Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Value of Observation--for Both!

Recently Sophia Khan and the educator behind the blog ELTCurious each wrote about the experience of being observed. Sophia wrote, too, about the value of observing a more experienced teacher. These posts have inspired me to write about my own experiences--both as a teacher who has had the opportunity to observe many more experienced teachers, and as a newish teacher who recently survived an observation.

Observing Experienced Peers

I consider myself VERY fortunate to have begun my LINC teaching as a supply teacher and teaching assistant. In my supply role, I had a chance to teach every level from beginner to advanced. As a teaching assistant, I rotated through the classes--helping in literacy three days per week and hitting the other levels one class period per week. It was unspeakably useful getting to spend hours seeing how all seven of my new colleagues did their thing.

From M I learned that it's possible to have all of your week's handouts photocopied and paper-clipped together before class starts on Monday. She inspired me to be better organized. The level one teacher showed me some classroom techniques I otherwise would not have thought of. V got me to see how lively a role play can be when the teacher isn't afraid to make a fool of herself. During those months supporting students both in class and by pulling them out for special support, I often kept a notebook handy for jotting down ideas I might use once I had a classroom of my own.

During those months as a teaching assistant, I also had a chance to see what flopped, what sapped the room of its energy, and the ruts into which I should never let myself slip. Watch my TTT/STT ratio! Get up from behind the desk! Admit when I don't have an answer. Be authentic.

All good things come with a price. I am very grateful to now have my own classes--a multilevel class for seniors (older newcomers) each morning and ESL literacy each afternoon. But I miss those days of being able to visit the classrooms of my more experienced colleagues.

Being Observed

My supervisor is not a micromanager. I am very fortunate to work in a school that grants its teachers a lot of academic freedom. Once a year, however, the lead teacher does sit in for an hour or two in order to assess our teaching. Although I dread being observed, I really appreciate that I was allowed to choose the day, time, and which class would be visited. It was also wonderful to be given the rubric against which I would be marked.

Because it is the class in which I feel more at ease, I chose to be observed while with the literacy learners. I thought the class went well, and was pleased when M wanted to go over my marks right then, during the break, eliminating the need for me to brew and stew all that night over what she might have thought.

My observation feedback was good overall and glowing in some areas. That was validating. How curious it was to see myself and learners through her eyes. "Do you realize," she asked, "that you and the students smile at one another throughout almost the entire lesson?" No, I didn't. That's neat to hear.

The valuable part came, I think, in where she found room for improvement. My transitions between activities, she noted, could be better. That's a place where I could slow down and help the learners transition.

Interestingly, I had been striving for smooth segues ever since my practicum--during which my mentor taught me the fine art of seamless transitions, ones that don't allow for students' attention to flag. What I had not realized until my observation last month is that literacy learners are different in this regard. M showed me that the point at which we have finished one activity is a great opportunity to help the learners with binder organization, something I was vaguely aware needed addressing, but which I had continued to procrastinate tackling month after month.

The week after my observation, we started a new routine in literacy class. First, we learned the needed language, "open your binder," "open the rings," and "in date order." Now when an activity ends in which a worksheet has been used, every student opens his/her binder. The sound of rings clicking open and closing fills the air. Binders are no longer overflowing with dog-eared pages turned this way and that. And I am no longer in convenient denial of a responsibility I should have shouldered long ago.

In Conclusion

It's not easy inviting someone to show you what's hovering in your blind spot as a teacher. But if you have someone observe you who is mainly in your court, it can be very beneficial, I think.

Not only can it be helpful to be observed, but--as Sophia pointed out--it can be extremely helpful to be able to observe a good teacher at the helm. Spending a week going from class to class, my supervisor told me later, was an eye-opening experience for her. It was her first time in twenty years getting to see other teachers teach! She said she took so many notes and now has a notebook full of ideas to try in her own classroom.

How about you? How do you feel about observing or being observed?


  1. Everything you say here rings true to me, Kelly. Though it is daunting, it's also invaluable to be observed. It's nice to have some choice as to where and when, as well.
    I have observed some amazing lessons - one was perfect, from beginning to end; every student in a 3 hour literacy class was on task every moment! I have also seen many good techniques demonstrated that I would not have thought of.
    I have also seen things that make me feel more comfortable with the different way that I operate.
    Those of us who have the opportunity to observe are lucky. Those who are observed by a competent observer are also lucky, both for the feedback and the opportunity to reflect and grow.

  2. Thank you so much, Hilary, for this comment. I wish we had more classroom video to watch and/or more opportunities to observe skillful instructors.

  3. Thank you for the mention Kelly, and I enjoyed reading your post a lot! One thing that struck me was how observing was a new experience for your supervisor. We should all be watching others all the time - that's how we learn, compare, gather new ideas. reflect. If you have the chance to organise a yearly peer observation programme in your institution, this can be a great supplement to 'formal' observations - please have a go! (There are a few resources and a chat on this on the blog if that helps!) Looking forward to reading more on your blog :)


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