Observation of teaching

An observation of your teaching by colleagues you trust can be an opportunity to explore your teaching approach in a safe space.

I work for an institution with a BALEAP-accredited pre-sessional programme and one of the requirements for quality assurance is that teachers undergo a regular formal observation of their teaching. Teachers find the experience stressful, even though we try to follow recommended procedures for the observation, with pre- & post-observation discussions, observees selecting the focus and sensitive handling of any issues that arise. Teachers who regularly return to work on the programme also find the formal observation intrusive, amounting to a lack of trust in their experience and professionalism. I’m keen to explore ways to make the experience less stressful for new teachers and more rewarding for returning teachers. To this end, I thought I should experience an observation of my own teaching, so I asked two colleagues to take me through the formal observation process.

I felt fairly confident about the observation because I was working with a syllabus and materials I had developed myself. Also, I trusted my two observers and knew that I would not lose my job as a result of the observation. Nevertheless I felt nervous on the day of the observation, wondering if there was some huge gap in my teaching competence that I was unaware of and the observers would spot.

Photo by Jantine Doornbos on Unsplash

I had the same feeling many years ago, when I first arrived in the UK and wanted to apply for a UK driving licence. I’d been driving in New Zealand for eight years and regarded myself as an experienced and confident driver. I applied to take the driving test and thought I should take one lesson to prepare for the test so I knew what to expect. I drove the instructor around the Edinburgh city streets, some of them unfamiliar to me, with an increasing feeling of unease. The instructor’s feedback confirmed that I had got into some bad habits that made me potentially dangerous on the road.

  • I tended to drive rapidly up to situations, e.g. slow moving traffic, instead of hanging back until I understood what was happening.
  • I hardly ever looked in my rear vision mirror so I was unaware what was happening around and behind me.
  • At one point, I actually attempted to take a wrong turning into a one way street.

I got out of the car on shaky legs and promptly booked another driving lesson – a good outcome for the instructor. It was helpful to think about this experience when preparing for my observed lesson, an introduction to text analysis.

  • I created a visual presentation to slow down the pace of the lesson and provide additional support for less proficient students in the class.
  • I wrote out a lesson plan with timings, to raise my own awareness of what I was doing, what the students were doing and why.
  • I asked the observers to focus on the level of engagement the students had with the materials.

With a range of proficiency levels in the class, I wanted to see the extent to which I was able to differentiate student performance on the tasks and support the weaker students. I had arranged the students into three groups in a previous lesson to help with this differentiation and support.

Following the post-observation discussion with my colleagues, I had a lot to think about. I got some helpful suggestions about revising the worksheet to distinguish between focus on the text content and text analysis and to give some answers as hints. My observers both commented that my use of meta-language to label aspects of the analysis, e.g. function, performance, was difficult, especially for weaker students. They suggested providing glossaries of key terms. They both wanted students to be supplied with vocabulary and hints so they would get the right answers to questions at the first attempt. I realised that my teaching approach was very different. I wanted the students to struggle with the analysis so they became aware of a gap in their understanding and worked to change this. I was teaching towards the target performance and not at the current level of the students but I need to think more carefully about the appropriate level of support for students within this approach.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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