29 February 2012

The negative observer

It’s February 2011 and I’m sitting at the back of a sweaty classroom in Borneo, doing my first official observation of a Year 1 primary English teacher. The virgin white page of my new notebook is rapidly turning black, like a storm cloud coming over the sky, with scribbles such as:

No warmer
Lesson objectives?
No variety
No meaning
Class management? CANE??

Ffteen minutes felt like fifty, and this was fairly representative of all the lessons I saw that week.
The prospect of spending the next two and a half years as a mentor within this education system was overwhelming. Where to start? I was grateful we were under strict instructions not to give any feedback on initial observations except, ‘That was an interesting class. Thank you for having me’.

It’s now February 2012 and I’m sitting at the back of a classroom in Borneo, watching for the first time a new mentee who’s just joined the project. It’s still sweatier than a very sweaty thing, but my observation notes look totally different:

Kids loved song
Clear instructions
Nice flashcards
Good rapport
Check pron of /æ/
Phonics game in groups of 4?
Extension activities?

What’s happened in a year? Are the new teachers more competent than the old ones?  Have I tuned out the pedagogical idiosyncrasies of Sarawakian classrooms? Or have I realised that observation is not about me?

As Chris Ozog said in his excellent blog post ‘On being an observer’:

'Observations of teachers are not there to tell people how to teach, to take a teacher’s lesson to bits, to criticise, to push a certain pedagogical agenda or to show off the observer’s supposed greater experience and knowledge.'

How true that is, and how unable I was – occasionally still am – to practice what any sensible person would preach. It doesn’t matter what I would have done in their shoes. It matters whether the children enjoyed and learned from the lesson, and if they didn’t, whether it was because the teacher was missing any skills, knowledge or resources that I could help to provide.

Now, when I’m perspiring and scrawling and the teacher is nearly always trying their best in difficult circumstances, I try to start with a positive comment, even if my gut reaction is *lights flash, klaxon sounds* NO WARMER! NO WARMER! Like visualisation before a sports match or performance, it seems to trick my brain into looking at the lesson through a different filter. I don’t allow myself to write general criticisms either (Teacher-centred), but specific suggestions to improve activities that didn’t go so well (Phonics game in groups of 4?). And I watch the kids more than the teacher.

Kids settling down to class today
I was surprised and delighted last week to be approached by a mentee who’s been with me since the start of the project. She had, quite of her own volition, organised a peer observation programme for her school, and wanted me to join her on her first observation of a colleague. As we watched him, she leaned over to me and whispered, ‘This is terrible. So terrible’. I wondered whether all beginner observers fall into the same negativity trap I did, and was fascinated to see how our notes would compare when the class was over.

In short, her page was much like mine from a year ago. On one hand, I was really pleased that she could identify a lot of the issues we’ve been discussing over the last twelve months. On another, I worried that I had for too long provided a model of observation that was inappropriately vague and unduly critical. We talked about what we’d each written and constructed two columns of feedback, one containing examples of good practice and one with ideas to consider (she thought I was being too kind).

Unfortunately I wasn’t there to deliver the oral feedback with her so I’ve no idea whether, when it came to it, she was gentle or harsh or somewhere in between, and whether Mr A took it all on the chin or ran weeping into the mop cupboard. But observing her observing (to put it untidily) certainly forced me to look at my own practice as an observer, and what that communicates to the teachers who will take over my role when I’m gone. And as for effective oral feedback – well, that’s a whole separate post, isn’t it? :)


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  2. As someone who has to do a lot of observations, I read your post with great interest! I agree wholeheartedly with you about watching the students more than the teacher - are they engaged?, are they learning? I, too, have to stop myself from thinking 'I wouldn't do it like this!' and, instead, focus on whether or not the observee is an effective teacher. Like you, I still find myself slipping in to old habits, but I'm aware of it and do it less as I gain more experience as an observer.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  3. Wow Laura, so much of this really speaks to me!

    Andrea already mentioned watching the students. In a recent training course I "gently demanded" that the observers not all sit in the back. The results were that some observers really saw and observed the students for the fist time.

    Your point about "NO WARMER!" really made me smile because I have been there before. I suppose now with some distance it is easy for me to see that this type of thinking is really based on what a lesson *should look like and not what it actually does.

    I also really loved how you wrote, "It doesn’t matter what I would have done in their shoes. It matters whether the children enjoyed and learned from the lesson, and if they didn’t, whether it was because the teacher was missing any skills, knowledge or resources that I could help to provide." I thought that was a great point. I suppose the only thing I would add to it would be adding some perspective or insight (though I realize that might be part of the categories you already have listed).

    Thanks again for the super interesting and helpful post. I can't wait to share it with my course participants! (future peer mentors/observers)

  4. Hi Andrea and 'Unknown' (I know who you are...!)

    Thanks so much for commenting on this. Even after a year of mentoring, I still feel like there's so much I don't know about really SEEING what's happening in a class, so these kinds of dialogues are massively helpful. It's strange that so many organisations see observation skills as a kind of natural add-on to teaching that requires no extra training - I know I would've found it really helpful. Just curious: were you guys specifically trained before taking on an observer's role?