The Role of Teacher Observations

One of the big issues in the annual work cycle of many a DoS or other manager of teachers is the teacher observation. This is usually part of the annual performance review/appraisal system, and probably also involves a meeting where the DoS/Academic Manager gets together with the teacher to discuss their performance and possibly set goals for the year ahead. Most people have probably been through this process from at least one end – as teacher or other employee and/or as manager.

The teacher observation as a part of this process, usually involves teacher and manager agreeing a class to be observed, the teacher providing a lesson plan, and, after the class, a discussion (which may involve some form of documentary process, whereby the manager writes down her comments and the teachers signs off on his agreement/understanding of those comments).

But how useful is this? How effective is it as a way of managing performance? Obviously teacher observations which are specifically developmental can be an extremely useful tool for professional development – anyone who has ever been a teacher will have gained a great deal by being observed by a teacher trainer or a peer or even a manager – and I definitely believe in the teacher observation in this regard. But as part of “performance management”? I’m much much less convinced (well to be honest, I think it’s a bad idea altogether).

Some reasons why I think it’s a bad idea:

  1. However much you make it clear that the object of the observation is developmental and not judgmental, by making it part of the annual (or semi-annual, or whatever regular interval) performance review cycle, it will inevitably take on at least some judgmental aspects (both from the teacher’s and the manager’s perspective)
  2. How useful is it to review a teacher’s performance based on one (almost inevitably unrepresentative) hour out of their annual workload of possibly 1000 hours?
  3. It’s time consuming.  For the teacher – who has to produce more formalised lesson plans, and has to go through the pre and post lesson meeting; and for the manager – who will be looking at least 2 hours time (for a one hour lesson) for each teacher under her management – even before the actual performance review process which will  require another couple of hours per teacher (the latter is time well spent, the former less so).  Even with as few as ten teachers under a DoS’s supervision, the time commitment is pretty high.
  4. In some cases the manager has not come to her role through teaching – in this case it clearly makes very little sense to observe teachers and be able to make any meaningful suggestions or analysis.
  5. Very often the teacher observation as part of the performance management process just exists because it always has been done this way, and nobody has thought to question it.  And it’s always worth challenging those mental models!

So, if I’m proposing that we drop the teacher observation from the performance review, I guess I should propose a replacement.  As the manager of a very large project to help a major Brazilian language school “reculture” itself, this was something we looked at, and what came out of the process was, I think, an excellent alternative solution to the standard review.  A working committee of teachers from all of the school’s branches was formed, and they worked together to propose something which they felt would be a better performance management system – and one that would be acceptable to both teachers and managers.  What they eventually settled on (and which became the new system) was something akin to the portfolio system of student assessment.  Teachers, over the year, were required to keep a portfolio.  This was designed to reflect their successes, problems, development, reflections – crucially whatever they wanted to take from the year.  Lessons that had been a great success, workshops attended, activities that had worked, activities that had not worked (and reflections as to why not), student work that had touched them in some way, whatever they wanted to remember and take from the year.  As part of the performance review meeting with their line manager, teachers presented these portfolios, sharing things that they wanted to share with their boss that came out of the year.  As it was an ongoing process and not just an annual thing, the portfolio further encouraged teachers to think and reflecting on their work constantly.  And the manager got to hear stories and anecdotes from the classroom that she would otherwise not have heard.  Both teachers and managers felt that the new system made a lot more sense and was of much greater value.

That’s not to say that this is all the meeting should involve – the idea of setting professional development goals for the year and reflecting on last year’s goals in a formalised way, is I think also very important, as are many other areas of performance management systems.  But as a replacement for the teacher observation section of that process, I think it is worth considering.

Just to be absolutely clear, I think well structured teacher observations as part of teacher development are fantastically useful  (both for observer and teacher), and there’s another blog post in the question of how to set up a successful peer observation system (for another time).

So, what do you think?  Teacher observations as a management tool – useful or not?  If you think they are important, why, and how should they best be set up?  Any and all comments gratefully received!

