Advice on how to survive classroom observations.

Whenever a methodology counsellor comes to watch my class, my lessons become disasters, even if they have been successful with almost identical groups before. Recently during an observed lesson my students were very silent. They were obviously afraid to speak, especially when they noticed that the supervisor understood English. I must admit that such inspections are extremely stressful to me, I start feeling insecure, and hopeless, regardless of how well-prepared for the class I am. The inspections are very frequent. Could you please give me some advice of how to survive class inspections without having my lessons ruined?

Joanna Kompa

Lesson observations are probably one of the most nerve-racking things for teachers, even those who have been ‘at it’ for years. When you say that the inspections are 'extremely stressful' you are certainly not alone in those thoughts and feelings.

To better understand this situation, it depends who the 'methodology counsellor' is and what the purpose of the observation is. Whose interests are being served by this? Ostensibly it’s for the ultimate good of the students. But is it a tool to help the teacher to develop professionally? Or is it more a form of ‘quality control’ for the school?

Either way, it looks as if at the moment the observation is under the control of the observer (the methodology counsellor in your case). It’s perhaps time to try and take some of the initiative back. There are three different ways you could do this:

With the students

Explain the situation to the class on a day when the examiner isn’t there. It sounds like they felt that they were being observed (and evaluated) when presumably the observation was more of you and the class. Tell them that the counsellor is coming to observe you, to help you deliver better classes and is NOT there to judge their English (at least I hope not). When the counsellor comes in, introduce him/her to the class by name with a smile and let him/her get settled. Reiterate that this person is here to observe you.

Incidentally, I’ve used observations by a director of studies to calm down a really disruptive class of young learners by telling them that the director is coming to watch how well we can all do an English class!

With the counsellor

Tell the counsellor what you are going to be doing in that class. If this seems awkward (because they’ve come in five minutes late for example) then quickly run over the lesson aims for the class and observer. You could do this by writing them on one side of the board, e.g:

Listening (book page 121)

Grammar present continuous

Speaking activity

Vocabulary review activity (Jobs Unit 3)

Questions and doubts

Homework assignment 

After the lesson, tell the counsellor how you think it went. Try to include some positive feedback on your lesson even if some bits were a disaster. For example:

In today’s lesson the students weren’t talkative at all. I think this was perhaps because they weren’t interested in the topic, and they were also a bit self-conscious. Next time I’ll try with a different topic. However, I was pleased with the way they finished their exercises and helped each other correct. We’ve been working on that for some time and it’s really coming along well now.

There is almost always something positive that you can pull out of a lesson. By all means recognize the weak points but also take credit where credit is due. An observed lesson can go badly for several reasons, usually a mixture of things. Be careful of attributing all the blame to the students, the observer or yourself. 

With the whole observation system

This means talking to the other teachers and see how they feel about being observed. If people unanimously hate it, perhaps it’s time to look at how it could be better implemented. Classroom observations are usually seen as a threat. However, as John Norrish from the Education Centre at the University of London points out, the threat diminishes 'in proportion to the amount of trust that the teacher has in the observer and in the observer's not attributing value to what is seen'.

Here are some concrete ways you could try and make observations less judgemental and more developmental.

  • Pinpoint an area that you would like feedback on. Error correction, use of board work, managing the activities, running over time are some possibilities. Ask the observer to pay particular attention to that aspect of the class and tell them you would like to discuss it afterwards.
  • Tell the observer you would like them to come and observe a particular class that you’ve had trouble with. Talk to them about the class and the problems and after the observation discuss possible plans of action.
  • Suggest that some observations might be done between peers (i.e. the teachers themselves). Peer observation programmes, successfully set up, are usually considered to be much more beneficial for all involved (and are less judgemental).
  • While accepting that the observations may be random, try to make them a negotiated thing. In one school I worked at, we knew we’d be observed at different times during the year and at short notice. The observer would ask us on the day if we would mind being observed. However, we did have the opportunity to say no and it would get reported to another day.

Further reading:Mind the Gap: Thoughts on Self Help and Non-judgmental Observation in the Classroom John Norrish, Institute of Education, University of London. Note: You could always give a copy of the above article by John Norrish to the methodology cousellor as a starting point on re-evaluating how the process is working! Back to Ask the experts Methodology in Ask the experts