Some Observations on Observation

It was 8.30pm on a slightly humid late spring evening. After an all too short tea break, students were returning to their seats and readying themselves for the final leg of a long day of work and evening classes. The teacher too was feeling the strain of the dreaded ‘split shift’ having done the morning/afternoon intensive courses and then the late evening slot as well.

Just as they were all ready to get back into reviewing the present continuous, a woman appeared at the door. “Sorry to interrupt, David,” said the DoS, for that is who she was, “but would you mind if I did that observation now? I know we said Wednesday morning but I’ve just remembered I have a meeting then.”

Not my old DoS obviously but Fringe fans will get the reference - Image by Godric Hufflepuff

Such an ‘unexpected’ change of plans was not entirely surprising. Our director had a habit of springing surprises such as this especially when, as was the case in this instance, it was an official observation (I was nearing the end of my contract period and we had to play the game of “let’s see if you’re good enough for a contract renewal and a pay rise”). Of course, I obliged (was there any other option?) and so began an observation that would make me a cynical critic of being ‘officially’ observed, a viewpoint that survives to this day.

Back in those days (this was about ten years ago), I was still very much in PPP mode and we were about to move into ‘practice’ mode having done the ‘presentation’ before the tea break. I had various flashcards of people engaged in different activities and, after eliciting the question What is he/she doing?, the students got on with the activity and I went around monitoring. I then boarded some errors I had noted and we went through them as a class and then they got on with some workbook activities. About halfway through the session, I noticed two students grinning widely and trying hard to supress their giggles. Intrigued I asked them what was going on. One of them pointed to the DoS at the back of the class and said “What is she doing?” to which his partner replied “She is sleeping!”

Sure enough, my observer was sat with her eyes closed and her head gently nodding forwards. “Oh dear!” I exclaimed, “Is my lesson really this boring?” (to be fair, it probably was!) which drew laughter from the whole class. At that point the DoS opened her eyes, smiled and then pretended to write something on her notepad (the page was clearly blank). We then got on with the lesson, moving into ‘production’ mode (probably a what is your husband/wife/family doing now? activity) while my boss dozed at the back of the class.

When the lesson was over, she said we would talk about the lesson when I had a break in my schedule the next day and off she went. When the feedback session came, I was curious to know what she had observed exactly through her slumber! The first thing she said was “you obviously have a good rapport with the class” referring, I assumed, to the little burst of laughter that had stirred her briefly from her sleep. “But the lesson was a little dry” she went on.

“What do you mean?” I enquired.

“It could have done with some visuals” she said. “The workbook exercises are useful of course but some pictures would have worked well for present continuous.”

“Or maybe some flashcards” I suggested, waiting to see what her reaction would be.

“Yes!” she answered. “We have plenty of those in the resource library you know.”

And so it went on. Why did I focus only on the affirmative structure? Why not negatives and interrogatives? (I did do those, while you were snoozing!) Why didn’t I wrap it up with a personalised activity? (Again, I did!) Too much time at the board - where was the monitoring and circulation? (Where was the alert observer?)

It struck me that she just had a list of standard observations to make and, no matter what, there would be a focus on what I should have done and what I failed to do. It has been the same with every observation I’ve ever had conducted by a DoS, HoD or Senior Teacher. One asks why there was no warmer, the other asks why you wasted five minutes at the start on a pointless activity. One says where were the concept questions, another asks why you kept on asking questions after every little instruction. One says your lesson was ‘dry’ (that’s an observer word I detest but that’s another rant for another post!), another says it was fun but lacking focus…. and so it goes on.

And we wonder why so many teachers are not keen on being observed! This kind of feedback, or rather the manner in which it is delivered, only serves to create an air of negativity with the observed going on the defensive. Stress, apprehension, worry and uncertainty are all feelings that seem to surface when it’s time for that ‘official’ visit to class. This is a shame as I believe observations can be a fantastic opportunity for development if handled in the right way.

My very first observation shortly after getting my first teaching job was in many ways the best one. My observer, a grumpy Scottish EFL veteran who had been assigned to be my ‘mentor’, simply went through the stages of the lesson he watched and asked me why I had decided to structure the lesson in that way and why I had chosen the activities that I did. The feedback was non-judgmental and really helped to draw out reflections in me by leaving some space for me to think.

So instead of ‘you should have done this’ isn’t it better to ask ‘why did you do what you did’? Rather than criticism and defence, shouldn’t the feedback be about reflection and realisation? And instead of imposing the observer’s view of how things should be done, wouldn’t it be better to seek to understand the teaching preferences of the observed?

Oh, and of course, isn’t it better to actually stay awake and pay attention to what’s going on rather than trotting out some standard criticisms that could be applied to virtually any teacher?Winking smile

Or maybe I’m being over-dramatic. Please go ahead and share your experiences (positive and negative) of being observed and how you think it works/would work best.


  1. You are not being over-dramatic. On the contrary, you raise an important question about teacher observations. They need to be framed as conversations for professional growth rather than criticism.
    Good blog post.

    1. 'Conversations for professional growth' - I like that phrase!

