Observation Jitters

Dry mouth, tremor, disorientation, mental block, inability to focus and follow plans, student inattention, and –simply put– a bad hair day are among the commonly reported symptoms of ‘observation jitters.’

- Knock knock! - Who’s there? [silence] - Knock knock! - Yes, please? Come on in. [silence] - Knock knock! Puzzled, you leave your desk and go to the door only to see the guy with a wide, grim smile and meaningful look on his face holding a laptop pointedly asking for a seat in your class for some 40 minutes. Only then do you start to get the jitters. ‘It’s not a joke,’ you think, ‘It’s formal observation time and seems like my number’s up!’ Gruelling minutes of the clock tick. Then as soon as the observer rises to leave your classroom, you think ‘Great!’ because the tension will then begin to relieve. But then you start to cringe at the guilt trip you will have when confronted with your ‘rap sheet’ during your one-to-one meeting after your class, when you hear ‘Didn’t we agree to do this and not that the last time?’ Life won’t simply be as pleasant after that –at least not as long as teachers and observers view the formal observation session as a fault-finding ritual. We all seem very conversant with the above scenario. Being observed doing anything is just traumatic. In fact, observers too feel unease at the prospect of being observed. Mind you, moderate stress levels can be constructive and can help boost our teaching performance. What we would like to repress, however, is extreme stress levels which have a detrimental effect on our professional development as both individual teachers and as a team. Paying attention to the following while observing or being observed will not only help teachers, observers, and schools to enjoy one another’s company but it will also guarantee their continual development:

  1. Professional observers normally pursue one or more of these goals in their observation:
    1. Diagnosis: The observer watches teachers’ performances in batches and over the period before the beginning of a term to detect major areas of strength and areas needing some tweaks. As such, the observer is advised to give prior notice about her/his visit. The information gathered this way is not for value judgement of the teachers but of the system as a whole i.e. it is used to make amendments to the curriculum, course syllabus, teaching approaches and techniques, or even rules and regulations. In an official meeting held prior to the beginning of a term, all the staff is addressed.
    1. Development: Individual teachers are observed on several occasions and then receive one-to-one, customised feedback on their performance. The observer, just like the diagnostic observation, may need to give prior notice and normally keeps a record of each teacher to see how she/he is developing and where she/he needs assistance. Feedback is normally given on one topic at a time.
    1. Evaluation: The observer determines at what stage in her/his professional development a teacher is, what capabilities she/he has, and whether or not she/he can be promoted or given new responsibilities. Decisions of this nature are made not based on a single observation report sheet, but by taking into account a teacher’s overall progress. This includes comparison of several observation reports, their portfolio of work, and student feedback over a set period of time. On this occasion only, observation could be without official prior notice.
  2. Therefore, as you will have noticed, any session of formal observation serves a developmental purpose. It is one’s performance –not their personality– that is evaluated and even that is for the sake of their professional development.
  3. Professional ethics require that the observer, the observee, and any other party involved respect aspects of mutual respect and confidentiality. The observer and the observee should ensure that the exchange of information is strictly confidential and that it need not necessarily be disclosed to a third party. If the observer needs to report to the DoS or Head of Department, or, likewise, the observee wishes to share her/his insights with other colleagues, they need to assure confidentiality issues. For example, when diagnostic observation is the purpose, the observer need not report the details of individuals’ performances, and in the case of a developmental observation, the observer might not want anyone, save for the observee, to know anything about the exchange of comments and remarks between them. After all, it is development that ought to be reaped in the end and that does not depend on reports!
  4. Many have recently argued that peer observation and recorded self-observation could well be a replacement for formal observation since they reduce the ill effect that the latter brings with it: the observer effect. While the grounds for such an argument are legitimate, there are also a few considerations:
    1. Impartiality: Each of us teachers form a set of personalised teacher beliefs about what is right or wrong. Some of these beliefs have their roots in how we were instructed and trained. Therefore, when we decide to observe our recorded performance for further reflection, we are not actually an unbiased observer and might take certain things for granted because we have been practising it for years. Student and peer feedback, in the same vein, are prone to a syndrome called ‘pleasing the teacher/co-worker,’ a subconscious effort to give comments that are pleasing to the teacher/co-worker. As such, an outsider, a formal, impartial observer can best bring to your attention what had already escaped from it.
    1. Vantage point: Fish don’t know they’re in water. Explaining it to them would be futile since they’re so surrounded by it that they simply take it for granted; it would simply be impossible to see water unless they got outside of it and were equipped with a bird’s eye view. We teachers are like fish! Sometimes only a formal observer can raise our awareness of what we are doing.
    1. Scrupulousness: The ELT expert who takes the responsibility of formal class observation is none too ordinary a bird. Years of study and experience has granted her/him an eagle eye –an eye for detail.

The next time your observer drops by, shed fear and anxiety and embrace the opportunity. Talk to your observer about your assumptions, class profile, student records, lesson history, and concerns. Remember that an observer is a kind teacher at heart, fully understands your situation, is aware of all the effects, and would love to help you develop. In addition, on her/his part, observing your class gives her/him an invaluable opportunity to learn from your class. Unfamiliarity with the observer and the ultimate aims of observation may cause resentment, but we now know that: Formal observation sessions are not a threat; they are golden opportunities for development.

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