Monday, May 26, 2014

The Life of a Teacher Assistant in London
Truer words were never spoken - via
The journey of a Teaching Assistant involves many considerations - Guest Post by TA Katie Saxon

When I made the decision to move to London and work as a Teacher Assistant for Classroom, one of the first things I did was scour the Classroom Canada blog for information about the roles and duties expected of a Teacher Assistant. There are no Teacher Assistants in Canada – at least not from my neck of the woods – so I really had no reference for what life would hold for me working as a TA in London. As I found out, Teacher Assistants are invaluable in primary schools and are a key component of the staff team. Their roles and duties can cover a lot of ground.

You will find a greater demand for work as a TA in primary schools than you will in secondary schools. This will vary from school to school, depending on needs and funds, but most secondary schools employ a small number of TAs and they are usually responsible for attending to students with special learning needs. Primary schools, on the other hand, hire a lot more TAs. There are several reasons for this. In EYFS classes there are always a couple of TAs in the classroom and you can probably guess why: With little ones running around it helps to have more eyes and ears supervising. Nursery and Reception lessons are brief, and a lot of the learning that is done is play-based and on some kind of rotation of indoor activities and outdoor activities.

Key Stage 1 covers Years 1 and 2 and these younger years also tend to have one or two TAs in a classroom - once again depending on the school funds and if there is a need. You will undoubtedly find a TA in a classroom where there is one or more students with special educational needs. I have even been to some schools where both Year 1 classes had 3 TAs and a teacher – classroom management was a dream! I have found that the older grades, Key Stage 2, have less need for multiple TAs. There may be one TA in the classroom who attends to one student or a couple of students with special educational needs, or occasionally there may be two TAs working in a few classrooms with students on a rotational basis. Schools with integrated SEN students work towards having these students become independent, self-sufficient and better integrated into classroom lessons and activities, so this accounts for the lessening reliance on TAs as these students age and progress.

I was told during my Classroom interview that TAs can be responsible for an array of tasks, but that mainly their responsibility is to help classroom teachers with whatever they need. However simple this explanation may sound, it is true. It may be things such as making copies of worksheets, sharpening pencils and putting chairs up at the end of the day or it can be reading a story aloud to a nursery class, covering part of a lesson for a teacher or helping a teacher gather and prepare supplies for the next day’s lessons. The job really can cover anything under the moon and it will differ with every age group. You are, most importantly, an extra set of eyes and ears in the classroom. Your presence can reinforce class discipline and you provide more attention to the students’ needs.

To give you a better idea of a TA’s different responsibilities, here are some other tasks you might find yourself doing if you are working with the younger years:

- Marking homework
- Conducting phonics lessons
- Classroom supervision
- Playground duties
- Working with small groups
- Working one-to-one with students with special educational needs
- Responsible for putting up/taking down classroom displays, including students' work
- Filing, organizing students’ work
- Disciplining students when necessary
- Intervening between and solving student conflicts
- Helping students during experiments, crafts, hands-on activities
- Lunchtime supervision
- Praising and encouraging students

All of this drives home the point that TAs are an integral part of teaching staff in London schools. Many teachers will attest that they need their TAs and don’t know what they would do without them. I think one of the most important roles of a TA is that they can help attend to more students. It can be so overwhelming for one teacher to come around and help every single student in the classroom or to work closely with just one child, especially when the rest of the students are constantly raising their hands and requesting help. TAs bridge that gap. We can answer students’ questions, check their work, work with them through any difficulties they're having, all to help free up time so the classroom teacher can do his or her job.

Nevertheless, the job of a TA is so much more than helping the classroom. TAs are in a position to really connect and influence students through their one-on-one interactions. You will quickly find kids coming to you to tell you things they did that day, whether silly, funny or serious. They will also tell you if they are having any difficulties with anything. They may share fears and insecurities with you, and will really look up to you. You will have opportunities to really teach them, as well as learn so much about the teaching profession yourself.

Working as a TA is a great place to start if you are trying to figure out if you want to be a teacher. You will work closely with the students and develop classroom management skills that are instrumental to a teaching career and you will have an in-depth view of what a teacher does. Or even if you aren’t really keen to become a teacher or are fresh out of university and unsure of your career options, working as a TA in London is a great opportunity to earn a bit of money and live in one of the greatest cities in the world, while you do figure out what you want to do. My advice to any new graduates in Canada thinking of coming over to London as a TA would be to seize the opportunity.

