Dialogue during observations-What new torture is this?

I have read a couple of blogposts about observers offering feedback or intervening in lessons during the lesson being observed. After I had ranted at my partner about what an awful idea this is and how I would down tools if it happened to me again she suggested that I write a blogpost rant instead.

Before going on at length about why this is a bad idea I will say what conditions would have to be in place to make this acceptable to me:

  1. All observations would have to be conducted by someone whose opinion on how to teach Mathematics I respect.
  2. All observations would have to be conducted by someone whose feedback on the teaching of Mathematics I value.
  3. Any dialogue or intervention that occurs would have to be subtle and unobtrusive so as not to undermine my credibility or disrupt my lesson.
  4. If, when and how any possible intervention is going to take place would have to be agreed and it would have to be my decision whether or not it actually happened. If I can’t veto their intervention I don’t want any interventions taking place.

I’ve written several blogposts about my experiences of observations and the various senior leaders I have worked with over the years. I have come to the conclusion that while many of them are nice people and most of them are competent at at leat some aspects of their jobs I don’t really want them in my room. I don’t want to be observed by most of them. No good ever comes of it. I don’t want their feedback. It’s rarely any use to me. I want to be left alone to get on with the job of teaching.

I tolerate these interlopers in my classroom disturbing the learning environment because I have to but I’m not obliged to like it.

Almost every time an observer has decided to contribute to one of my lessons in some way it has either been disruptive, undermining or both. Rarely has it ever made the lesson go any better.

I think my main issue with this idea is simple. It assumes that the observer knows what a lesson needs better than the teacher does. Lets look at that assumption for a minute:

  • Does the observer know the dynamics of the class better than the teacher? Unlikely.
  • Does the observer know the various needs and issues of the pupils in the class better than the teacher? Unlikely
  • Does the observer know what the pupils in the class are capable of better than the teacher? Unlikely
  • Does the observer know more about the subject material being delivered than the teacher? possibly if they are a subject specialist.
  • Does the observer know more about the best way to get the pupils in the class to understand the material? Possibly if they are a subject specialist.

I do not believe that most observers would know best if they were observing one of my lessons. There are only a handful of colleagues I have worked with that I would have been happy to have contributing to or intervening in a lesson during an observation. Each one has been an excellent maths teacher, someone I trusted to act in my best interests and someone whose opinion on teaching Maths was valuable to me.

I have worked with far too many middle and senior leaders that I would not, for a variety of reasons, have wanted intervening directly in one of my lessons during an observation. The ones I would not want commenting on or intervening in a lesson far outnumber the ones where I wouldn’t mind.

As I don’t see how it would be possible for staff to choose which observers can and cannot intervene in a lesson during an observation that is not problematic in some way I think I would hate an observation system like this. Unless there is  a serious issue with the behaviour of the pupils, the safety of the pupils or the professionalism of the teacher, that needs addressing immediately, feedback can wait until after the lesson.


14 thoughts on “Dialogue during observations-What new torture is this?

  1. Steve

    I think this blog illustrates a key problem with how lesson I observations are conducted and viewed in many schools – a “done to” rather than a “done with” approach.

    I was lucky that in my last school lesson observations were seen as a chance to have a second set of eyes in the room. We all acknowledged that we could always improve as teachers and this second set of eyes helped us do so.

    Lesson feedback certainly wasn’t ‘an expert’ giving ‘feedback’ but rather 2 professionals involved in a discussion about the lesson. That extra pair of eyes sometimes saw things – opportunities, strengths or just interesting – that would be very hard for the class teacher to see in the hubbub of a busy lesson.

    I’ve tried to move that way at my current school (I am now SLT) but it’s not a quick job changing mind sets of colleagues who have previously been part of a much more judgemental regime.

    1. bigkid4 Post author

      When trying to change a culture of observation it can be difficult to establish trust. This is especially true when moving from a judgemental system to a supportive one. Many will be understandably cynical.

      This will be especially true if observations are linked to performance management (as they often are). Having teachers without leadership responsibilities be involved in observations tends to move things along. This is particularly effective if they observe senior leaders.

      Ultimately there will always be an element of observations being done to teachers because part of the purpose of observations is quality control and monitoring.

  2. thequirkyteacher

    I’m a teaching newbie and I am already sick to the back teeth of observations. They cause me a great deal of anxiety and I can’t help but have a lot of trouble with people who want to tell me how to teach maths (the children should be learning by doing! and discovery!).