      You are right - the feedback needs to be more coversation like without the pressure of justfying yourself. This is why peer observations (as in observed by an 'equal' colleague rather than a 'superior') often work better as there is less judgement and more of a natural focus on what they observer and the observed can learn from each other.

  2. official observations are really nerve-wrecking. i've had terrible experiences, too. at a certain point in my career those observations hindered, rather than helped, my development as a teacher.

    on the other hand, rebranding those official observations as "conversations for professional growth" wouldn't help much. of course, i know, cristina and you meant that they really should be conversations and with that noble goal in mind. i'm just saying that i bet schools would adopt that lovely name and keep the same old mindset.

    and that's exactly what i feel they're doing with feedback. nowadays they do ask "why did you do this and that?" (they also adopt a hackneyed structure of "1st the positive aspects, then the aspects to improve", as if saying 'negative' would make teachers pass out or sth.) to be honest, i'm not a big fan of those, either! the purpose is the same, except now they expect the teacher to regurgitate their discourse about teaching methodology, regardless of what the teacher truly believes in. i mean, it'd be great if the teacher felt free to say what he/she thought... but freedom in a language school is a rare commodity, isn't it?

    (sorry, got carried away! but u struck a chord there!)

    1. Hi Natalia,

      Of course, a simple 're-branding' by itself would not work. What I'm calling for here is a complete change in approach to the way observations are done. The whole hierarchical structure of "I'm the expert and I'm going to tell you what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong" needs to change. I believe the observer should then act more a facilitator for reflection. We often say that if students discover their own errors, it's more meaningful than simply correcting them so, in a similar manner, help the teacher work some things out and realise some things for themselves - much more effective than a series of "you should have done this" comments, don't you think?

  3. I kinda felt for the DoS -- maybe she was overworked! Still, it would have been nice to just 'fess up to how tired she was rather than make up a bunch of bogus feedback ... Looks like she was just trying to tick off the "observation" requirement on her to-do list? I know my PM has to travel an hour to come see me in action. What a pain that must be! I hope to set up a recorder to make it easier for her in the future.

    I would appreciate observation in the following contexts:

    - if a mentor were working with me. He or she would record a session and we would go over the recording together. We would pause periodically and I would be asked what *I* thought was good and bad about the segment in question. Then he or she would respond to my comments and perhaps offer some additional wisdom.

    - if a peer were working with me. He or she would sit with me ahead of time and plan out what kind of observation would be done. It would be more like data-gathering than a critique, although if the peer were very experienced there might also be some imparting of wisdom. I would offer similar data-gathering in return.

    I don't see the value in having someone just show up and pick my lesson apart. It's really easy to find fault. Anyone can do it! Simon Cowell makes big bucks from the fact that pretty much everyone likes to play armchair expert.

    And then there's the new teacher observation. My organization requires new hires to sit in on a couple of lessons with existing teachers. Just this week, I had two such visitors. One showed up for the last 1/3 of a lesson. She took notes furiously, thanked me and left. I think she's a motivated teacher and expect she'll do very well, but I'm not sure what value came from the observation. I know there was no feedback for me (nor would I buy into it if there was any ... after all, she missed the first 2/3 of the lesson!) The other showed up with no warning, left for 20 minutes in the middle and then bolted at the first hint that the lesson was winding down. I think it's good to require that new teachers sit in on lessons, but they should give as well as get (take it seriously and serve in the peer role described above, in addition to whatever observations they care to make for their own benefit)!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post,

    1. And thanks for a thought-provoking comment!

      I think it's a shame that observation is often seen as an ordeal by both parties - the teacher who feels stressed out or inconvenienced by it and the observer who has to give up free time to do it.

      The case I describe with the sleeping DoS (who was also the owner of the school) was obviously a bit unusual but I also feel there has been an element 'bogus feedback' given just for the sake of it in many observations I have had.

      I like your suggestions for peer and 'mentor' observations. This kind of co-operation is more productive than criticism in my view. As for the new teacher observations, I've had plenty of those as well. Just like other observations, I think they could benefit from a clearer purpose such as 'pay particular attention to how the teacher gives instructions' or some other pre-defined goal. For new teachers, it's useful to make it part observation, part team-teaching as well. :)

  4. Thanks for some very interesting points David.Your post sparked a train of thought as I was reading it while my daughters were chatting about school over the breakfast table. They were complaining, as often happens, about unhelpful remarks from teachers. I started wondering when is it that the applause that accompany a baby’s first mumbled words or tentative steps get replaced by the “rod” we all call constructive criticism (woe betide us if we spoil the child). It seems to be the mindset we then use throughout our adult life, both professional and personal.
    I think it goes without saying that the type of feedback you describe needs to be challenged. You’re right in pointing out that it should to be set in a peer group context, with plenty of room for reflection and positive, useful input. I experienced the same type of critical feedback early on in my teaching career too. What I was always left wondering was – why? My students love the lessons, they learn, I love the lessons, I learn, so why do I need to do it your way? Unorthordox ,I know but that’s how I felt. I imagine it was that digging in or “going on the defensive” you talk about. This was not always my experience ofcourse, but it was enough to now make me reticent in administering that sort of lazy, easy feedback to anyone else.