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17 Responses to “The Role of Teacher Observations”

  1. Sara Hannam Says:

    Andy that was an interesting and thought provoking post. Thanks. I’ve been on both sides – observed more times than I can remember through my CELTA, DELTA and in other situations, and now observing teachers under my “management” as director of an English Unit at a university. I absolutely agree that observations are problematic in terms of time commitment and interference in teacher schedule and also power dynamics i.e. is it possible to be observed by someone in a senior position that is not affected by those differences in roles and the potential threat of not measuring up. They almost always have a performance related function and are often (sadly) not purely about professional development and improvement these days. For this reason I have quite mixed feelings about doing observations and have tried to really think aobut how to do it in a more open and reflexive way. As a teacher, my experiences of being observed were very much affected by the personality and obtrusiveness of the observer, as well as how much they felt they needed to intervene – one person even said to me “well I have to show that I’ve done my job and find things to write in my post-observation feedback!”. As a manager I have always tried to a) keep observations to an absolute minimum and b) encourage teachers to observe each other rather than me observing any of them where possible. That’s an idea worth considering as teachers usually feel more comfortable in each other’s classrooms. Not with the intention of feeding that back to me or management, but as an experience they share privately. I have also invited teachers to observe me, thereby making it a two way street and not one where I claim to be the expert and they the ones who automatically have something to learn from me and not vice versa. Re: portfolios – I can see how that may work with some teachers, particularly those who value individual written reflection. But as I was reading it I could also imagine that some would feel this is also a huge (and ongoing) time commitment that stretches over a whole semester. They may react by artificially keeping it going to produce an outcome into which they have not really invested in the way you outline. It may still feel like jumping through hoops. I think what is perhaps important is not so much the method but the means of decision making – what I loved about your story is that the teachers came up with the idea of the portfolio themselves, therefore they will automatically feel more invested in it. Perhaps the way to go then, and I might well give this a try myself next year, is initiating a discussion and then leaving the teaching team to mull over the options regarding a) director-teacher observation b) on going portfolio c) teacher-teacher observation, or some other idea we haven’t thought of. I have the flexibility at my college to put that into practice so I will let you know how it goes! Thanks again Andy : )

  2. Ruby Says:

    Thanks for this initial post, and for the comment above. Some food for thought, definitely! I’m not convinced (as I think you are not convinced?) about the value of observation (and specifically peer observation as we call it here in Moray House School of Education; as opposed to observation of teachers as part of a training/development course). I’ve engaged in shared/collaborative teaching, where we have to discuss things beforehand and then we are present as we take different parts of a session. This works because we have decided that it’s something we want to do, and that we consider (as autonomous professionals) will be worthwhile for the learners. However, when told that we have to have a specific session that is observed by a peer, and that this has to be noted and recorded in some way, the interest dies and the whole thing becomes a hierarchical requirement so that we can tick a certain box. Very unsatisfactory!
    On the plus side, I know that the preparation can be rewarding as you have to revisit things that you haven’t spelled out on paper for some time. For me, though, that doesn’t make up for the “requirement”
    On reflection, maybe I’m just a cynical middle-aged professional who would prefer to be a young, rebellious teenager?
    Thanks, Sara, for the outline of the various ways you have worked on observations. I’ve also used the idea of portfolios and diaries as a part of initial teacher education, and as part of a Master’s course in learning theory; with mixed success, I have to say. For some, it really does give a good record of changing ideas and builds confidence as they see progress; for others it’s a tedious requirement and they don’t see any value.
    Putting together my musings above, I can see that the common theme is that for professionals the important aspect is the individual’s sense of doing something worthwhile. It comes back to the learner (in the broad sense of all of us being life-long learners) choosing to make decisions and taking control of their own development.
    Autonomy rules!

  3. Chris Cotter Says:

    I manage in a conversation school in Japan, which works from a largely set curriculum. Although teachers do produce some special lessons, not much of their day-to-day work is involved with these extra-curricular lessons. Teacher observations require somewhat less time on the teacher’s part because they don’t need to submit lesson plans, materials, etc.

    As a result of this fixed system, we introduced a quarterly observation. And although the system may sound a bit like “paint by numbers,” there is a lot of room to adjust the lesson and materials to the dynamics of the class.

    In each observation, we look at lesson structure, clarity of explanations, talk time, group/pair work… all the essential components that go into a good lesson, as well as how it all gets tied together. The teacher and observer sit down beforehand to discuss the lesson, with questions and comments offered on both sides. The observer takes notes during the lesson. After the lesson, both discuss the lesson, what went well, what problems were faced, etc. For lessons on writing or news or pronunciation, other components are examined.