Friday, May 23, 2014

London's Changing Historic Skylines

A panoramic view of London, c.1670 by Wenceslaus Hollar.
A panoramic view of London, c.1670 by Wenceslaus Hollar. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy via
The evolution of London's skyline - in pictures

It's quite incredible how much London has changed and yet stayed the same over the centuries. From Medieval simplicity to Elizabethan splendour. Devoured by fire in 1666, only to be reborn through Christopher Wren and many others in the 18th and 19th centuries. It's unique, it's immense and there is so much to see.

Once the Tower of London used to be the tallest building in the city, overlooking the Thames. Today, it is convincingly overshadowed by the Shard, a building I personally like, while others loathe. 'Controversial' is a word that best describes the new influx of buildings currently standing in the proximity of the historic city center and those structures which are slated to be built in the coming years - over 200 of them.

Regardless of how you feel about the architecture and famous skyline of London, I feel like it is an immense fusion of the old and the new. Cities evolve over time. We retain many elements of their histories, while also attempting to construct new buildings that reflect the future of architecture, as aesthetically pleasing as possible.

In the meantime, take a look at the link below. peruse the evolution of London's changing historic skylines, from Old London Bridge to the post-war growth and the megalopolis of today. Feel free to read the comments as well, and take a stroll through the city this weekend. There is so much to see, admire - and for some - to cringe about!

Vital links:

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Evolution of London

The Polygon of Somers Town, near Euston, from an 18th century etching. The building was demolished in the 1890s and a modern housing estate occupies the site.
The Polygon of Somers Town in an etching from 1850. It was demolished in the 1890s and a modern housing estate occupies the site. Photograph: Alamy (from

Seeing the city's near-2000 year history mapped in minutes

I have always been in love with London. A glorious city enveloped in so much history, beauty and endless things to see and do. I remember the first time I visited London Town when I was 17 years old. My mind was already filled with so much historical facts about the city, from the time of Roman Londinium to the Tudor period and always fascinating Victorian era. Seeing the buildings and streets unfold this history to my teenage eyes was incredible. Walking through it and as a part of it, even more so.

With this pleasant memory in my thoughts, I came across a very fascinating video the other day from that visually maps the capital's transformation from a small area of dwellings to the modern metropolis that it is today. Once you actually see this 7 minute display, you are truly left amazed at how the city has changed, evolved and - particularly - grown in the last two millennia.

The video itself was created by researchers at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and took 9 months to make. They essentially collated vast datasets to show how much was built in London during different key historical periods. It also maps out what has been lost, what saved and what protected, in terms of buildings and structures:

"Unlike other historical cities such as Athens or Rome, where there is an obvious patchwork of areas from different periods, London's scheduled sites and listed buildings are individual structures, in many cases assembled gradually by parts from many different periods. Those who try to locate different historic structures will know that these features appear as pieces of different jigsaw puzzles, scattered across the contemporary city."

What I especially found fascinating was seeing how London, once crammed into a single square mile (today's City), expanded drastically into the 600 square miles of Greater London - particularly in the last 200 years. There is also a 3D version of the video being currently worked on - can't wait for that spectacle!

Sit back and enjoy.

Vital Link:

Check out the detailed and original article @

Monday, May 19, 2014

Surviving a Student Encounter Outside of School

Strolling the streets after school via
Running into a student after school - What to do? 

Half-term breaks during the spring and summer are meant to be exactly what they state: A break. Teachers spend most of their time at school, planning and delivering lessons, helping young minds grow, followed by endless marking. You come home, you change out of your work clothes, head out to meet your friends and enjoy the finer things in life. Whether that be going to the cinema, or a show in the West End, or your local pub. It's all about your free time. A time to recharge and refresh yourself.

However, we tend to forget that students are not restricted to the proximity of the school or their own homes. Yes, they too have friends and family and have a desire to catch a movie at Marble Arch cinemas or stroll down Oxford Street, shopping for new clothes. They have a life outside of school as well. For many teachers, the last thing they want to do is run into one of their students while out and about, doing their own thing.

It may seem like a silly, small thing, but the reality is that many teachers are terrified with the prospect of running into students in situations or places where they are more likely to be themselves, at ease, comfortable and with their normal professional guard down.

