There has been a lot of ‘debate’ this week about lesson observations based on the following ‘Starter for Five’ (Advice for new teachers) from mylifeasacynicalteacher. The post advised:

  1. Find out what the observers are looking for
  2. Give them what they want
  3. Don’t confuse a great observation with great teaching.
  4. A great observation is one after which the outcome is you being left alone to get on with the job of teaching
  5. A bad observation is one that necessitates further observations

They did go back and explain in more detail as a reaction to some criticism but it wasn’t the only one. There was another, anonymous post, that recommended:

  1. Remember the observer is ticking boxes on a form: get a blank copy in advance to help you plan what they can tick!
  2. Ensure classes are aware of your routines eg where and when to find MWBs / glue etc. Transitions between activities are tricky to manage without clear routines.
  3. Try to smile and come across as relaxed. This could involve Oscar-worthy acting, but do it!
  4. Are there school-wide expectations for lessons, eg obs displayed throughout; silent writing; No Hands Up etc? If so, build them in so you’re not criticised for not doing them.
  5. When given feedback, ask, ‘How would you have done that differently?’ – both for your development and to give the observer a box to tick next time (acts on advice).

Lesson observations are clearly a divisive element of practice for many teachers. Many do not see the point.

@oldandrewsuk tweeted: “What if you want to be left alone to do your job?”

I can understand that from a defensive perspective the ‘shut the door’ and let me get on with it approach must be very desirable for many teachers beaten and abused by systems that may have left them deluded, bitter and confused. After a terrible year of SATs I was observed by an SIO in Tower Hamlets and her opening line to my feedback was,

“Brian, do you know why your SATs scores were so low this year?”

Pause… “Because…”

“Because you are a SHIT teacher…”

I thought I was the bees-knees. The kids loved me. They would fall on their pens for me. Discipline was great. The parents loved me. Teacher’s loved me! It wasn’t until I took the head out of my own backside and saw the best teacher I have ever worked with teach that I realised that I was all smoke and no fire. I had never observed anyone else and therefore I never had anything to compare myself with. As a school leader I always remember that observation is a 2 way process.

All that happened in the “Brian – You’re a shit teacher…” scenario was bitterness and anger. My gut would hurl abuse at me for the next 3 years of observations. I hated them and saw little purpose.

Brain surgery dates back circa 7,000 B.C. If given the choice I’d choose the modern version of the practice if I ever need my cranium checked out. I believe the same can be said of lesson observations. As a teacher I had varied experiences (from the late 90’s) but I could honestly say none changed or bettered my practice until I became an SLT member and got to see loads of teachers teach. This was because the focus was on accountability rather than developing practice.

I think the damage was done via Ofsted processes from 2004 to 2013 and schools panic to ‘seem’ like they were IMPROVING OUTCOMES. I think you can pin Mocksteds, Performance Related Pay and a whole host of evil to the door of this approach to school accountability. It was wrong and it was damaging.

But I believe that observation is the best way to develop practice within a school system. The ability for professional colleagues to discuss – what’s, where’s, why’s, and how’s of our craft are key.

Therefore, ‘observation’ and ‘climate’ have to go hand in hand. If you are in a school where observation is about ‘good’ teachers, ‘special’ teachers and ‘bad’ teachers; following orders, being complacent to a system you disagree with… If you are in a school like that then I am sorry. I really am. If you are an SLT member in a school that lays an iron rod of rule to observations then, “Shame on you.” Even if you throw back that your school is outstanding and it had to be this way. I think that this narrow purpose is not going to evolve anyone’s teaching and therefore I’d look more carefully at the learning as well.

I don’t believe it has to be this way. I believe that observation can be a better way of developing our practice and the ethos of a school.

I know it is not about me… but to understand why I get hot under the collar when lesson observations are bashed you need to understand where I am coming from. At my school we do the following:

There is a pre lesson observation meeting. The teacher and 2 SLT members meet together the day before the lesson observation to talk through what has been planned and any contextual information the teacher wants to share. This one small change has had a real impact on teachers.

  1. Lessons have been changed. Advice given by an SLT maths lead helped develop the lesson to reinforce a tricky concept. The LO is therefore not seen as a test to get through.
  2. The SLT have learnt just how difficult, time consuming and tricky some aspects of our processes can be. We were able to change some. In most Lesson Observations planning is almost ignored. In the pre meeting it is central.
  3. In the pre meeting you can discuss simple terms such as:

“So, what are you teaching?”

“There’s a lot of content here? Are you comfortable with this?”

“What could go wrong? And if it does?”

For braver teachers:

“Tell us where you don’t want us poking around?”

“Who is really concerning you right now?”

It’s about building the trust up and going in to the lesson as an observer better informed than you would have been. I gained more as an observer this time around than in the past.

The lesson happens. The observer’s brains are filled with ‘their’ perspectives on what is going on. The teacher teaches.

The next important part of the process is the feedback. You need to stick with what was discussed in the pre meeting. I have found that this time round it has become a ‘discussion’ about our practice. Sometimes feedback lasted over an hour. Maybe ‘feedback’ is the wrong word? We did have the words ‘strengths’ and ‘gaps’ on the observation form. Through the feedback process we got rid of ‘gaps’ and put in ‘talking points’. There were a lot of questions generated during the feedback sessions. Questions that teachers could go back out and test. This is critical to improving. I want to know if it works. One teacher seemed to have nailed converting measures in her class. The question was, “When tested on this in 3 weeks’ time what will the outcome be?” I do not know how it could have been taught better – therefore we are looking into bigger issues of learning and retention here. We are evolving our language as a school and therefore we will evolve our practice. No one should be bloodied in this open process. This is critical to school success. An open, fair and developmental observation process that EVERYONE feels they are an important part of.

This is a key point I have around lesson observation. I may not be a history or maths expert but I have observed in hundreds of lessons from babies to Y11 and I am able to ask the questions that can lead a teacher to question what they are doing or the impact something is having on another. I am also able to note things when they are clearly going wrong. Sometimes, I can add nothing to the debate. I am confident enough to ‘shut up’ at this point. As head I need to know my teachers know this. As head I am ultimately accountable for the school. I must know what is happening in the school I have been employed to run. There should be no fear in this. If there is then I am doing my job wrong.

I like the 30% and 90% feedback model. For some teachers feeding back a 30% model can be useful, lots of, “What would have happened if?”, “What next?”, “Have you spoken to X?” etc… For some teachers a 90% feedback model is more effective, picking up on smaller detail. I feel teachers should be given a choice as to how they want the feedback.

If you are in a school and you feel you need a list to ensure you can get through a lesson observation then something is not right at your school. Teaching is a craft. There are many ways to do it and much will always remain un-seen, almost impossible to decipher. If you are an observer and you think you can ‘judge’ a lesson then you are delusional. You can make comment, you can be a set of eyes and ears and hopefully you can engage in an interesting debate around ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’. If you cannot do this then I’m with the lesson observation haters – viva la revolution!