Teacher Development 1: Lesson Observation, part 1

Happy New Year, everyone!

As promised in my December post, this year I’ll be discussing what I believe to be a key issue in ELT, namely teacher development. In no particular order, and evidently not aiming at exhausting the subject – which would be impossible –, I hope to be able to, in twelve posts, touch on most of the key areas a teacher must develop in, and more importantly on ways in which I believe they can do it.

The reason why I’ve decided to start by addressing lesson observation is very simple: The vast majority of the teachers I know have their lessons observed at some point every year, and coordinators tend to deem lesson observation one of the most important parts of their work.  My goal is then to suggest a useful framework which can be immediately put into practice by schools and coordinators in order to, hopefully, make lesson observation an even more success-oriented activity.

 

Three-stage lesson observation

I don’t see lesson observation as police work, and therefore don’t think it should ever be of the ‘surprise, surprise’ variety! Many might disagree, but I’m completely against showing up in a teacher’s classroom unannounced. Trust – and a focus on teacher development rather than on assessing a teacher’s work – seems to me to be indispensable for the whole process to work. Hence, I believe lesson observation is more successful when done in the following three stages:

Pre-observation meeting: Having been informed by the coordinator they’ll have their lesson observed, teachers will submit a lesson plan a few days in advance. In a pre-observation meeting, the teacher will brief the observer on the group, on its weaknesses and strengths, on any difficulties they have had while working with the group in question and whether there is anything they’d particularly like the observer to focus on. The observer will then give feedback on the plan, suggest any changes and make any recommendations they see fit.

Observation: Unless they have been the first to spot fire in the curtains, the observer will simply never, ever participate in the class they’re observing in any way. They’ll speak only when and if spoken to, and will otherwise try to be as thoroughly inconspicuous as possible. They should focus on multiple aspects of the class – rapport, clarity of instructions, whether learning seems to be taking place, classroom management in general, teacher’s command of English and so on –, and make sure they observe the whole class, not just a part of it. (More on focus next month). As they take notes, they should do their best to be brief and succinct, as they’re certainly making students self-conscious too, and long note taking might make matters worse.

Post-observation meeting: It goes without saying teachers will be nervous during any class observation, and will also be anxious about hearing what observers will have to say. Ideally, observers should give some feedback (of the informal, spoken variety) immediately after class, but a post-observation meeting must follow within a few days (very few days), during which more detailed feedback will be given, both spoken and written. This must focus on the positive aspects of the teacher’s lesson first – of course! – and then list areas where there’s room for improvement, with suggestions for activities which could’ve been done differently, articles or book chapters on areas the teacher should work on and so on; also, and perhaps most importantly, an action plan, which will inform what they will be focusing on next time around, should be provided by the observer.

 

In short, lesson observation can be instrumental in helping teachers hone their skills, but it can never be just for show (and it is at the moment, I believe, unfortunately achieving far less than it could in many schools the country – and probably the world – over). Next month I’ll continue talking about lesson observation, especially regarding what to focus on, how to give feedback and some other aspects that can be implemented in LO programs. We’ll also be discussing another very interesting facet of LO: peer observation.

 

I’d love to ‘hear’ your thoughts on lesson observation and also ideas on how we can make it into an even more powerful teacher development tool.

See you in February!

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PS: Although I did not directly consult any articles while writing this, I remember reading a riveting one by Vinícius Nobre several years ago, which also suggested lesson observations in three stages as I do here. It has definitely helped shape the way I think of lesson observation and I would appreciate it if anyone could post a link to it here in the comments.

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Other interesting articles on aspect of lesson observation:

http://www.richmondshare.com.br/lesson-observation-a-tool-for-improvement/, by Beatriz Meneguetti

http://www.richmondshare.com.br/self-observation-why-not/, by Elaine Hodgson

 

 

Higor Cavalcante

Higor Cavalcante is a teacher and teacher educator based in São Paulo, Brazil. He’s been in ELT for going on 19 years now, and his main interests in the area are language development for teachers, extensive reading, and pronunciation. He is the first vice president of BRAZ-TESOL, as well as the author of ‘Inglês para professor’, published in 2015 by Disal, and the upcoming ‘Inglês para professor 2’. Find out about his courses for teachers at bit.ly/hccoursesforteachers.

6 Comments
  • Elis
    Posted at 10:27h, 30 janeiro Responder

    Hi Higor. How are you? It might seem that I’m kind of stalking you, but do not worry, ok? lol.
    I don’t know if I agree with you when you say that you don’t think lesson observation should happen surprisingly. I work at a school that always informs the teachers when they will be observed, and what I have noticed is that most teachers simply rehearse what they want students to produce or the coordinator to observe. That really makes me feel frustrated, considering the fact that you should always be prepared to tackle any issue you may face in class.

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 01:46h, 31 janeiro Responder

      Hi, Elis
      Just my two cents.
      I’ve been doing lesson observation since 1997, on and off. I have never walked into a classroom by surprise. Ever. My first mangers, if I remember correctly, did, once or twice. Well, sort of… “Talvez na semana que vem eu dê um pulinho lá” or something to that effect. At the risk of oversimplifying matters, I think we can divide lesson observation relatively neatly into two (not mutually-exclusive) groups: (1) developement and (2) quality control. The model Higor is avocating lends itself well to (1), of course, but I would argue that it should be used for (2) as well. If I were a manager, I would want to observe my teachers performing to the best of their abilities. So if a lesson happened to be below standard, at least I would know that the other variables (surprise, panic etc) were isolated.
      Surprise visits might tell us if teachers have been planning their lessons. True. But, you know what, this is information that will eventually come to our ears one way or another: student feedback, parent feedback, students’ scores (I’m talking about consistently low scores over a period of time, not one-offs)…

      • Luiz Otávio Barros
        Luiz Otávio Barros
        Posted at 02:05h, 31 janeiro Responder

        By the way… will eventually come to OUR ATTENTION.
        [couldn’t find the edit button]

        • Higor Cavalcante
          Higor Cavalcante
          Posted at 11:56h, 02 fevereiro Responder

          Hi Luiz,

          Thanks for visiting and for the comment. Needless to say, I agree with you.

          I’ve done a lot of observing as well over the years, and have never done the surprise variety. I’ve also been observed countless times, and the most meaningful feedback sessions I’ve had (and there were, sadly, very few of those) were of observation sessions in three stages as I described in the post.

          Thanks again!
          H

  • Higor Cavalcante
    Higor Cavalcante
    Posted at 10:47h, 30 janeiro Responder

    Hi Elis!

    Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

    I see your point, absolutely. I do know that many teachers are only going to bother preparing their lessons properly when they have the coordinator coming in, but I’m still a firm believer in the trust factor. If lesson observation is to work as a teacher development tool, I really think it can’t be unannounced. Walking into a teacher’s class unannounced, it seems to me, will inevitably make the teacher feel the observer doesn’t trust them, and that, in my opinion, will undermine the power the observation could have to help the teacher develop.

    Thanks again for the comment and see you soon! 🙂

    H

  • Damian
    Damian
    Posted at 20:42h, 02 fevereiro Responder

    Great post, Higor. Thanks for sharing. I have to say I’m with you on this – it’s important I think for observations not to be a surprise. Yes, it’s true that the teacher will ‘perform’ rather than it just being a ‘normal’ lesson. But once you walk in and surprise a teacher, you’re placing them under an unfair amount of stress, so you’re not going to see a natural lesson either.

    It’s also worth considering the effect of observations on students, too. It can also be stressful for them, knowing they’re being observed by another professional, and it can do a lot of harm to the comfortable, nurturing environment that most teachers so expertly create.

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