We need to keep in mind, though - as a post (Tips on surviving a student encounter in summertime) from the TES Behaviour blog so deftly mentions - that "students (for the most part) don't bite." I remember one time running into a Year 7 student of mine at Westfields shopping center. Did I have my shirt and tie on? Nope. Dress pants and shiny shoes ready, dressed to impress? I don't think so. A short-sleeved shirt and shorts were the order of the day, and I was buying a new shaving razor. It happened so quickly that it amazed me that I even saw the little, petrified boy. Suddenly, there he was, looking up at me, barely muttering, "Hi, sir", as I inquisitively asked him, "Hello! What are you doing here, just standing?"
"Oh, just waiting for my mum."

And that was it, the briefest of encounters. Off I went, back to the personal hygiene aisle, and him to, whatever it was he was doing. Of course it was the quickest of surprises as I found myself outside my comfortable classroom setting with one of my good students. There were no desks or lessons, no classroom etiquette. But I found the encounter very respectful and not at all terrifying. Of course, this varies with each situation, depending on how you, as their teacher, handle it.

The three simple tips that the blog post from TES I mentioned provides are:

1. Keep cool - As in, don't freak out when you see a student, ignoring them, or conveying body language that may seem odd. In a way, it's a good opportunity to make a connection with your students as a simple human being who has interests and a life outside of school and books.

2. Don't run away - Of course the encounter will be awkward is some way or other. You see one of your students in the row of seats in front of you during the next show of 'The Lion King'? Who cares! Go about your business.

3. Keep your powder dry - "Most kids will either be paralyzed with embarrassment...or possibly even polite and courteous towards you." Nevertheless, there will be the odd student who thinks that since it is outside of the school setting, they can have a go at you. Don't fume or get worked up. Dealing with them when you return to school is always the better option. At the end of the day, students need to show respect and a certain standard of behaviour outside of school in the community.

Sound advice from TES if you ask me. We've all had the student encounter outside of school. Like a lesson observation, it is inevitable, no matter how big the city you live in is...especially London! So next time you run into a student while shopping at Tesco, give them the calm nod and keep calm, move along.

Vital link:

I highly recommend you check out some of the comments at the end of this blog as there are some very humorous and, dare I say, scary stories to be read!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Student Behaviour: Low-Level Disruption in the Summer Term

Can you spot the clown? via

Approaching low-level disruption in schools during the summer months

It is the month of May and the end of the school year is fast approaching. With this joyous thought in mind, all teachers naturally tend to start relaxing a bit more during lessons - at least after the final exams and assessments are completed. There is just something about the weather warming up and the sun beckoning us all to think about the summer months of leisure ahead.

It's only natural for students to feel the same way. The cold months of intense school work and preparation are past. Hours and days spent working on projects or assignments, going to school one day after another through the spring months and so forth. Emerging from the hectic scheduling and overabundance of work, students themselves begin to loosen up, act up, and perhaps even feel the need to talk a bit more, argue and complain in situations where they wouldn't have normally 3 months ago. As a teacher, what you are left with is a collection of students peppered throughout you classes, who slowly start to work away at you, persistently, during your lessons. This can be particularly worse for teachers who are covering lessons this late in the school year.

Class clowns, troublemakers, brats, whatever you want to call them. They are there. Hidden at first, immersed, ready to spring out at any time. Of course, over time, maturity comes with the years, and all children and young folk can change for the better. Which is exactly why patience and a plan is most needed during these potentially long days of trying to conduct your lessons while battling it out with the chattering lot.

Frustration cannot be allowed to reign freely.

In his work, 'The Behaviour Guru,' Tom Bennett puts it best when he says, "Low level disruption is like kryptonite for the well planned lesson." He goes on to define low-level disruption as "anything that annoys me." All teachers can relate to this. From rocking chairs to pen tapping, talking over you or shouting and passing notes. It may not seem like something even worth mentioning to your friends after work, but deep down, it wears us all down. Deteriorating and corrosive to our spirits in the classroom, and especially during a period of time when we really want our students to prepare and be ready for their final assessments. I think the most important thing is to deal with it as quickly as possible early on. Otherwise, it will continue to grow and endure throughout the year, blooming during the month of May.

According to Bennett, there are two dangers in low-level disruption:

1. It happens a lot
2. It's hard to put out a dozen fires at once

The greater the number of disrupting students, the more difficult it will be to get a handle on. The most frustrating and irritating thing about it all is that students know that we want to establish control in the classroom. Worse yet, they quickly learn what bothers us. They take this knowledge and learn to aggravate us further, whether because they are bored, tired or just want to watch teachers squirm and struggle. Bennett believes that our attitude needs to change in the classroom. We have to "not care about it so much." It's not personal, rather professional, taking names and taking care of business. The bottom line is that low-level disruption is a part of the job and something that may never change or go away. It's what we have to do in order to allow us to continue teaching and doing what we love most.

