In most schools, the Director of Studies will pay regular visits to classrooms to see how things are going. Short visits are often termed pop-ins and longer visits observations.
As pointed out in an ELT Chat summary, there are many different forms of observing, from peer and self observations to developmental and appraisal observations. The exact nature of pop-ins will vary from institute to institute, but the general idea is to get a quick snapshot of the lesson, the learners and the teacher.
In short, what both pop-ins and observations have in common is that someone else – usually the DoS – comes to the classroom to see part of a normal lesson. Except, do teachers and students behave their usual self during observations?
In a recent conversation, a friend who is now a teacher but was once a learner of English, explained to me how her Proficiency teacher would run most of his lessons: very conversation-driven, with little material preparation. However, on the days when he was observed by the DoS, things completely changed: the learners had to get up and do mingle activities, there were worksheets and even lots of pair and group work. A whole different approach to what usually happened. In this video, she explains her experience:
This is one example of many where teachers are subjected to a culture of performance in ELT in order to prove that they are doing what is expected of them. However, if peers and trainers don’t get to see what lessons really look like, then how are teachers ever going to get the support they need to develop further? A lesson which on the surface doesn’t look like what a school expects might well be a very effective lesson, but how will anyone ever know if the teacher hides behind a performance?
In the ELT Chat summary mentioned above, Jim Scrivener points to the need to differentiate between Appraisal Observations and Developmental Observations. With the aim of making this distinction clearer for teachers, perhaps the former could be carried out by the Director of Studies and the latter by someone in middle management, such as a Senior Teacher or an ADoS. This way, teachers will know where they stand and won’t be subjected to the fear that when developing they might get into serious trouble with the boss, as the DoS won’t be present during developmental observations.
Most students like their teacher. Once a working relationship is formed, learners will often identify their teacher’s strengths and overlook their weaknesses. This often results in students willing to defend the teacher, especially if they find the teaching method agreeable or even effective.
If any change in behaviour for an observation is anticipated, it will normally be with the teacher, yet learners changing their behaviour is actually quite common, especially when they know the boss is in the room. Why would they want to risk making their teacher look bad, when they know it could result in a change of teacher or, even worse, more observations?
In a recent observation of a class of teens who are not normally very well behaved, the learners angelic performance from the moment the Director of Studies entered the room to the moment she left was worthy of an Oscar. Not a single foot was put out of place, zero defiance or under-the-breath comments, and no reluctance to do as they were asked. The learners behaved like the textbook learners we all read about, and the DoS left the room with a distinct feeling of happiness that things are going well.
Except, things only went well in that 45 minute slot. Once the boss left, the performance came to an end.
Tips for Observers
- You have to bear in mind that what you are seeing is to one degree or another a bit of performance and not 100% representative of the status quo.
- Observe the learners behaviour and take note of how they react to activities and how well they seem to perform. Try to pick up on any comments if you can. Get up and walk around the classroom and see how well the students are completing the activities. If you feel that an activity in the observation was new for the learners, ask the teacher how often they use the activity and how well they thought the learners reacted to it.
- Before the observation, ask the teacher about the learners: establish who is stronger and weaker and separate the well-behaved from the badly-behaved. Then, during the observation, see if this corresponds to what you observed. If it doesn’t, ask the teacher why.
Tips for Observees
- If you want the observer to get a true snapshot of your learners and lessons, then plan the way you normally would: don’t pull out any stops, the observer can only help you to improve on what you normally do if they see what you normally do.
- If you feel your learners might change their behaviour while being observed, prep them about this beforehand and ask them to be themselves. You might even want to justify why to them.
- To prevent opening yourself up to a wide range of criticisms, arrange with the observer beforehand some areas to focus on specifically during the observation. That way, you’ll have to stress only about a few areas and leave the rest as normal.