Peer Observations

In the most recent edition of the IATEFL Leadership and Management SIG magazine, I had an article entitled “Setting up a Peer Observation Scheme”.  You can find this article attached here.

I hope it is useful.

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Peer observation survey

I know there’s probably nobody checking this blog by now, given its dormancy (is that a word?), but anyway, just in case:

I am looking into peer observation systems and would greatly appreciate your help. If you could find 10-15 minutes to fill in this survey (and pass it on to others you know), I would be very happy. Thanks! http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/FPMH5LP

The results will feed into a workshop I am doing at the “Developing Teachers in Developing Schools” event in Brighton in November (which I am sure will be excellent and you are all (both) urged to come – details here http://secure.iatefl.org/events/event.php?id=53), and a subsequent article which I’ll put up here

Feedback

Teachers are swimming in feedback. When we teach we give and receive feedback all the time, and it is an utterly essential part of the classroom interaction. We get feedback from students’ facial expressions, their body language, that glazed look of incomprehension and (hopefully) the glint of “a-ha”.  We get it from the way that the students use the language, mistakes, and perfect sentences.  We get it more formally with questionnaires, and formal surveys, and slightly less formally by checking at the end of each lesson. We offer it through praise, and through our facial expressions and body language too. We offer it through error correction (both oral and written), and through the questions we ask. Students also get and give feedback from and to each other. It is impossible to imagine a classroom without feedback.  Both teachers and students recognise the value of this feedback (even though it may be given and received unconsciously in some cases)

But, how much feedback goes on in your workplace outside the classroom? Is it enough? Do you (and everyone else around you) recognise the value of feedback? Do you actively seek it out?

I’ll come clean and declare my biases and say up front that feedback is quite possibly the management subject that most intrigues me and one that is (in my opinion) sadly neglected in much management literature and thinking. The concept of feedback in management seems often to be relegated to an annual performance review, and in our context to a possible occasional lesson observation. However, I feel a regular, ongoing, culture of feedback is an integral part of a true learning organisation.  This subject also came up recently on Jeremy Harmer’s (excellent) blog.

In this post I’d like to try and set out what I mean by effective feedback, why I think it is essential, and how we can perhaps starting to instil a culture of feedback in our schools. I’ll be focussing on ongoing informal feedback rather than more formal performance management (or appraisal) systems.

Why is feedback useful (nay essential)? Well, for the same reasons it is essential for our students. It lets people know that they’re on the right track. It helps them to feel competent. It helps signal which goals are most important. It can also feed into the more formal systems (and ensures that nothing that comes up in such a system is not a surprise).

Effective feedback is feedback which is heard by the receiver. Meaning they don’t get defensive (if it is perceived as “negative” feedback), and genuinely hear the message that is being delivered. It is effective if the channels of communication and the relationship between giver and receiver are unaffected by the feedback (or even possibly improved).  It is effective if feedback is not avoided in the future (from either side – if you find yourselves avoiding each other in the corridor after some feedback has been given, then the feedback was ineffective).  Once again, go back to the classroom – for most classroom feedback this is definitely the case. Is it so outside the class?

One of my favourite articles about feedback is by Larry Porter and is entitled “Giving and Receiving Feedback: It will never be easy, but it can be better”.  I have found it reproduced on the web here.  It’s definitely worth reading in full as, for me, it really cuts to the heart of many of the problems with feedback, and in a short space manages to sum up many of the truths about feedback, and also provides a very good “how to” guide.

I won’t repeat it all here, but in it, Porter gives 13 criteria for effective feedback.  Two of them in particular stand out for me (though all are very important)

Number 2 …Effective feedback…”Comes as soon as appropriate after the behaviour“. Imagine how useful your students would find it if at the end of the course you told them they had been repeatedly making mistakes with their use of the present perfect. Immediate feedback gives people the chance to improve and act on the feedback. It ensures that any “appraisal” or evaluation is not a surprise, and crucially it keeps the channels of communication open. Obviously it can’t always be totally immediate, and there may be good reasons why it needs to wait for a short time, but it ought to be offered as soon as possible.

Number 9, for me, is the really key one. Effective feedback…”Is solicited or at least to some extent desired by the receiver.

Going back to the language classroom – our students (usually) desire feedback. They understand how useful it is for their progress and they want to know if they’ve (for example) said something correctly or made an error. They may even want more feedback than you, the teacher, are prepared to give them.  How can we make this the case outside the classroom?  How can we make people actively seek out feedback, how can we create an environment where people want to know what’s going well, what’s going badly, and how they are being perceived?

I like to think that just as a classroom has an understood “culture of feedback”, so can the organisation as a whole. Communication in general is utterly vital in the learning organisation, and feedback forms an essential part of that communication. And, I believe, this culture of feedback has to begin with the manager. By being open to feedback (and indeed by seeking it out) we are more likely to keep those channels of communication open and ensure that communication is ongoing and multidirectional. And by offering feedback (both in the form of praise and “constructive criticism) whenever it is merited, we can take those first small steps in instilling such a culture.

Finally, a last word on praise (since we tend to focus on negative feedback in our worrying about this issue – and that certainly is where much of Porter’s article comes from). There seems to be a concern that we might offer too much praise. However, in workshops, presentations and plenaries in many different countries and to many different groups of people I have asked people to tell me if they get too much praise from their line manager.  In all I have asked (literally) hundreds of people this question, and not once have I had a single person telling me that they do. I’ve had two people in that time tell me they think they get enough, but nobody who thinks they get too much. So let’s stop worrying about overpraising people – it’s just not happening. If it starts to be a problem we can address it when it comes up. And for now, we can even go ahead and start trying to overpraise – if you are throwing darts and consistently miss the treble 20 to the left, then aim to the right a little. It might feel wrong, but you are actually more likely to hit the target. Likewise with praise. Just try it. You might struggle a little at first with the sense that it sounds fake, but as long as it is honest and real praise, then go ahead and offer it. Once again, think of the classroom – do you worry that you’re praising your students too much if they come out with well-constructed utterances? I’m guessing you don’t.

So go ahead, experiment. Offer praise where praise is due (and in all cases where praise is due), and other forms of constructive feedback as and when it arises. And ask people to give you feedback. As often as you can. You’re very unlikely to overdo it. Honestly.

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!