    It’s taken a lot of work to get the trainers to realize that there are many approaches to a successful lesson. It’s taken even more work for everyone to realize that experimentation is good, even when it fails. The classroom should be a place to try new ideas, assess those ideas, and continue to tweak them. In an observation, another pair of eyes can offer comments and help.

    Lastly, for observations to work well, a regular system of training and workshops needs to be in place. We do a two-hour workshop for about one dozen teachers each month, which they then bring back to the schools. Many of the participants rotate into the meetings, which are conducted during company hours in lieu of a class. In so doing, the teachers realize that the observations are another means for development, much like the workshops.

    Chris Cotter
    http://www.headsupenglish.com

  4. Anne Says:

    Partner peer review is really worthwhile, particularly in connection with a specific project such as improving visuals or using new tools. As a freelancer in adult education teaching a wide range of course types (company, EAP) I wish I had more peers to share with. I attended an excellent teacher training course at the LMU University of Munich/ Fremd- und Fachsprachen Programm called kommUNIkation a few years back that included such peer review. The essential elements that made it work were
    1. preparation (what does each partner expect from the review with a stated action enquiry focus,
    2. using a list of criteria (eg activities, purpose, duration) which both partners discussed in advance, and
    3. talking it over openly afterwards. Written documentation of the observations was a total drag, red tape, but our conversations were excellent. It was still slightly disconcerting, but quite rewarding.

  5. adhockley Says:

    Thanks all. I agree with the comments that a really successful performance management system will have the “buy-in” (apologies for using management speak) of all concerned, and this is almost certainly one of the reasons why the portfolio system worked in the LTO in Brazil. (It wasn’t by the way, an onerous system – there was just a requirement that teachers kept things that they wanted to remember whenever they had a moment – slip a photocopy in a file type thing. Then once a year you go back over it and reflect on why you put that there. Crucially it’s personal, and in the annual meeting you share what you want to share)

    I totally agree with Anne on peer-observations, and the absolute necessity of setting things up properly (and providing training in how to observe and give feedback!).

    Once again, thanks to everyone for contributing to the discussion.

    • Marina González Says:

      Great comments. thanks to you all. I was just planning my beginning of term meeting and I am almost certainly going to suggest this portfolio as work for the second term in a year which has so far proved to bring many surprises from everywhere!!
      promise to report back!

  6. lodzubelieveit Says:

    I currently do observations as an ADOS at a private language school in Spain, and have previously been the ‘observee’ on countless occasions at schools, CELTA and DELTA.

    I don’t necessarily think that observations need be perceived as negative judgemental affairs. A lot of the pereception on the part of the teacher will depend on the ‘whole relationship’ they have with the manager in question – precisely as tests in a class are to be seen as a positive progress check and platform for the future rather than an ‘auto-de-fe’ for the students. So, if effort is ploughed into the general day-to-day relationship between managers and staff, then the benefits of observations will be multiplied. I know, certainly as a less experienced teacher, that I most certainly wanted a more experienced colleague to sit in and advise me, so now as a manager I don’t quite have the ‘angst’ of doing observations that some do. And anyway, it’s the eternal question – how are TEFL managers supposed to assess the quality of their staff’s performance other than by observing them? Just sit back and wait for students’ complaints and think ‘no news is good news’?

    The portfolio idea is interesting. It assumes that teachers would be motivated enough to do it, though, which for many, get-in-there-1-minute-before-the-class and head-down-the-pub-1-minute-after (a sizeable proportion of TEFL teachers, let’s be honest) types, won’t happen. I have indeed thought of introducing something similar at my school for the coming year in terms of a portfolio/teacher’s log, however, perhaps scheduling in meetings with me as we go along rather than a big portfolio presentation at the end, so we’ll see how it goes.

    Peer observations are a bit hit and miss, aren’t they? I mean, some will do it well and take it seriously and all that, and some just won’t. Having said that, they’re probably more good than harm, so I’d encourage them to happen.

