Classroom Observations -
making them useful for teachers
by George Murdoch
What is at stake
Observations are a familiar part of professional life for most EFL/ESL English teachers working in government schools, tertiary level institutional language programs, private language schools or British Council centers around the globe. However, is it always certain that the professional training of those empowered to conduct observations has fully equipped them for their role as evaluators of classroom teaching? Even though observers are normally experienced teachers, all too often the step up from teaching to observing others teach can unintentionally result in adopting behaviours and practices which are not always in the developmental interests of teachers.
An awful lot is at stake when a director of studies or supervisor observes a teacher in a language teaching operation. No matter how informally or casually the classroom visit is presented, the teacher is aware that his performance is under review. Depending on how the lesson and discussions with the supervisor proceed, the observation experience is bound to have a considerable uplifting or demoralising impact in terms of the teacher’s self-image and his or her professional standing within that teaching community. A poor performance will inevitably affect not only the teacher’s confidence and relationship with the person who is observing the lesson, but also his/her more general reputation among the teaching staff and others in the organisation. On the other hand, a good performance can boost a teacher’s self image and confidence level, so he or she feels a valued, respected member of staff with all the motivational benefits that flow from such a feeling.
Given the importance of observations in the professional lives of teachers, it is vital that those who conduct observations should carry them out in as supportive and constructive a way as possible. Those who observe are (or should be!) teachers themselves, even though they may currently enjoy a more prestigious title! They need therefore to recall the damage that can be caused by the extremes of being overly critical of a teacher’s classroom performance, or an inability to focus on areas which might help a teacher grow and overcome difficulties. In this article, I will describe a number of key procedures and strategies that need to be adopted by observers to make the observation process meaningful, supportive and of practical use from a teacher’s perspective.
The importance of the pre-observation discussion
In a busy school or department, a pre-observation discussion or conference might seem something of a luxury. However, it can be just as important in some ways as the actual observation itself. It is a chance for the observer to hear and understand the teacher’s story: to listen to the teacher talking about the class, the particular style of teaching which has been adopted and the problems that the students present from a classroom management perspective. It is also an opportunity for the teacher to describe the activities planned for the lesson to be observed.
Giving the teacher the opportunity to talk about the class and teaching helps many teachers feel more relaxed about the visit because they sense that their own views and ideas are considered important. A better understanding of the teacher’s personality and his classroom approach is a great asset, too, to the observer in terms of feeling better able to provide feedback which is relevant and useful.
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