In direct and quite entertaining words, Bennett writes about the need to be firm and not show weakness when it comes to low-level disruption. The best advice he gives in terms of getting students to behave are:

Be fair
Have rules
Be consistent
Do what you say, every time

We all want to have the perfect class, filled with obedient students raising hands at every question in unison, with Hermione-like discipline and succinctness. In the end, however, it is never quite that divine or simple. We have a duty to teach, and if it means we have "to be the cliff that they dash themselves against, until they give up through exhaustion and submit to your mighty will," then so be it. Only then can mutual respect between teacher and student begin to form and grow.

In the meantime, take a few minutes and check out the full TES link below to Bennett's 'Not Quite a Teacher' post. You can also find the excerpt I mention from Tom Bennett's "The Behaviour Guru." He also has his own personal education blog.

Vital Link:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Strengthening Classroom Management

Remembering the 'cane' - via Wikipedia
Building better routines with classroom management

I remember the applying of classroom management by teachers on my fellow students and I quite well when I was in Secondary school. Stern looks; subtle walks by the desks of those who disrupted; office visits; standing in hallways; one-on-one confrontations; and in general, a lot of shouting. Each had its level of effectiveness, depending on the student and situation. Nevertheless, as a whole, Canadian high schools were relatively well behaved, not really employing any form of 'journals' or record books for teachers to record poor behaviour for their parents to discover and act on once they read the reports.

Teaching in the UK, specifically London, is a different sort of challenge, especially for Canadian teachers who might not be used to more difficult classroom behaviour. It's no secret that some days the students can be a handful. Again, it depends where you are teaching. You could be in a school that has impeccable student behaviour, where students tremble at the very notion of having anything being written in their journals. On the other hand, there are schools where there are students who run rampant in the classroom on a regular basis. Hall monitors exist in every corridor and there is a procedure for student discipline where the offenders are swiftly extracted from the learning environment the minute they disturb the teacher and class. That's the reality and challenge.

This challenge can come in several forms. As a day-to-day cover teacher, classroom management can be hit or miss really. Some days you could be covering a Year 8 Geography class where all the students are intimidated or simply too shy too act up during the lesson. They might even be so enamored by our not-so-British accents that they'll hang on your every word. Then again, you could also encounter the ever present opportunists, jumping at the chance to take advantage of a cover teacher who they know is not there permanently.

As a long-term cover or permanent teacher, classroom management can be infinitely better as you develop a rapport and respect with students while you get to know them over the course of a year or longer. The only obvious downside is that if you do get stuck with a small collection of difficult students, you naturally have them in your class(es) for an entire year. In this case, you have to find ways to adapt and approach them every single day. Just remember, don't take student misbehaviour or comments personally. They are still kids at the end of the day.

The important thing is to have a plan and strategy, ready to be implemented whenever you feel like your classroom discipline could be struggling.

Over the years, I have found that many different methods work while others do not. It is ever changing and a good degree of instinct is vital. Resources and great tips exist in so many different places in books and on the internet. I've discovered some great blogs and sites that have spectacular information on classroom management and free for all those who seek. I recently came across a very helpful post the other day about building classroom routine on 'The Goldfish Bowl' edublog by Mark Miller. It's a very good and young blog that centers around reflections on teaching and learning.

In this particular post, the author outlines how good routines are vital in creating calm classrooms and establishing a good environment for learning. What I like about this piece is that Mark analyzed one of his classes carefully by filming himself teaching. That way he was able to see if he followed his usual particular strategies or routines with a specific class that he felt he was not making enough progress with. By determining that his habits weren't exactly consistent, he was then able to develop these areas of his practice afterwards.

Mark then goes on to break down the exact routines that he feels teachers should build on regarding classroom management:

Meet and greet at the door
Active Listening
Handing out books
Acting on feedback
Teach group work

Of course, he goes into more detail with each routine and I find it incredibly helpful and useful reading about each one of them. As Mark concludes, however, "routines won't make students learn anything but they will make it much easier for them to do so." Check out the link to this post below.

Remember, for all the teachers coming to London from Canada around this time in May, this period is a great opportunity to get a good grasp of the way students can behave in the classroom. It's essentially close to the end of the school year and you have an excellent chance to learn as much as you can about classroom management in the UK, first hand, in many schools while covering daily. This experience can really set you up for the following September as you will feel much more comfortable and at ease when you hopefully start a long-term cover position, filled with confidence and a good base of knowledge.