    It may or may not interest you to know that the latest trend in primary schools in our area is for a system of ‘drop in’ observations to be conducted by teachers, SLT, HT etc as often as possible in order to enhance a ‘collaborative’ approach and to make sure that everyone is teaching in the same way. Everyone (in SLT) is raving about it, and about how great it is to have observations continuously happening. It is sweeping through and I can feel it won’t be long before someone amongst my own colleagues goes to a CPD and then comes back with this wonderful ‘idea’. I am dreading this.

    1. bigkid4 Post author

      Can your union rep not do anything about the number of observations? All of our learning walks and observations are on the school calendar. Drop ins aren’t a bad thing in and of themselves. They bother me less than formal graded observations.

      Personally I don’t believe that everyone teaching the same way is a good thing. Most people’s teaching style is unique to them and has elements to it that most people couldn’t pull off. I know that my teaching style isn’t particularly transferable.

      If your school want you to teach a certain way then I would recommend doing so until you have built up enough of a reputation for hard work and results that you no longer need to play the game or worry about observations. I haven’t worried about the outcome of an observation since 2004.

      1. thequirkyteacher

        I’m not really from a working background where it was seen as ok to be part of a union, not the done thing so to speak, so I have no knowledge of what a union rep (if such a thing exists) could do.

        I do get results, and have respect, thankfullly. However, SLT normally made up of ultra enthusaiastic progressive types who do like to stipulate all sorts of mad things because they want everyone to teach like they did.

        Even if you were trusted, constant observations are essentially a licence to nit-pick, because you can find fault with anything and everything if you so wished. It just puts a downer on your whole working life.

      2. bigkid4 Post author

        The NUT and the NASUWT have 3 observations per year policies. If there is a union rep in your school then they ought to be pushing strongly for this limit to be respected. If there isn’t a rep then your local area rep should be aware of the situation so you might contact them. The union could do anything from work to rule and a withdrawal of goodwill to strike action. The main thing they could do is organise and negotiate on your behalf.

        I treat observations like trips to the dentist. I don’t enjoy them but I understand the necessity. I know they are going to tell me I need to floss but my teeth are otherwise fine.

      3. thequirkyteacher

        I like it. Tbh I have been observed a couple of times and then just allowed to get on with things. It’s this whole ‘drop in’ thing that is sweeping through the area, the latest fad so to speak. For now, I am immune…..but for how long?

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  4. Tom Burkard

    Lesson observations are just another symptom of the managerial cancer that is rotting the teaching profession. I have never visited a doctor, a lawyer or any other professional who was being ‘observed’ in the course of performing his or her duties. I was never observed when I taught in the 1990s, even though I was an ‘unqualified’ teacher; I would have walked out had anyone suggested that I needed to be observed. Even people who work in call centres are afforded the dignity of having their calls ‘recorded for training purposes’, as opposed to having someone butt in the middle of the call.

    This is not to say that there aren’t teachers who shouldn’t be teaching. No amount of observation or CPD will change that. A few schools are now realising the blindingly obvious–objective tests are by far the most reliable and efficient means of judging pupil and teacher performance. They don’t humiliate teachers in front of their pupils, who understand perfectly well what is going on. Nor do they stifle innovation or impose rigid teaching practices.

    Half a century ago, tests were a normal part of classroom procedure, and no one bothered about distinguishing between ‘summative’ and ‘formative’ assessment. They served both purposes, as well as helping pupils retain what they had learnt. Then revolutionaries like Stenhouse proclaimed that “Education as an induction to knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable”, and objective testing went out the window. If teachers are to be spared the indignity of being observed in front of their pupils, we need to bring them back–along with quantifiable educational objectives. It’s not like they are incompatible with objectives that can’t be quantified.

  5. joiningthedebate

    It is extremely irritating when non specialist senior staff observe lessons in any case. I did a lesson once to a top set on Pick’s Theorem. There has been a clear progression getting to the final formula. The observer was observed telling the kids that a practical use could be on working out area and the number of files needed to be bought for a tiling project. No it couldnt! Or wouldn’t. The beauty of the maths was then lost because of this current obsession with making all learning relevant and practical. One final example – although I have many. I once had a further maths lesson which touched on game theory (which yes does have some real life applications but is interesting in any case). My senior observer was heckling along the lines of what is the point of maths, and goading my students. He/she would claim of course that they were just trying to get the students to think) One final point please … The recent Hannah’s sweets question I do not have a problem with. Bright kids realise that you probably wouldnt actually use this maths when eating sweets but that it could easily be applied to another situation in industry. The majority of kids have been fed the lie that the only maths you should learn is that which is immediately useful and practical. So their anger is understandable.

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