Eye on the classroom 1: Peer Observation

Between 2008-2009 I wrote a series of six articles for English Teaching Professional on the topic of classroom observations. It was called ‘Eye on the classroom’. So with permission of English Teaching Professional and Pavilion Publishing to reprint the articles here, I’ll post all six in the next few days. Note that in places they might not appear in their full entirety as the originals came with photocopiable pro-forma. However, if you are a subscriber to English Teaching Professional you can download the original as a pdf.

Eye on the classroom 1: Peer Observation

Many language schools and their teachers would welcome more time for development and support. Teachers want new ideas, new ways of doing something or to reassure themselves that the old ways also still work really well. Typically, the school can offer training sessions with talks and workshops, but these take time and involve everyone coming together at the same time on the same day. One form of training and development which bypasses these problems is peer observation. In its simplest form, two teachers team up and observe each other teaching. Their reasons for observing each other in the classroom will include:

  • Sharing ideas

One of the best ways to get new ideas is to observe another teacher. Usually this is because you see an activity being used that you’ve never done before. Observing another teacher at work can also help you to consider fresh alternatives and new ways of doing things.

  • Promoting team spirit

Many teachers feel isolated by working alone, but peer observation lets you work with others and helps you feel more like part of a team.

  • Developing skills

Being an observer affords you time to consider problem areas of your teaching and gives you the chance to see how others might handle similar difficulties in the classroom.

  • Seeing students differently

Observing lessons is as much about observing students as the teacher. Being freed up from the teaching role allows you to see students from another perspective.

Questions and answers

Peer observation takes very little organization and doesn’t require hours of teachers’ meetings. Surprisingly then, an amazing number of teachers don’t take the opportunity to tap into this resource. Perhaps this is because of a list of unanswered questions and concerns they have about observing other teachers. Here are some of those questions with, I hope, satisfactory answers.

  • What do I actually observe for?

In general, observing a lesson isn’t very helpful if the observer walks in with a pen and blank sheet of paper and takes notes on everything they notice. It’s better to have a clear focus. One way to do this is to have sentences to complete about the lesson on a page, like this:

The first thing that struck me about the lesson is..

One thing I noticed about the students is…

One thing I saw in this lesson which I’d like to try is…

One thing that this observation reminded me about when teaching is…

One question I’d like to ask the teacher afterwards is…

  • Do I talk to the teacher about the lesson beforehand?

Not necessarily. It’s helpful to know about the class and what the teacher has been doing with them in previous lessons, but it’s sometimes better to reduce the need for lots of meetings and planning and just go in and sit at the back.

  • Do I talk to the teacher about the lesson afterwards?

This is more likely than talking beforehand. How much you talk will depend on your situation, but keep it informal at first. Perhaps pick a time to go out for a coffee away from the school for your conversation. Even if you agree to have very little discussion after the lesson, you need to thank the teacher for letting you into the lesson and maybe photocopy your observation form for them to read.

  • What’s my relationship with the students in the lesson?

Even though you might be sitting quietly at the back of the classroom, it’s no good assuming that the students will pretend you aren’t there. You may even know some of the students, so say hello. The teacher needs to tell the students, preferably in the lesson beforehand, that there will be a visitor in the next lesson. They need to know that they are not being assessed (which is often a reaction) and that their teacher is not being assessed either (another common reaction).

  • Should I observe the whole lesson?

It may not be practical (or advisable) to observe the entire lesson. It’s useful to be able to see a whole cycle of work completed and often about 45 minutes to an hour is about right. If you are observing part of a lesson, discuss with the teacher the most unobtrusive moment to arrive and leave. For example, arriving during a boardwork presentation with all the students concentrating on the teacher is not a good moment. Leaving while students are all busy talking in pairs and groups is.

English Teaching Professional, 57, July 2008.

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