There are so many ways we can always improve as teachers, and I truly believe that collaborative effort through a variety of helpful and insightful teaching blogs, websites and further resources really aid in this process.

More classroom management tips to come!

Vital Link:

Monday, May 12, 2014

Teaching Resources Galore!

The quest for more good, solid teaching resources never ends

We have all had days where our teaching plates can be overloaded beyond control. Having lessons all day, marking tests on the tube while traveling home, simply to grab a quick bite and graduate to checking students' exercise books. It can get hectic, and at times it will take all evening to finish marking, only to be faced with another dilemma: Should I leave some time to myself or try to finish the lesson plans I haven't quite completed by 11pm? It's certainly challenging.

At times like these, inspiration can be lacking sometimes. Teachers are always trying to infuse their lessons with some creativity and diversity. Other times, we just want to get it done! A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine showed me a great website that contains a rich collection of lesson plans and resources. Most importantly, they revolve around the UK system. For all the Canadian teachers heading to England for the first time, it can be an invaluable friend.

I give you: TES - Think, Educate, Share

TES is basically a digital community revolving around teaching and education that boasts over 3 million users; over 4.7 million resources to download, all developed by teachers to "guide, inform, and inspire educators around the world." I'm always amazed by all the information that this site contains. You can download and share lesson plans, classroom resources, revision guides, curriculum worksheets, SEN teaching strategies/approaches, secondary classroom activities, etc. Great for long-term teaching or just some activities to have in your pocket on those cover days where no work has been provided for you students. All free, of course, to adapt however you like.

Lesson planning in a pinch. It's saved me many times and even if you're not looking for a full-blown lesson plan to use, it's a great starting point for inspiration or a place to build on your own ideas for curriculum creation. From Early Years, Primary (KS1 and KS2), through to Secondary (KS3, KS4, KS5) and Whole School (behaviour, CPD).

If you really want to go all the way, you can always sign up to TES Pro. It has many other features on offer: Digital subscription to the TES magazine and library where you can get many inspirational ideas for your lessons. You can also add your own resources to a digital binder, sharing them with other colleagues. The 30GB of private storage also comes in handy. Unfortunately, there is a yearly cost for this service, about 20 pounds. Just something to consider as well!

Hope you enjoy perusing this website, I've found it useful on many busy days where I simply didn't have enough time to plan as many lessons as I wanted to. Enjoy!

Vital link:

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Weekend Day Trips in the UK - The Cotswolds

Famous Cotswold stone cottages in Bibury
Getting away for the weekend in the beautiful Cotswolds

As the demanding schedule of the month of May continues, escape in some form or other is never far from the educator's mind. I know from my own personal experience that nothing beats a good weekend trip! Many teachers who first move to London envision grand adventures to Europe's finest cities. From Paris and Amsterdam to Munich and Barcelona - all reachable by train in a handful of hours. Such is the great advantage of living in Europe, all the countries so close to each other. Accessibility at its best.

However, when I first arrived in London, I had a great desire to see England and the United Kingdom first and foremost. I dreamed of picturesque train rides to Edinburgh and the Highlands of Scotland. Sea side strolls on the shores of Wales. Gazing at the white cliffs of Dover and historic treks through the ancient streets of Cirencester and York.

One of my first trips outside London was to the charming countryside of the Cotswolds.

Beautiful church in Burford

The Cotswolds beckons

When I first visited the Cotswolds, I had a particular vision in my mind of what it would be like. Quaint little villages, inhabited by horse-riding pleasant folk who always had a friendly smile. And all this surrounded by the most delightful scenic hills and astonishing views of nature and wildlife. What I actually saw that day far exceeded my wildest imagination. As David Armstrong puts it in his article, 'The Cotswolds - so scenic it looks like a fairytale,' he writes that "There are two Englands: The England of the imagination, and the England of the everyday." Thatched cottages, flowing streams, grazing sheep, timeless churches, country pubs, silent woods and ancient marketplaces are all there to be seen in the Cotswolds. Very much the England of imagination, brought to reality.

The Cotswolds are essentially 'the Shire' of England, Middle-Earth's favourite rural settlement. With Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare's abode) bordering it to the northeast, and Bath in the southwest, this area in south central England is home to the rolling Cotswold Hills and the famous golden coloured Cotswold stones, of which many of the beautiful cottages are made from.
More of the picturesque Cotswolds
The dwellings of the Cotswolds

There is a vast assortment of towns and villages to be found in the Cotswolds, each unique in their own way. Aside from the grand view, they all have so many other things to offer, waiting for you to discover. Medieval Tewksbury awaits, as do the villages and towns of Upper and Lower Slaughters, adorable Bibury and Stow-on-the-Wold, offering hill-top views of immense contemplation.

