teaching standards and ensuring we have a good relationship with all the main stakeholders including the students and their parents. I am also responsible for recruiting teachers both on full time and hourly paid contracts. Previously I was a Senior Teacher in a partner school and before that a teacher in a small branch of 1 branch manager, 9 teachers and 1 senior teacher. I was observed once a year by the branch manager.
 
 
Background and role of observation
Observation at the British Council in Bangkok is done (or should be done according to organisational directives) at least twice a year depending on centre and manager. It is incorporated into the learning and development cycle. The first observation is done at the start of the cycle and is designed to be diagnostic. Teachers choose a class they would like to be observed on and arrange a time with the observer. The observer and teacher take this observational opportunity to look at strengths and weaknesses in the classroom and then address these during feedback. Teachers are then encouraged and directed to find ways in which to turn weaknesses in strengths throughout the year. The second observation at the end of the cycle if evaluative and is a means to maintain quality standards and to ensure teachers are meeting the needs of students. Previous observation is used as a benchmark and to ensure that the teacher has committed to developing throughout the year.
 
 
Observation in Bangkok is top down and on the whole driven by management. The majority of observation is of the formal kind with teachers required to complete a lesson plan and attend an oral and written feedback session. Pop-in observations, peer observation, videoed lessons are often discussed but rarely utilized due to differing reasons. Teachers are given some freedom in which class to observe but are for the most part being evaluated. Other forms of observation tend to be of the reactive type with management responding to customer complaints or to meet the needs of directives from other organisations such as the Ministry of Education.
 
It is extremely rare for teachers to request an observation because they have found some sort of deficiency in their teacher or problem in their class. In the rare times it has happened it is mainly down to classroom management issues where an individual student or perhaps a group of students are being disruptive and the teacher is looking for ways to combat this.
 
Other forms of observation which are quite common are observations as part of a course of further training. We have teachers completing the distance DELTA who are observed by local and external tutors and teachers who are in process of completing the CELTYLX who are observed by peers, local tutors and external assessors.
 
Feedback
Feedback is provided both orally and written. There is an observation feedback form which we are required to use and keep on record. This form has sections such as course and lesson planning, classroom management,
learning technologies, subject knowledge, understanding your learners and an overall comments section. The observer will use their lesson observation notes to complete the form highlighting strengths and weaknesses where appropriate. He or she will then use this as a driver for the post lesson oral feedback session. After this discussion the observer will then write up post feedback discussion notes including action points and an overall summary of the observation. This is posted to an online portal.
 
Staff views on observation
I have found that my colleagues view observation as a positive aspect to their jobs. They see this as being a necessary part of their development and less as a customer service. Most teachers would be surprised to move to an organisation that did not have any observation policy and would ask questions of this during interview. As a teacher I was happy to be observed but wanted the feedback to be done quickly in order to my mind at rest. It is clear from discussion with colleagues that they feel the same way. They all feel the observation cycle is appropriate but commented that the frequency and time of observation varies from line manager to line manger. They feel that some line managers are consistent with the policy but others tend to be more lax and some even more strict with the implementation and requirements in terms of lesson plan format and feedback approach.
 
 
Strengths of the current system
The current system in place has a number of strengths. The fact that the first observation is diagnostic provides a clear message that we are working towards developing the teaching staff. In fact all observation done at the British Council Bangkok, I feel, has an element of development as we often discuss the role and are always looking to improve standards. We have conversations about what we can do to help the teacher deliver better quality classes rather than looking at punitive measures or indeed introducing graded lessons with a pass / fail element.  As an organisation we are committed to development of all staff and a correctly administered observation policy fit this ethos. I believe the policy is robust and structured correctly in terms of time frame and as part of the performance cycle however there are challenges of which I will address later. Have a sound policy acts as a recruitment tool. By offering regular observation we are committing to professional growth and teachers are usually pleased by this approach.
 
The fact that teachers are observed also provides the customer with a clear indication that we are committed to improvement of the centre and interested in the needs of the students. If we are reacting to complaints this also shows that we take the feedback of customers seriously and are willing to act upon it. 
 
Regular observation across the teaching staff is very useful for analyzing training needs. A collation of strengths and weaknesses is done across the staff and the training team look for common themes in order to tailor training to suit the needs of the teaching staff. This provides real relevant data and avoids trainers stabbing in the dark or relying solely on preferences of what teachers feel they may need to develop. It adds an organisational need to the development of all products across the spectrum and allows us to meet needs of all stakeholders.
 
Feedback is diligently completed and kept on file. This can be then used as a springboard for other observation or as a document for teachers to provide to evidence of their performance progress. This provides a real meaning to the observation as Wajnryb (1992) stipulates 
 
We need to remember that the experience has to be meaningful, rewarding and non-threatening to all involved.
 
Shortcomings of the current system
Unfortunately while the current system has a number of strengths there are also a number of shortcomings. The biggest factor for me is the lack of consistency between line managers. Not all managers follow the policy as directed and this leads to inconsistency and negative talk between teachers as some are being observed more or less than others.
 
Line managers have very little training when it comes to observation. They are often promoted from the position of teacher usually without an evaluative observation being part of the recruitment process and then expected to be ‘experts’ immediately. The first few observations are more like peer observations however in reality they are diagnostic and/or evaluative and for part of teachers performance record. On the other side of this is the experienced senior teacher who may have lots of experience observing teachers and providing teacher training actually lacks the necessary up to date knowledge or practical classroom practice required to be fully in touch with the needs of students. It is often the case that a senior teacher has no timetabled teaching hours and may therefore lose the ability to teach effectively and to possibly evaluate a lesson effectively.
 
