There is something about observation and feedback that generally makes us feel nervous, unsettled, and distracted. Even when we welcome it, the adrenaline kicks in as we become vulnerable, fight our corner, and try to be teachable. Even so, it is uncanny how the atmosphere in the classroom changes and our learners pick up on the presence of an ‘outsider’.

I believe we feel this way because of the feedback element and the power differentials involved. We know ‘something is coming’, usually from an authority-type figure, and it may not necessarily be nice. Being measured against some sort of standard brings all sorts of emotions to the surface. We are deeply aware of how assessment and evaluation connect with approval, recognition, and praise at one end of the scale to career, advancement, and reward at the other.

When we are talking with the teachers in our circles, we need to remember that a one-term-fits-all phrase such as ‘observation and feedback’ has an incredibly unknown quantity to it. What exactly is being observed? There could be anything and everything to observe when it comes to teaching and learning. Is our appearance, demeanour, and body language taken into account? ‘Feedback’, moreover, is one of those terms that seems to be increasingly used nowadays as a cover for negativity and sometimes nastiness. Words have the power of life and death over us. We are understandably wary of others, especially those whom we don’t trust or respect.

Observation and feedback is common in teaching circles but what is it actually being used for? Is it helping teachers to pause, take stock, reflect, and grow for the good of the learning process? Have a glance at the following ideas and consider whether any of them could be used in your teaching context. The aim is to harness the potential good of observation and feedback whilst minimising potential harm and negativity.

  • Emphasise Reflection and Development over Evaluation and Assessment from the start. Talk up the benefits of growth by pausing, considering our classroom activities, and reflecting upon what is beneficial and what needs to be tweaked.
  • Put learners at the centre. We are after growth in our teaching because as we open ourselves up to reflect and develop, our aim is to promote optimal teaching and learning conditions for our learners.
  • In the busyness of life, teachers need time and support in order to reflect and develop their teaching. Why not take a regular slot in your staff meeting for one person to share about a recent classroom insight, activity or approach that they would recommend. Remember to volunteer to go first and ask others well in advance to give them a chance to prepare something beneficial.
  • Be the first to share something that did not go all that well and ask for other people’s thoughts and responses to it. Model humility, together with kind and gracious speaking. Encourage discussion, openness, sharing, and support where everyone is heard.
  • Build a culture of self-reflection. This could be a set time over a couple of weeks or a half-term where teachers agree to focus in upon an area of teaching such as Teacher Talking Time or Instructional Language. Reflection can be encouraged through thinking about how a class went:
    – I feel pleased about… I was surprised by… If I did this lesson again, I would… One question I have about this lesson would be….
  • Ask teachers if they have any puzzles or questions from their classrooms. Could it be something that everyone could reflect upon? I remember feeling desperate to know if I interacted with every learner more or less equally, but I suspected that I focused on two or three favourites. Over the next few classes, I marked down each time I interacted with a learner. The results were a great motivator for me to adapt some of my teaching.
  • Familiarise the teachers with a guided observation sheet that focuses in on one or two aspects of teaching rather than anything and everything. Information should include date & time, teacher’s name, observer’s name, class level and number of learners. Provide space to write down what is being focused on with any comments.
  • Watch ESOL teachers on YouTube as a staff and using a guided observation sheet to discuss the teaching and learning together afterwards.
  • Encourage teachers to record a short audio-only or video of themselves teaching (with everyone’s permission). They don’t have to share this recording with anyone else but use it as a tool to reflect upon an area of their teaching. Over time, the recordings and/or reflections could be shared with an experienced teacher only, or one or two peers for feedback.
  • It is incredibly helpful for new and less experienced teachers to ‘get a feel’ of what teaching could look like by observing more experienced teachers in a general way. Be ready to arrange cover to enable observations to take place.
  • Lead by example. Show your love and humility by inviting new and less experienced teachers to come and observe you in your classroom first.
  • When it is time for you to go into classrooms, show your high regard for your colleagues by arranging to meet one-to-one beforehand to discuss one or two aspects of their teaching that they would like you to observe. This could be anything from Error Correction to Classroom Management. Why not buy them a coffee at the same time?
  • In this pre-observation meeting, agree on a 15-25 minutes’ timeslot to come in and observe. It’s no use coming in to watch learners taking a Unit Test or reading an extended passage. When you observe, be careful with your body language as things unsaid are powerful. Don’t linger or make comments. The best observers are those that no one notices.
  • In the pre-observation meeting, arrange a time to discuss your feedback and make it clear you will only be discussing those aspects you have agreed upon. Leave feedback to this meeting. Even saying after class, ‘Thank you for letting me come in and observe’, is a form of feedback!
  • Giving (and receiving) feedback is a high art form. The potential for words to be said in haste or error, combined with the permanency and potential harshness of the written word, make this a minefield!
  • Give plenty of time to consider the notes you made about the one or two aspects of teaching on the guided observation form. It is better to reschedule feedback rather than rush and make a mess of it.
  • Describe activities and what went on rather than using ‘you’. Avoid vague words such as ‘good’. Choose one activity and make a positive comment in relation to its effectiveness together with one ‘option’ that could be used to make the same activity more effective.

Example:

One teacher wanted me to focus on her Teaching Talking Time (TTT) in relation to Student Talking Time (STT). The following were my comments: TTT effectively engaged attention of all with extended opportunities for STT, and lots of praise. TTT quite extended and challenging – the bar is quite rightly set high for the Ss’ listening challenge. An option is to divide instructions into sections: “Number 1, I want you to…, Number 2, please turn to your neighbour and…,” etc). Be ruthless with ‘vagueness terms’. Keep going – your students clearly love your class and are learning quickly under your enthusiasm and deep care for them.

  • Be brief, to-the-point and professional, recognising good wherever you see it, yet offering ideas and advice (options). Be ready to discuss your feedback and be humble and grow yourself as you engage with fellow professionals. Give teachers the wings they need to succeed and fly!

Written by Daniel Whetham
Regional Developer for North-West England
December 2021