  7. Sara Hannam Says:

    Dear Previous poster (sorry I don’t know your name from your tag),
    For peer observations and other less centralised forms of monitoring to work you have to trust the teachers you work with and believe that they are basically wanting a successful outcome in their classroom as much as you are. That goes against the grain of thinking in the current climate where observation and monitoring appear to be the name of the game. One part of that trust might be thinking about the way as a manager, you characterise your teachers. I am not sure how I feel about your “get-in-there-1-minute-before-the-class and head-down-the-pub-1-minute-after (a sizeable proportion of TEFL teachers, let’s be honest) types” comment other than to say are things really that simple? This is somewhat different to the non-judgmental sentiments you are proposing at the start of your posting. I am confused?? Can you explain how you have drawn this conclusion. I have also worked with a wide range of ELT teachers in my time in different settings and have, on the whole, found that view to be a bit of a stereotype. Am I wrong? Perhaps this is the subject of another blog Andy?!
    Sara Hannam

  8. adhockley Says:

    Hi James (Lodz), thanks for dropping by.

    I think this question gets to the heart of the matter:

    how are TEFL managers supposed to assess the quality of their staff’s performance other than by observing them? Just sit back and wait for students’ complaints and think ‘no news is good news’?

    As I mentioned in the original post, I’m not convinced that the observation is an accurate (or even vaguely accurate) way of assessing a teacher’s performance. But even given that proviso, how else could we assess staff performance?

    I think there are a number of areas which we can look at which can help us – commitment to their own professional development, for example, would be one way.

    There is a place for the observation, I’m just not sure if I see its place as a performance assessment tool.

  9. James Wylie Says:

    I agree that observations should not be the sole measure of performance assessment, and that other factors should be taken into consideration, such as student satisfaction, professional development commitment and the like.

    Sara – I don’t want to get sidetracked into a ‘characterisation’ argument any more than you – I wasn’t for a moment trying to tar all teachers with the same brush with the ’1-minute..’ line, don’t get me wrong. However, most people in every job, including TEFL, are not 100% dedicated professionals, and instead do just enough to get by at work. It would take a great deal of commitment on all sides to make a compulsory extra ‘portfolios’ idea work, and becuase of this, the plan, whilst good and very beneficial if it works, wouldn’t automatically be a success straight off everywhere. Perhaps it could be optional at first, then those not so committed would see the benefits and be enticed into doing it too.

  10. Danielle Says:

    Hi – very interesting & thought provoking, however my first reaction is to say “I won’t be forwarding that to my deputy just yet.” I have always been frustrated by the teacher observation practice – for the same reasons as you, also because I was involved as observer well before I was ever observed for a variety of reasons. Having been procrastinating a professional reflection blog in favour of things that are “hands on” for my students (eg klasqta.blogspot.com) or for teachers (kelaskubermain.blogspot.com), you have provided some more motivation for me to get started (although there is still the matter of time!)

  11. Sara Hannam Says:

    James thanks for your clarification!

  12. alexcase Says:

    I’d be happy to see other options, but I still think “official” observations can be useful, e.g. to check up on the dossers without them feeling picked on, to show the students that there is quality control, to have a fixed point of contact that other communication between the manager and teacher can be built around, to help those teachers who perform better under pressure and feel that improvements in their whole teaching comes from it (e.g. me), to get them so used to being observed that the pressure decreases and so might be more keen to do peer obs.

    Some random ideas

    - Have seperate developmental and “quality control” observations, even if they are by the same person at different times, e.g. alternate ones in alternate terms
    - If you’re going to have portfolios, let some teachers choose the old system instead (e.g. me, I’ve always preferred taking exams to having to do continuous assessment)
    - Even the “quality control” observations should be based on that teacher improving more than setting minimum standards
    - Going off the lesson plan and only later finding out that your students learnt more that way is called inspiration or teaching instinct, not a weakness (see “The Experience of Language Teaching” by Rose M Senior for details on how most experienced teachers develop this way), and so should be allowed for in the lesson plan and feedback system
    - If the feedback could be a cause of friction with the teacher, take copious factual notes (who talked to who, how long things took, what was said) and maybe have two people observing at the same time (as you “train up the Senior Teacher to do these types of observations”)

    On a totally unrelated point- can you put your link on Onestopblogs because I think this is going to be a regular read and being able to just click there once a day would be mighty convenient

    Thanks

  13. Darren Elliott Says:

    Just been directed over here by Alex, and it makes for very interesting reading. I, too, have been on both ends of all kinds of observations.
    You wrote…
    “anyone who has ever been a teacher will have gained a great deal by being observed by a teacher trainer or a peer or even a manager”
    … and although I don’t totally disagree, it might be over stating it somewhat. My DELTA observations were very, very useful… but the observations form just part of a whole planning and reflection process and are thus not typical.