Some line managers are teachers who have a DELTA or equivalent and are therefore deemed capable of providing the support needed to teachers through the observation and line management process. While this I feel has benefits there are often times when a teacher may feel they are being evaluated by someone who is less senior or even less qualified to provide this kind of evaluation. This is often the case where a line manager is significantly less experienced than his or her line managee.
 
Observation is always done by the line manger regardless of expertise or experience of said manager. We often have teachers being observed teaching a primary class for example by a manager who has very little experience or knowledge in this area. This goes across the board and provides teachers quite rightly in my opinion to question the judgment of the observer. Randall and Thornton (2001) mention
 
A key role for the advisor (observer) is to assess the level of development and needs of the teacher and produce an action plan of areas on which the teacher should work based on their learning needs and the requirements of the situation
 
This would be very challenging for a teacher with no experience of teaching Primary aged learners to provide to a teacher who was being observed at this level
 
I think the crux of most of the problems lies in the lack of training and therefore if line managers or observers are not observed or trained how can we justify our expertise and knowledge to colleagues who have similar qualifications and experience. We are relying on them to value any observation as developmental and to have the attitude that anyone can point out deficiencies and strengths in our teaching regardless of seniority. This however becomes a problem when the observation is evaluative and forms part of that teacher performance cycle.
 
Another major problem is that the process is very top down. Management keep a firm control of the type of observation that is required and the reason for this. I feel we tend to tick the boxes required of observation but could be doing so much more to ensure that the process is beneficial to all.  
 
Suggestions and timescale for improvement
 
In my organisation I would like to see a working group established to formulate a new policy of observation that meets needs of all stakeholders. I would include Head of Product, senior teachers, line managers, teachers and customer service staff. This group would act upon recommendations by stakeholders on what could be improved or changed to make the system better. I would also add customers to this group but wouldn’t necessary have them involved directly in the discussion but use focus groups and questionnaires to provide the quantitative and qualitative data needed to make informed decisions.  Setting up a focus group across the levels is very easy as we have a marketing department who are fully qualified to do this. We also have a wide variety of customers we can call on to aid with questionnaires and focus groups. I envisage this could be set up and data could be collected within two weeks. From then on a meeting of the group could be called and an action plan put in place with responsibility spread throughout the team. 
 
  • Provide a less ‘top down’ approach
I would like to see teachers take a more active role in the kind of observation they feel would help them develop. We should provide training on the types of observation available such as pop-in observations, peer observation and videoed lessons. Teachers could then choose what they feel would benefit them directly. A formal observation could be incorporated as well but done with more input.
 
  • Teachers select the observer
Observers should be categorized into sectors of expertise. This could be by level, age of learner or on a more specific level such as classroom management, assessment or the teaching of pronunciation for example. Teachers could then select an observer based on this. This would also encourage senior teachers to develop their abilities in order to provide more support to teachers. This would need careful monitoring to ensure observers are not observing too much or too little but I feel would be effective and again reduce the top down approach even further.
 
  • Student needs and perceptions
I would like to see the observer talk to the class that is being observed before the lesson to ensure they understand fully the reason for the observation. This would hopefully stop students thinking that the teacher is not up to the standard and in fact provide them with the knowledge that we are giving them better customer service as a result.
 
  • Training
Observers and teachers need to be trained on not only how to observe but more importantly how to provide and respond to feedback. This arguably is the most important stage and needs to handled differently with different members of staff.
 
Wajnyrb (1992) states
 
Developing the skill of observing serves a dual process: it helps teachers gain a better understanding of their own teaching, while at the same time refines their ability to observe, analyse and interpret, an ability which can also be used to improve their own teaching.
 
This reflects my beliefs about observation and while it is a two way process, the top down approach we have at the moment hinders that somewhat.
The observers should be aware of techniques to draw out information rather than didactically providing ways of improvement. Teachers would be better served with information about how to respond to feedback in order to get the most out of the process. This would be an opportunity to look at The GROW model of coaching and Edge’s 9 ways of oral feedback among other techniques. With regards to observing I know people have a different focus, beliefs and different techniques and it’s my view that through training we can standardize the approach and provide more consistency with our focus and feedback. Maldirez and Bodoczky (1999) assert
 
One of the main obstructions to clear vision concern’s the notion of what ‘good’ teaching is.
 
Teachers and observers will no doubt have different opinions of this depending on the classroom context. The tendency to then compare this belief of good teaching again the actual classroom practice will be great Maldirez and Bodoczky (1999) go on to say
 
This (comparison) becomes unhelpful behaviour if mentors give into the ensuing natural temptation to share the outcomes of those comparisons, rather than the more helpful factual observations.
 
And it’s because of this and my own beliefs I feel that training and an element of standardisation is essential to provide objective evaluation of teachers which is what we are required to do as part of the learning and development process.
 
Bibliography
 
Wajnryb, Ruth. (1992) Classroom Observation Tasks:A resource Book for Language teachers and Trainers Cambridge University Press
 
MALDEREZ Angi & BODOCZKY Caroline. (1999) Mentor Courses: A Resource Book for Trainer-Trainers Cambridge University Press
 

Randall Mick and Thornton Barbara. (2001) Advising and Supporting Teachers Cambridge University Press 

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