Observing Others and Being Observed

A view from the inside on observations.

When I first started teaching EL at the university, I visited several lessons conducted by my own former school teacher. Here are a few new insights which I learned as an observer.

• How to parcel out various topics; how much or how little we may fit into 45 minutes; how to stop myself from sharing ALL my own knowledge of a current theme at once so as not to overload my students. I appreciated how much she knew, and how effortlessly she doled out information so as to involve her class in the process but not overwhelm them.

• It seemed to me I remembered how she dealt with tardiness, how she solved discipline problems, and how she motivated her students. In fact, when I was in her class, I probably thought she never had any problems. But as I watched her perform seemingly familiar tasks, and saw how she managed her classes, I realized that every class was different. None of her students were me, yet she taught them the same subject as well as she used to when I was her student.

• I watched her use a differentiated approach to every child according to their abilities, and made lots of notes for myself. With the advent of ICT preparing individual tasks geared for every child’s abilities and interests became much easier. As a district methodologist, I visited many colleagues’ lessons which gave me great opportunities to see both the good and the bad sides of ELT in my area. I saw many negative examples and learned what NOT to do. Later on I implemented my experience into my own teacher training sessions.

• Many teachers still conduct EL lessons mostly in their own language; their students balk at speaking and cannot understand spoken English, though they may read, write and translate quite well. It takes time and effort to persuade the teachers that ELT means teaching in English.

• At one lesson, the teacher kept reminding her senior class “not to forget Izzy”. It took me a second to understand what she meant, until I saw students produce the following sentences: “He is went away, They is are here…” and so on. Yes, this rather unique moniker used to denote the verb “is” (third person singular from the verb to be) was drilled into them, and they inserted it into absolutely every phrase, just in case.

• “Zees ees ze last sin”, instead of “This is the last thing”, remains an extreme example of grave mistakes in pronunciation. We probably cannot master all the sounds to such a degree that we will sound British, but we should teach our students how to pronounce all the sounds. Who knows, some of them may become much better than we are and actually speak like native speakers of English! We had only our EL teachers to guide us, while they have the whole internet at their disposal.

• Discipline, tardiness, laziness cannot be eliminated by yelling at students. In fact, raising your voice in order to shout down a noisy class never works. Turn on a recording, click on a site, walk around distributing cards with simple warm-up tasks.

I can also share a view from the inside: my own lessons were visited very often. My colleagues, the school administration would come to my classes regularly, often without warning; I also gave open lessons for the district and the city. What I learned about my own students, and what my colleagues shared with me when I asked them if observing a lesson was useful, may be summed up quite easily.

- I warned my students beforehand whenever possible. They all enjoyed their quite unique position as “showmen” and worked hard at every task. They also answered the teachers’ questions in English and explained to them what they were doing when they worked at a project or used ICT.

- My colleagues said each time that the most surprising thing was not only my conducting all the lessons in English, but the children speaking English among each other and with the visitors

- Organizing a lesson is very important. If all goes well it is possible to perform several different exercises which include all the four basic skills in one lesson. But if there is an obvious difficulty, a teacher should be ready with Plan B, and perhaps spend most of the lesson explaining the problem again, rather than rushing forward.

- Round tables, pair and group work, dialogues, watching short video clips and reporting on them are always reliable activities.

Last but not least, I have never conducted a “special” open lesson, never turned them into a performance for the visitors. It is important, I believe, to show your everyday activities so that people can learn something useful from your teaching. One of my lessons was filmed; the publishing house distributed it around the country, and I received many positive reviews or simple thanks from my colleagues. No two classes are the same, and every child is an individual with their own unique set of skills, or lack thereof. If you taught the first or the last grade last year and get seemingly the same work load this year, it does not mean that you can take your previous portfolio and sail into ELT. No matter how many lessons we visit, and how many colleagues visit ours, each new group of learners may present unpredictable new problems. When working with children, we should always be ready for the unexpected. What works with one class may not work with another. We should remain flexible and versatile.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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