    More common are the observations where the observer is too afraid to say anything critical and just mumbles “mmm, yeah, it was fine” and shuffles off. I once had a stranger sidle into the classroom after the class had started and leave ten minutes before the end, never once making eye contact!

    On the other hand, I spent several years as a teacher trainer for a large conversation school in Japan (the experience sounds not unlike Chris Cotter’s). I was pretty raw myself, and I cringe to think now that I would show up ten minutes before the class – rather than helping the teacher the intention seemed to be to ‘catch them out’. However, in all that time (and over the years I must have seen hundreds of teaching hours) I never saw a class I didn’t learn something from. This, I think, is the real value of observation and perhaps it is a change of emphasis that is needed. Who is the active participant in an observation? The observer is our protagonist, and the teacher is passively being observed… no wonder it can be such a nerve-wracking experience! Peer observations, with pre-session collaboration on criteria such as tracking (check Ruth Wajnryb’s great book on observations), can be fruitful.

    The portfolio you refer to was something that we tried (in some form) at the conversation school I mentioned. We compiled managers reports, teacher reflections, observation reports, and workshop records to try to build a fairer picture. If a trainer or manager is adept at giving feedback, then great. But how many really are?

  14. alexcase Says:

    In reply to Darren’s comments on here and on a short post on the same topic on my blog (http://www.tefl.net/alexcase/teaching/tefl/publishing/inside-teaching-observations/) , another option I almost always gave people I was observing was for me to take their lesson and them to watch me. As well as showing them the other side of the obs process for when I observed them, it also allowed them to take a step back from their class and see the students more dispassionately

  15. Darren Elliott Says:

    I’ve done that too, but it can be a bit disruptive for the students and (especially if they don’t know who you are) lead them to think their regular teacher is in trouble. Of course, they might already know that!

  16. Kham Bao Says:

    I am a teacher trainer and a manager as well. When I started my evening English language center, I thought of teacher observations as a tool to know about teacher performance and threfore about teaching quality. But so far a year has passed since the center was established, I haven’t done any observations yet. Why not? I think there are many different reasons for this failure.
    Firstly, my EL center is a private center and the teachers are from diferent sources, from public higher institutions, from general education grade schools, and from public and private companies in the town. They all come to my center to teach as their extra job. Therefore we can’t impose any more pressure on them by using observations as a tool to control teaching quality. If we try to implement observation policy strictly, they might leave the center and apply for another one.
    Secondly observations in public institutions are not a ‘good’ word. Observations are usually associated with criticisms, critical judegements from inspectors from the local department of education and training or from the headteachers and other seniors. Observations are also associated with ranking because observations are done as examiners coming into the class, observing and then giving some marks. Then the results are publicly announced and those with high marks are awarded with some prizes, which may severely hurt those who don’t . That why when they are informed about the manager’s observation, they will definitely have negative feelings. And they will think that if the results of their observed lesson is not good enough, their images in the eyes of the seniors are positive, they are afraid of losing face.
    Thridly, from theoretical perspectives, observations are good and in many cases this is the case in some cases. But it does mean they are always benefitial because if obersvations are not conducted regularly, we managers cannot have a right picture of the whole teacher perfomance. But if they are done regularly, it is time-consuming as mentioned in the blog.
    So far, we have used questionnaires as a means of collecting information from learners, through which we know some reaction from them about teaching. But so far all what we have received from learners are good opinions about the centers. Are the learners too polite? or Are they afraid to lose their teacher’s face? Or do they think this is not effective enough?
    You have suggested using portfolios. But this depends very much on teachers’ commitment, not on pressures from the managers or executive board. Moreover, portfolios can’t directly show the quality of teaching while obeservations can.
    In summary, as a beginning manager, I haven’t thought any new ways of understanding teacher performance and teaching quality. I think the combination of all these seem to be the best way. However, one thing we need to pay attention is that what matters is not the means, but the way we use the means.


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