What are observations currently for?
I should probably start by saying that I haven’t cared about observation ratings for a long time. I don’t want promotion. I’m not that concerned about being well-regarded by anyone. Since going through capability many years ago I haven’t been worried about bad observations. Nothing can be higher stakes than your job being on the line and I’m now financially secure enough to take a pay cut and do something else instead if it comes to that anyway.
I think the entire notion of someone giving me a rating or grade for anything that isn’t part of a course I have signed up for is very strange and slightly infantilising. The idea that I should care about that rating is bizarre. There isn’t really anywhere I want to go pay progression wise really and I don’t need the money anyway so why should I care about which box an observer chooses to tick?
I care about my pupils getting the best grades possible and my pupils have always done pretty well.
It seems to me that the overwhelming majority of observations I have had have been supposed to be for monitoring. The problem is they’re not. Not really.
What is observed is not what I normally do. It isn’t what most teachers normally do. The only teachers I know that do what they normally do when being observed don’t care, are spectacularly confident or have some other agenda. I also find that most people who do what they normally do find the outcome disappointing within a couple of observations and out come the jazz hands and the dancing shoes.
So what is being monitored? The quality of someone’s observation performance. What is essentially being monitored is whether someone is capable of teaching a decent OFSTED lesson.
I would argue that observations are so subjective that they don’t even do this. I have done joint observations and been completely unable to agree on a rating. This has been particularly true when doing a joint observation with someone who teaches a different subject or someone who has odd notions about what lessons are actually for.
This is because it can be hard, even in my subject, for me to know how much progress pupils have made. If we’re talking about a 20 minute slot of a lesson it can be hard to decide whether pupils have made any progress at all so how people who don’t know much about teaching the subject imagine they can decide this is beyond me. I find that they tend to judge whether pupils are making progress based on other things that may look like making progress but aren’t necessarily. Things like whether pupils are on task, whether pupils are behaving, the type of activities pupils are doing, whether pupils are discussing their work etc. The problem is that a pupil can be doing everything they are “supposed” to be doing and not learning anything. That is apparently fine provided they seem to be engaged, on task, behaving themselves, contributing etc. It is outstanding according to some…
Everything else that can be learned from a formal observation can be learned through other means. So the question becomes why check that?
Ostensibly they are about feedback and improving your practice. The question is do they do this. I would have to say no. My observed lessons are going to be completely different to my normal lessons. Therefore feedback on my observed lessons are only going to improve my observation performance. What’s the point of that? Who benefits? Not me and certainly not my pupils. I have very rarely received useful feedback from a formal observation.
It seems to me that currently observations allow SLT to tell OFSTED that they monitor the quality of teaching. They don’t though. Not really. Last year I guessed what the outcome of every observation I knew was coming based on my opinion of their teaching and whether the teacher concerned was popular with SLT or not. I got 19/20 right. The one I got wrong was my own which I under-rated because I thought it was a bad lesson where not much was learned at all. They liked the jazz hands.
In the school before that any teacher the head did not like rarely got better than satisfactory and more often than not got unsatisfactory.
What is the point of them at the moment?
It seems to me that observations fulfil three functions in my experience:
- A paper exercise for OFSTED
- Performance management- something of a misnomer in my experience as it has little to do with performance.
- A stick (in conjunction with 1+2) to beat teachers whose faces don’t fit with.
In terms of improving anyone’s teaching practice or benefitting pupils in any meaningful way I think all three of the above are completely pointless. They also can give SLT a false impression of the standard of teaching in the school. In the past I have been told repeatedly that X% of lessons in the school are (insert rating) or better. What they meant was X% of observed lessons are that rating or better. To suggest that everyone’s normal lessons would have OFSTED ratings consistently as good as their observed ones is delusional.
When I went through capability I tidied my classroom, insisted on half my observations being done by people that didn’t hate me changed little about my practice and rather unsurprisingly half my observations were at least good.
You see my experience tells me that observers who come to lessons looking for problems find them. Observers coming to lessons looking for good things find them. This is particularly true of people observing outside of their own subject.
What should observations be for?
Observations should be about improving teachers practice. Not their observations but the lessons they teach every day. This is the only way to improve outcomes for students. If observations don’t improve outcomes for staff and students then they are not only pointless but counter-productive.
The only way to achieve this is to reduce the stakes and remove the ratings. There are many ways this could be done:
In one of my schools if teachers were free they would take their marking or planning and do it sitting in the back of another teachers classroom. At some point that day the lesson would be discussed informally and any points of interest (positive only) would be typed up and shared with the department. I really enjoyed that.
When I was a middle leader I once observed everyone in the department at least once over a week and typed up general feedback without naming anyone. I commented on the general marking, afl, differentiation, pace, pupil progress, activities being used and a couple of other things. Where weaknesses were identified I suggested another member of department that each department member might work with in order to improve that area. Where possible department members that could help each other were paired up. Where necessary and possible I got people off timetable to observe each other. At the end of the year I repeated this and commented on improvements as well. This was very successful.
The coaching I got which I described in my post about positive experiences of being observed was really helpful- https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/my-positive-experiences-of-being-observed/
Observations by subject specialists or experts (and by “expert” I mean someone who I accept as an expert) in a particular area of my practice that I am interested in improving have generally been worthwhile when the feedback has an agreed focus and does not have a rating (the exceptions being the hatchet people sent in by the HT that put me through capability).
I have occasionally asked to be observed teaching pupils or classes where I find the behaviour difficult to manage. I have only done this where I have had a HoD, HoY or SENCO that I am confident won’t be judgemental or a dick about it if the lesson doesn’t go well. Generally I have found this to be a worthwhile thing to do and I have got worthwhile advice being doing so on several occasions.
Since arriving at my new school I have observed a few colleagues just to see what the standards are like at my new school and what is considered good teaching here. Several colleagues have been happy to oblige. It has been useful for me. I have found that SLT put a lot less constraints on staff here as long as the results hold up. As a result I might revisit some of the strategies I abandoned a long time ago because consecutive SLTs didn’t like them.