I enjoyed every minute traveling in the Cotswolds. A truly unique part of England where you can get lost in for a week or simply a day or two. Local inns, restaurants and markets are incredibly welcoming any time of year. I loved exploring the many country lanes and town squares that I came across. Wandering silently through the historic churches that sit peacefully among the hills - only to settle down in a vintage wooden chair in a local village pub. The experiences are endless.

There is always time to visit other incredible European cities, when the time is right. Maybe when you have more time in the summer or even the winter break. Milan can wait; Vienna will welcome you another time; Stockholm beckons on a different day. Next time the weekend arrives, cast your eyes instead on the hidden and not so hidden treasures that England and the UK can offer.

Here are some links to help you plan your next trip to the Cotswolds: - I've used this company before to book one and two day trips around the UK, including the Cotswolds. You can also rent a car if you're so inclined. - The official guide to Cotswolds breaks and holidays. - The Cotswolds Tour Guide and tourist information website. - David Armstrong's article on the scenic rural retreat that is the Cotswolds.

Friday, May 9, 2014

How to Survive a Lesson Observation


Tips and views on making your next classroom visit a success

Imagine you are in the middle of term, teaching Science to a group of Year 10s. It’s been a great week so far, you have simply been on the ball – brilliant focus, lessons flowing freely. Your pupils are learning drastically today, understanding every concept you could possibly throw at them. Class finishes, the students are dismissed and your harnessed, feel-good energy of success takes you to your school laptop. Within seconds you hear the familiar ping of a new e-mail and, once opened – all jubilance is wiped away. You are informed by your lead teacher that your Period 3 class will be observed tomorrow morning – “Please provide a detailed copy of your lesson plan, using the standard school form for lesson observations. E-mail it to me as soon as possible. Thank you, regards, etc. etc.” Surprised, nervous, apprehensive, annoyed. There are many reactions to this notifying e-mail, each dependent on the personality of the individual teacher. It can’t be helped. It is as if trust in your abilities and competence as a teacher has been questioned in one swift message. What needs to be remembered most in these situations is to not take it personally. Lead teachers, administrators, school headmasters all have their roles and duties to uphold. This naturally involves lesson observations and making sure that the staff is always and consistently performing at a high standard. This I can appreciate, as all schools should try to maintain a good standard of teaching, unit/lesson planning and all around school administration. Constant improvement should be embraced, rather than opposed at every turn.

Planning the lesson

Regardless of whatever reaction a teacher has to an announcement of a lesson observation, action is necessary almost at once. The key is to organize a lesson to perfection, or to the best of your ability, at the very least. Every school has a specific lesson plan form which outlines exactly what an ‘ideal’ lesson plan should contain – including what the teacher needs to do during the lesson and how he or she should engage the students. It can be fairly detailed and overwhelming most of the time, involving tedious over-the-top steps to a successful lesson. However, always keep in mind that it is for this one particular class that you must fully adhere to this step-by-step process of an ideal lesson observation. Of course no one is expected to ask each student a question during every lesson they give, or involve interaction between groups, etc. Sometimes a class you have can just involve a reading exercise or test. During these ‘normal’ days, the basic need for learning objectives, a warm-up activity and class task are all staples of a regular lesson and should be involved in each class at some point. Nevertheless, other more detailed aspects that are found within the ‘perfect lesson plan’ need not be obsessed over. No one can have a perfect lesson every single day of the school year. There will be off days, students misbehaving, field trip interruptions, technology malfunctions, etc. Lost time is inevitable. The main point is that when the time comes for the one particular lesson observation that will be conducted on every teacher, the organization of the lesson and its execution should be as good as it can be.

I always find that when I plan out an important lesson from top to bottom in complete detail, anticipating any outcome, half the battle is already won. In that scenario, your ‘script’ is ready to perfection; all you need to do is ‘perform’ to the best of your ability. That is not to say that the lesson will go by without a hitch. Inevitably things can go awry, but again, it’s normal. I believe that most schools look for consistency in each teacher. One lesson that doesn’t go exactly as planned or doesn’t check every little box should not go against a teacher’s overall ability or rating as an educator. Sure, we’ve all had lessons that are not perfect, but that’s part of the job. It’s most certainly a fluid, ever adapting career that needs to be embraced as such. That’s where accepting one’s basic need to improve, evolve, and realizing one’s true potential can really begin to transpire.