    1. Hi Louise,

      That is the main issue for me - the feedback is often either just for the sake of saying something could be done better or it's an imposition of how somebody else would have approached the situation. Instead, we need to be more accepting of the way different people do things and engage in a dialogue from there.

  5. I have only been observed when I was in training college and once or twice in a private institute, and it is the way you say. You are pointed out your flaws but never the good things you do. thanks for this exceptional reflection.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I read somewhere (can't remember exactly where though!) that negative comments stay in people's minds more than positive ones. Even one "I wouldn't have done it that way" after a stream of praise can leave a false impression. It would be much better if teachers were given the opportunity to offer their own appraisal based on their own teaching beliefs.

  6. Hi Dave,

    The key element is the purpose of the observation. Are observations being used to evaluate and find flaws or to enable development and identify talents?

    My experience with being observed earlier in my practice is very similar to yours. The feedback was more accusative than constructive, especially for (as you said) the tone used. I find that to be extremely counter-productive, especially for new teachers, who are still "finding" their teaching persona, and may be more insecure about it. I was terrified of being observed :-( And worse yet, I don't think any of those observations helped me become a better teacher.

    At the school I've been working for the past 10 years it is done differently, and the feedback is usually very constructive, more along the lines of what you described as a positive one. And that is what it should be. Many times the observer asks the teacher if there is anything specific he/she would like to be more closely observed, something the teacher may be insecure about (rapport, language use, classroom management, etc).

    We also have peer observation, and teachers are encouraged to observe peers that are good in areas where they feel they can improve.

    Personally, nowadays I enjoy being observed. After being in the classroom for so long, I am always afraid of falling into a routine, not moving ahead - and not noticing it. Being observed I can make sure that doesn't happen. And, of course, the best thing is the reflection good observation feedback makes us do.

    Nice post, Dave :-)

    1. Hi Cecilia,

      I envy your school in many ways - the portfolio assessment and the constructive observations are both things I am striving for here!

      If done in the right way, I believe observation has an important part to play in teacher development and I would gladly be observed on a regular basis if it is to be a positive, constructive and co-operative experience. As you say, it's a good way to keep you on your teaching toes. :)

  7. Hi Dave, this blog post started off well, but I'm afraid I dozed off after the first paragraph. When I've been observed, one once said I should have written more, but another said I should have written less. One once said I should have been clearer, another said I was treating them like idiots. Now, if you'd written something about that, that would have been good.

    1. Hi David,

      I pretended to agree with your comment but then dismissed it as unnecessarily critical and not consistent with the way I blog. If you had offered a humorous response to what I had written, that would have been good. ;)

  8. Replies
    1. Yes, the observer has seen all teaching eventualities, past, present and future! :)

  9. I have apparently conveniently (deliberately) 'forgotten' most of my previous observations but can comment from the other side now as a teacher trainer nasty person who goes and observes lessons and makes student teachers quake in their shoes ;). I observe my students regularly and try my hardest not to do what your DoS did. First I believe in the 'sandwich' model for feedback anyway (wrap the bad news tightly between two positive bits) but in any case most feedback on lesson visits over here (and I have worked at various schools/colleges) start with a simple question: "how did you feel the lesson went?" Some students then instantly focus on the things they weren't pleased with so my personal method is to then ask them to name three things they're particularly proud of and three things which they may wish to improve. That then gives both of us plenty of things to talk about and it's very easy to guide the conversation in a certain direction if you feel it's necessary. We say our student teachers should elicit answers from their pupils - well teach as you preach, guys and do the same for your teacher trainees! Yes, it's hard sometimes not to drop hints about what may be a 'better' way of doing things, but it's important that we remember that the teachers we're observing have a better knowledge and understanding of that particular class and can generally better assess what they would or would not be willing/able to do. Generally, if a teacher (trainee) has enough respect for whoever is observing the lesson then they will themselves simply ask for advice/tips/lesson ideas and the observer then also gets their chance to 'impart' their knowledge.
    Just a few ideas on a Friday evening before I collapse in a heap and start snoring - it's more comfy at home than in the back of a noisy classroom ;)

    1. The sandwich model has two possible flaws. It obscures the purpose of the feedback in that the trainer may focus on the positives and then ignore the area where you actually want to see improvement. The corrective feedback can be taken less seriously because the trainer started and ended with something nice (which is the two places we tend to remember more). Also, teachers come to expect it, so they know every time the trainer has something good to say, they're about to get hit them with something bad. This can make teachers fearful even when providing positive feedback.

      The questions I often ask myself are:

      Does the trainer trust me enough for me to be honest?
      Is this the right time for the feedback?
      What outcome do I want from the conversation?
      How can I best handle the feedback to achieve that outcome?

  10. I'm sorry to hear that your experience with observation has been of this regard. Not everyone uses observation or feedback in such a prescriptively checklist way (as I see your Scottish fellow knew). What's great about this type of reflection is that when the day comes for you to do observation yourself, you'll come at it from a different perspective!

  11. Here are some tips on how to make it better from both ends:


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