When I first came to teach in the UK Further Education system, after 10 years in private language schools, I couldn’t understand why my colleagues were so negative about being observed.

My experience of being observed was almost entirely positive. The feedback I’d received on CELTA, DELTA and on in-house observations, or observations for British Council accreditation had always been helpful and encouraging, as, I hoped, had been the observations I’d carried out both as a manager and as a teacher trainer.

And then I experienced an Ofsted observation… For those not familiar with the UK education system, Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. I’m sure there are many skilled observers working for Ofsted, but the experience I had was traumatic.

I was asked to be observed teaching a class I had never met before. I wasn’t worried, surely the inspector would take that into account? He didn’t. I was criticised for not knowing the students’ names well enough, and for a number of other things, including not drilling the phrase ‘couch potato’, which was an incidental piece of language in a reading text. When I tried to argue that this was far from frequent or useful language, I was dismissed as resistant to feedback.

Part of the reason why I experienced this observation as traumatic was because I simply didn’t understand the purpose of the observation. In my experience, observations had always been developmental, aimed at helping me to improve my teaching. This observation (which was not even carried out by someone with any experience of ELT) was purely about assessment, and the criteria were unknown, unfamiliar and, frankly, had little relation to what I had learnt about language teaching on my DELTA and MA.

This experience certainly didn’t help my professional development, and I now fully understood why my colleagues tried to avoid being observed. However, I still believe that formal observations can definitely be useful for professional development, if managed in the right way:

  • It is vital that the aim(s) of the observation (development, assessment, checking competence) is made clear to the teacher in advance.
  • It is also essential that the criteria by which the lesson will be judged are made clear. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to provide the teacher with a list of written criteria, but there should be some kind of pre-observation meeting where the observer talks about what they will be looking for and why. Ideally, the teacher should also be able to add to these criteria, and ask the observer to look out for particular things that the teacher would like feedback on. It should also be made clear how feedback will be carried out, and when.
  • The observer needs to remember that opinions are just that.…opinions. Of course, a teacher trainer with years of experience is entitled to their opinions, and to pass them on, but ultimately, if they are grading the teacher, they should stick to observable facts. For example, ‘the class were speaking in their first language a lot at that point’. As an observer, you may believe that, for instance, getting students to guess the meaning of unknown words in a text is a waste of time, but this is a matter of opinion, and a teacher should not be penalised for doing it.
  • Observation should not be the only tool used to assess the teacher’s performance. An assessment should also be based on other aspects such as the plan, and what the teacher has to say about how the lesson went. A lesson can go horribly wrong, but if the teacher knows exactly why it happened, how they would do it differently next time and what to do in the next lesson to retrieve the situation, that should go a long way towards improving any grade that might be given.
  • And finally the observer needs to remember that the very fact that they are in the class may have a negative effect. Even if the teacher is relatively relaxed, students may be reluctant to speak, or nervous. And never, never, jump in and show the teacher how it’s done (yes, this actually happened in another Ofsted inspection I heard about).

There are, of course, plenty of other ways to carry out observations, where the emphasis is very firmly on the developmental, and grades are not given. However, the context you work in may require formal assessed observations. These are always going to be stressful to a point, but they don’t have to be traumatic, and they can, I believe, also provide opportunities to grow and learn if managed in the right way.

By Rachael Roberts

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