After the lesson plan is finished – seek input from others

When a ‘perfect’ lesson is finally planned out, I would always recommend you run it by some of your colleagues or, specifically, teachers that are known for their excellent lesson plans or execution of said plans. They are the ones that can really help you identify any potential concerns you may have with your lesson. Asking for advice and input is huge in the teaching profession. There is no room for ego or a misinformed opinion of oneself when you are a teacher. Whatever department you are a part of – whether English, Science, Math, etc. – you have to respect that all of you are a team, working together to deliver the best education you possibly can to all students in your particular subject area. I would also highly recommend showing a planned lesson that will be observed to the actual observer themselves. That is, before you e-mail them the official completed one that they will be looking at the next day when they are observing you. As the experienced teacher who knows what to look for and will be actually evaluating your lesson, their input and feedback is invaluable. I have always found the Head of the department in all the schools I have worked at to be most helpful and understanding whenever I have had any questions regarding my lessons. Yes, there are the odd unapproachable lead teachers who are indifferent, but I think most do not want their fellow colleagues to fail.

The day of the lesson observation

On the day of the lesson observation, it is best – though understandably difficult – to try to keep the stress levels to a minimum. Yes, that is incredibly hard to do, especially if it is your interview observation or first lesson evaluation at a new school you have just started teaching in. Still, attempting to approach the day as calmly as possible, like any other day, is the best thing one can do. Trying to stay in your element and comfort zone during such pressure can be hard, but try to keep in mind that it is just for one lesson. Informing the actual class you will be teaching that you will have a visitor on that particular day is also a good idea in my view. Some might suggest otherwise, but I believe that if you are honest with your students, and have a good rapport with them, they will try their hardest to make sure you have an engaging and successful lesson with them. Even informing your students the previous day what the topic and task will be during the lesson observation can be very helpful. Mentioning that the observer will most certainly ask them questions about the lesson – in the middle of it – and what they have been learning recently, can prove important as well.

Once the observer actually arrives, it is comforting to know, most of the time, that the students will usually be very intimidated by the lead teacher or whoever it is that will be evaluating you. Many times they do not even realize that ultimately the pressure and evaluation involves you for the most part. Silence and exceeding rigidness always ensues. This is where the knowledge and skill of a teacher’s engagement techniques will be most needed. You have a special role to play in stimulating the nervous students who will feel like they are under scrutiny themselves. With the observer usually sitting at the back of the room, it is exceedingly important to try to make your students feel like that particular lesson will be just like any other lesson. If you are calm and behaving normal, asking them questions and stimulating their critical thinking skills, the students themselves will begin to be pulled into the lesson itself. Thus, almost forgetting that there is an unexpected guest watching everything, writing notes on several pieces of paper. Of course, timing is crucial here as well. Make sure that you follow the exact plan of your lesson, sticking to the time frame you have outlined: five minute intro; 15-20 minute introduction of new material; 25 minutes student activity, and so forth. Covering everything you have mentioned in your lesson plan is very important. How long an observer remains in your classroom during a lesson can vary. If it is a serious, official observation – involving an interview, probation period, etc. – the observer will stay the entire period. However, at times it can be an informal, general observation that doesn’t require a viewing of the full lesson. Either way, a post-lesson discussion always follows.

Aftermath: Following your lesson observation

Nerves shot, students dismissed, relief welcomed, there is always the post-lesson observation stage to look forward to after the main ‘performance’ is complete. Candid, honest and objective comments are usually expected from the observer. Again, not taking things too personally is vital. Set your view on your own professionalism, knowledge and skill to one side for just a moment. I think of this process as a parent scrutinizing you for every mistake you make, while neglecting to mention all the good things you accomplished. Yes, it depends on the specific observer, but more often than not there will be a section on your lesson observation report that highlights a few things you did well during your lesson, and several things that you did not do as well as you could have. Nodding your head and accepting this evaluation is important, but so is the need to express your views on the lesson and how you think it went. Here you have to be honest as well, letting the observer know what you think went wrong, perhaps explaining the reasons why it was so, and, naturally, what you think you can do to improve. Very standard, normal procedure in all lesson observations. Some teachers take this opportunity to express their personal feelings on the class, particular students, or the material that was covered. Others approach it very professionally and choose not to get too bogged down with the details. The main thing is to take all the objective views and analysis that is given and honestly try to apply any necessary changes that can improve your teaching methods and execution of a lesson. Look to improve where you can.

