FOBO: fear of being observed

Making lesson observation less threatening and more developmental

I’ve been thinking about observation of teaching for a workshop I’m preparing for the BALEAP Teacher Education Special Interest Group (TEdSIG). Observation certainly seems to engender mixed feelings amongst teachers (Wang & Seth, 1998; Jay, 2017)). In an earlier blog post on observation, I explained that although observation of teaching was mandatory at my institution for BALEAP accreditation, I was concerned to emphasize the developmental nature of observations. I thought this might make the experience less stressful for new teachers and more rewarding for returning teachers. We set up a variety of types of observation: short buzz or walk though observations and peer observations. In 2020, with all classes online, we were able to conduct asynchronous observation through recordings of online lessons. Although this form of observation could have mitigated some negative feelings, most teachers were aware that a particular lesson would be observed at some point. Their reactions were consistent with reports in the literature (Wang & Seth, 1998; Jay, 2017)

  • T 3: I had no inkling the lesson would be observed […] I am glad of the opportunity to be seen as I really am without any pretence. For better or worse!
  • T 16: I was aware that this lesson would be listened to by others and that always makes me slightly uncomfortable!
  • T 20: I think I panicked about being observed and the students for some reason chose that day to be particularly unresponsive and I ended up reading the slides.
Retrieved from

In the TEdSIG workshop I plan to explore participants’ subjective responses to being observed and try to understand these. I wondered if the emphasis on the developmental aspects of observations might seem threatening to some teachers. Development implies change and some experienced teachers might be resistant to change. Tsui (2003), writing about the development of teacher expertise, notes that experienced teachers develop routines to handle common problems and tend to return to the same patterns and procedures each time they meet these problems. Developing experts, on the other hand, problematize what seems to be routine in order to understand their practice more deeply. There is also a view of teaching as an intuitive practical skill, in which social relations take precedence over content knowledge (Monbec, 2018). This implies that some teachers may be less willing to leave their comfort zone or analyze their practices.

The main workshop task will be a blind observation. I was introduced to this idea by Dr Maxine Gillway, who used it in place of in-person observations during the pandemic. The normal procedure of pre- and post-observation discussion takes place but instead of going into the classroom the observer listens to the teacher describe salient points of the lesson, which they then discuss. The teacher chooses the focus by deciding which aspects they want to describe. In fact this is not unlike the informal discussions that thoughtful teachers engage in with colleagues to explore puzzles and problems in their classes.

I plan to set up the blind observation using ideas from Wang & Seth (1998), who explored the developmental nature of observations with teachers in China. Participants in groups of three can choose to take the role of speaker-teacher, understander or observer. The speaker-teacher will describe a teachable moment from a recent class, an instance when the flow of a lesson was interrupted to address specific student needs. This may have introduced uncertainty but enabled the lesson to move in an unexpected direction. I’m going to split the observer’s role in two to have an understander who interacts with the speaker-teacher (without judgement) to support their reflection on what happened, and an observer who (silently) records key aspects of the interaction. Afterwards, the group of three can try to interpret the metacognitive aspects of the teachable moment. What underlying beliefs, or approaches or theories of teaching can be interpreted from the speaker-teacher’s actions?

Will this work? I’m not sure but the nice thing about workshops is they are more relaxed than formal presentations with the potential to share ideas in non-threatening ways. That must surely be a good outcome for observations as well.


Jay, D. (2017) Evaluation without judgement. BALEAP PIM – Evaluating the effectiveness of EAP – BALEAP

Monbec, L. (2018). Designing an EAP curriculum for transfer: A focus on knowledge. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 12(2), pp. A88–A101.

Tsui, A.B.M. (2003). Understanding expertise in teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wang, Q. & Seth, N. (1998). Self-development through classroom observation: changing perceptions in China. ELT Journal Volume 52/3 July 1998.

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.

One thought on “FOBO: fear of being observed”

  1. The workshop really did take the fear out of being observed, by broadening the definition of what counts as observation. In our room a teacher talked about a lesson where he saw how interested his Engineering students were in concepts to do with wind turbines, so found a Kahoot in the break which gave them more practice with these in a fun way, instead of doing whatever he’d planned (a listening lesson I think). I was the questioner and our observer was really good at seeing the underlying teaching principles. The teacher knew he’d done something nice but wasn’t able to say how/why until this blind observation. So he definitely got something out of the afternoon. I asked him if he thought the change in direction linked to his LOs; first he said no, but then we showed him that surely it had, at least to the wider LOs for those students. It was a very positive experience for all of us!

    Liked by 1 person

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