Observations

I recently posted 5 pieces of advice on the @starterforfive blog. Several tweeters took issue with the advice. While I don’t mind healthy debate or people disagreeing with me I don’t feel that those that were taking issue get what I’m about. Hence this post.

Firstly I am going to post some links to some previous blogposts about observations for the purpose of giving context and to avoid repetition (earliest first). Everyone’s view of observations will be coloured by their experiences of observations…

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2013/11/09/my-experiences-of-mocksteds/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/my-experiences-of-ofsted/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/my-positive-experiences-of-being-observed/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/observations-what-are-they-for-what-is-the-point-of-them-at-the-moment-what-should-they-be-for/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/how-outstanding-is-outstanding/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2014/11/01/the-fallout-from-ofsted/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2015/05/30/dialogue-during-observations-what-new-torture-is-this/

To be honest I was initially surprised by the negative reaction until I realised 3 things:

  1. Most of the people taking issue with it were members of SLT
  2. They were saying that THEIR school wasn’t like that or that THEY as SLT members weren’t like that
  3. They were saying that observations SHOULDN’T be like that.

In actual fact what they were doing was personalising the post and turning it into a criticism of them or their school. That was not my intention. I think they may also have misunderstood the intent behind my advice as well. I also think they may have been reading things into my advice that I did not actually say because there have been so many blogposts over such a long period of time complaining about observations. This is a summary of what I meant.

  1. Find out what the observers are looking for- I don’t see how this is controversial. My school has a focus. It has a school improvement plan. There is a departmental improvement plan. Observers will often focus on these things in their observations and in their feedback. Individual observers have their foibles and preferences just like anyone else. Of course nobody is supposed to have preferred teaching styles any more. Anyone who genuinely believes that they or anyone else doesn’t have preferences is living in fantasy land. It’s worth knowing what the preferences are.
  2. Give them what they want- If you know what observers are going to be looking for why would you not show those things? If something is in the Departmental or School improvement plan then why would you not make sure that you do it and do it well? If an observer prefers a certain style of teaching or lessons or ways of managing behaviour why not do it that way? The NQT year is HARD. Why create additional levels of difficulty unnecessarily?
  3. Don’t confuse a great observation with great teaching. All too often they’re not the same thing at all-  Observations are highly subjective. I’ve had very positive feedback from lessons I have thought were ok. but no better. I’ve had very negative feedback from lesson I thought went ok too. This happens more often when being observed by non-subject specialists and people who don’t know the kids very well. Great teaching happens over time. It’s what you do day in and day out over a long period. A great observation can be indicative that great teaching is taking place but it certainly isn’t the same thing. I know many teachers that can turn out a great observation that really struggle to reproduce that standard day in day out.
  4. A great observation is one after which the outcome is you being left alone to get on with the job of teaching- I find that the frequency with which new teachers are observed/supported/dropped in on is directly related to how well they are doing. Is this not the case everywhere? It’s certainly my experience.
  5. A bad observation is one that necessitates further observations- In my experience even when feedback is negative unless there is some sort of follow up observation resulting from the negative observation it wasn’t that bad.  It’ generally only been the worst of my observations that have resulted in a follow up observation.

In my current school they have recently moved away from doing full, graded lesson observations towards a system of 10 minute drop ins. It’s supposed to be supportive, non-judgemental, formative and collaborative. I think it eventually will be. The person leading on it is very good and having discussed it with SLT it is clear that they want it to be successful. I have played a not insignificant role in advocating and pushing for the changes and have invested what capital I have in the new system. I have made my suggestions and I think they have been taken on board and we will move to a system that is pretty close to how I would do it if I were in charge in the reasonably near future.

Some issues remain though:

  1. Staff are used to their pay progression being dependent on very high stakes, judgemental graded observations. There are still a lot of performance lessons going on and limited trust in the system
  2. Some middle and senior leaders are not conducting the learning walks or giving feedback in the agreed way. This is being addressed as a training need and hopefully will be sorted out in the near future.
  3. When things don’t go as they should staff tend to keep it to themselves or address it through their union (eventually) rather than at the time and through SLT. This has led to SLT only hearing the positive and having a slightly false rosy picture of how it is going (The staff are positive about the change but not universally so and the system is not without flaws)
  4. There are still a minority of people using observations to grind axes and push agendas.
  5. The observations are almost exclusively done by post holders. This is changing slowly but there is still a long way to go.

I have personally had no negative experiences of being observed in the last 2-3 years. I have also had little feedback that has made me any better at teaching. The best thing about the observations has been the discussion afterwards about teaching maths (when I’ve been observed by a Maths teacher). That could happen without the observation though.

The best system of observations I have experienced was entirely informal. Every member of the department would sit in the back of someone else’s lesson doing their marking during frees and then have a chat about the lesson afterwards.

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3 thoughts on “Observations

  1. Requires Improvement

    It strikes me that be big (but hard to talk about) dichotomy is whether the high-stakes lesson observation has a point or not.
    I can see that, if you believe that formal LOs provide useful information on where teachers are, and how they can improve, anything that smacks of cynicism or how-to-play-the-game will be a problem.
    The thing is that, from the other side of the looking-glass, the tiny amount of teaching being sampled, and the putting-on-a-show aspect, and the difficulty of pinning down what good teaching is anyway, make the process a ritual game. And then, the thing to do is to play the game as efficiently as possible before getting on with teaching.
    I’ve had badly-done observations, including one where I had to work hard to get basic matters of fact corrected. Fortunately, the observations at my current school have been done well… but the process doesn’t really do what it claims to.

    Reply
    1. bigkid4 Post author

      The only way to make observations useful is to remove the stakes so people allow observers to see their normal practice. Even when that is the plan it doesn’t always happen and it takes time for the observers and the observed to get used and trust in the system.

      Reply

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