Starting from my two principles of teaching:
- Have your students learned what you wanted them to learn?
- How could you improve on this, so more of the students learn more of what you wanted them to learn?
One of the way to improve your practice, so the students learn more of what you wanted them to learn is to observe others’ teaching and to be observed yourself.
Last week I had a discussion with a colleague about our recent observations. We came to the conclusion that if the observer was well informed and could talk with clarity about how to improve the lesson, then this would result in us improving our practice. A professional conversation could take place in which you could explain why you taught in a certain way, and the observer could suggest alternatives based on good practice. It seemed to us that there would be a mutual benefit to this type of discourse, and we also agreed that we had never experienced this scenario in all our scores of observations.
Reflecting on this, I remembered that I had experienced this scenario once. I did a course called Teaching Advanced Maths that was run jointly by the MEI and the Institute of Education. As part of the this course, one of the professors from the IoE (Prof Candia Morgan) came to observe me and as a result of this observation I think my practice improved. Before the observation, I offered Prof Morgan my lesson plan, and instead of simply reading it, she initiated a conversation about the lesson, asking me why I was doing certain things and what I envisaged the result of them would be. I really liked this approach as I was able to communicate much more effectively my intentions than I had been able to when writing the plan. Prof Morgan then observed the lesson, taking notes and immediately after the lesson we went to the library to discuss it. I consider that conversation to have been professional and constructive, and as a result of it and the write up of the lesson afterwards, the way I thought about teaching my KS5 maths lessons improved, and the learning by the students in these lessons improved. This is an example of lesson observations that improve practice.
I have observed a few colleagues over the years, and I have always attempted to be constructive in what I attended to. There are two principles I use when observing colleagues: I want to understand what the intentions were from the teacher, and I want to have a professional conversation about how effectively those intentions were realised, with a discussion of possible alternative strategies. The main difference between my observing and Prof Morgan’s is that she is far better informed than I am. I would say that my attempt at constructive lesson observations is well intentioned.
I will now offer an example of a lesson observation that, as opposed to being constructive, I describe as undermining. In the school I worked in prior to my current one, I was observed teaching a top set Y11 class. It is important for this description that I clarify some details about the lesson: the topic was ‘fractions’, I was teaching it because that was what I was being paid to teach at that time according to the scheme of work, at the time of the observation topics were ‘graded’ and in the textbook Fractions was graded at C, my class all had targets of As and A*s, this was my first year in the school and hence my first year teaching this class.
At that time, I used to spend hours upon hours planning lessons. For that observed lesson I am probably underestimating when I say it took me 6 hours to plan. It was the kind of lesson that focused on enjoyment and ‘engagement’ of the students (something which I now think is not really an important focus of teaching) as well as the students learning the maths well. I felt the lesson went very well, and despite the fact that Fractions is ‘only’ a C grade topic, I felt that all students had made progress. I had handed my observer the lesson plan and she watched the lesson and went round the class talking to the students. After the lesson, I saw this senior leader in the hallway and asked her what she had thought of it. She acted affronted that I had even asked her and told me that she would call me to her office in due course. At the end of the day I was asked to go to her office. On her computer she had brought up the target grades of all the students, and she told me that because I had been teaching a topic at C grade, it had not been an acceptable lesson. I was then given a 45 minute lecture on why it had not been an acceptable lesson and this was all predicated on the fact that it was a C grade topic. I will finish my description there. My view on this type of undermining observation is that it is a form of bullying. There was no attempt to engage in pedagogic discourse, rather there was the use of the senior leader’s position in the school’s hierarchy relative to mine, and the bureaucratic use of an arbitrary tick list about what was expected in the lesson to assert that I was not doing my job properly.
To finish this post and to produce a schema that generalises the points I have made, I will draw on some anecdotal evidence from a fellow PGCE student from when we were on our maths course. He was taking over lessons from an experienced teacher, this teacher was well informed about teaching maths, but in the observation of my fellow student, he would simply undermine his ability compared to the experienced teacher’s own. I think this type of informed undermining is cruel.