Observations in Professional Development
In English language teaching, there are a myriad of opportunities to grow professionally and stay up to date on the latest developments within our field. One could subscribe to professional organizations such as TESOL.org and IATEFL, which usually 1) produce academic materials for keeping up with the latest research, 2) provide blogging or other similar communication platforms to provide a network for teachers to exchange creative ideas and suggestions, and 3) organize major (and mini) conferences to facilitate the gathering of ELT professionals from all over the world. These development opportunities are primarily at a national or international level; however, there are ways an English teaching professional can grow without ever needing to leave his/her immediate work environment.
One of the best ways to develop as a teacher, especially early on as a novice, is to observe other teachers in their element. There are a host of reasons why the idea of observing (or being observed!) is sometimes an uncomfortable thought to consider, but let me assure you, it has tremendous benefits (Richards & Farrell, 2005). The apprehension many teachers feel, in my experience as an administrator, has been that they are afraid of “being exposed” or “looking bad” in front of another teacher (or even worse, an administrator!). For the most part, that is never the case and rarely are teachers being negligent in their classroom duties, so please don’t think of observations as strictly disciplinary tools. Richards and Farrell (2005) sum it up pretty well when they say:
“Observation provides a chance to see how other teachers teach, it is a means of building collegiality in a school, it can be a way of collecting information about teaching and classroom processes, it provides an opportunity to get feedback on one’s teaching, and it is a way of developing self-awareness of one’s own teaching.” (p.86)
Thus, observations should always be seen as positive opportunities to explore ways to improve as a teacher. None of us is perfect and there’s always benefit in allowing others into your teaching space to share their opinions about your lesson, so long as it’s done constructively.
I will share an experience of mine, as simple as it is, which really helped me embrace observations as an effective development tool. Early on in my career, I wasn’t as aware of the magnitude of the effect seating arrangements had on the class and learning atmosphere. There was one student in one of my classes who was very clever, but rarely spoke in class. Whenever he came in, he would always sit in the back quietly, but when he was called on, he came up with the most interesting answers. I didn’t know what to make of it, until I observed one of my colleague’s classes and I observed the same student in it. I asked my colleague permission ahead of time if I could sit in and he said sure no problem. In that program, different teachers taught different skills and thus one student might have 4 different English teachers depending on scheduling, teachers’ competence in teaching certain language skills, etc. As I sat there in amazement, this very shy student in my class was asserting himself, was confident and even helping other students. I noticed that my colleague had him sitting very close to the front during the entire lesson.
After the lesson finished, I asked my colleague why he had done that and he said in his experience, shier students participated more when he asked them to sit in the front of the class close to the teacher. Prior to that, I hadn’t thought about the implications of seating on my lessons, but clearly from that lesson there was a marked difference in participation levels from that one student. I told him thanks, I’d try it in my lesson, and that I’d do more research on the importance of seating in classroom administration. Sure enough, I asked the student to sit close to the front and for the rest of the course, his behavior changed completely and he was amongst the liveliest students in the entire class.
From this important moment in my nascent teaching career, I understood and learned the value of 1) being in tune with your students’ emotions and behaviors in the class and 2) arranging seating in the class so that all students maximize their learning potential. I might not have ever become aware of this without observing another colleague’s lesson. Thus, observing others (and being observed) yield wonderful pedagogical and professional benefits that can help enhance teachers for the rest of their careers.
Richards, J. C., & Farrell, T. S. (2005). Professional Development for Language Teachers: Strategies for Teacher Learning. Cambridge University Press.