Lesson observations are never looked at positively. They put every teacher in a vulnerable position where their knowledge of the material and teaching craft is analyzed and taken apart for detailed scrutiny. But like a board meeting or an audit, it is a necessary part of the education process. I find them useful in two ways. One, it ensures that schools keep a certain required standard of teaching that every student deserves. Two, it gives teachers a chance to show their craft at its finest. A great opportunity to impress Head teachers and administration and confirm that they were right to have faith in your skills and abilities. It can open doors to further promotion, if one is ambitious. Build confidence, if one is unsure of their teaching ability. And, of course, furthers professional development in general.

The dread of lesson observations will most likely never dissipate. Scowled at, protested against, the purest stress builder in education. They become easier over time, but even so, they are not meant to be a ‘pleasant’ experience. Rather, a necessary part of education and professional development as a teacher. The attitude of each teacher varies indeed, but in the end, how the observation is approached is the choice of the individual.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Welcoming Lesson Observations

Looking at and approaching the daunting prospect of a lesson observation

Everyone knows its name, its purpose. Like an ominous, hovering force, it hides and waits, patiently awaiting the time to strike with objective indifference: The dreaded lesson observation. All teachers have been a part of this toiling, yet very necessary part of education in whatever schooling system they may be a part of. It is one of those intricate parts of the schooling process that simply has to be conducted. Generally, when you first make your way into teaching – most notably as a cover teacher – one does not cross paths with the observers of lessons. Understandably, you are at the school covering for the day, just passing by while delivering a small collection of lessons to kids in various subjects. This changes once you make the decision to go into more long-term teaching.

In the UK, for example, when you are asked to come in for an interview for a long-term cover position – or hopefully, permanent post – yes, there is the interview stage, filled with questions about your past experience, your specific schooling and the intricacies of getting to know you as an educator and a person. However, there is also, every so often, the prospect of a lesson observation to go through as a direct part of your interview process. Here, the lead teacher of the particular department you are applying for, will quite literally toss you into a classroom to teach a very short – usually 20-30 minute lesson – to a group of students you have never seen in your life. To many, this potential ordeal may seem terrifying. It can be difficult, intimidating, and most certainly can put many out of their comfort zones.

Nevertheless, that is the challenge that makes it so interesting. Even in today’s evolving education where critical thinking and student-centered learning is the way forward, teaching in front of 30 students every day is a sort of performance. You prepare, or are given a script – a lesson plan – which in turn you deliver, or perform, to the students you are teaching. Yes, you guide students as an educator most of the time, but there is still the element of standing in front of a group of people and needing to capture their attention – to command the room. It is those who embrace this that can really thrive going forward.

As you conduct your impromptu, albeit short, lesson plan, you may find that the students will be very much engaged. Many times the lead teacher will be very accommodating and place you in a class filled with Year 12 students – mature, attentive and more than willing to participate in whatever classroom discussion or activities you may have planned. Nothing to fear, on top of the fact that the lead teacher is sitting right there, making sure that any disruptions are few and far between. The pressure can be great, especially knowing that a big part of their decision for hiring you long-term rests on the observation itself. Still, this is where the performance is most vital. More than that, however, it is confidence in your own abilities as a teacher that count the most. The lesson plan guides you and sets the overlaying foundation of your lesson. Yet, it is faith in your skills – your delivery of the lesson, the way you interact with the students and the timing of each aspect of the lesson that is most important.

When you do succeed in securing a coveted long-term position, lesson observations come and go with the passing of the seasons and terms. Looking forward to Halloween this evening? You didn’t hear? Lesson observations tomorrow afternoon. Spring break just around the corner? Check your e-mail. Ofsted is coming for a visit. I think it’s time to take a look at your lesson plan for the day. It is as if you are in a travelling company of actors, expected to ‘perform’ at the drop of the hat, rain or shine, at whatever date or time of day.

I say opportunities abound for you to put your hard work, training and skills on display.

Lesson observations don’t have to be seen as a criticizing free-for-all session. Of course there will be comments and suggestion and, sometimes, objections or resistance to certain methods a teacher may have in a classroom. Things might not go as splendidly for you as originally planned, but they also can go perfectly right. Listening to observers make their comments, criticisms and suggestions is all part of the process. The key is how you react to it. You can be negative about it, self-critical, dejected, and even downright opposed to the views of the observer, whether they are objective or not. Still, being positive about any lesson observation is just as critical. Learning to understand what the observer is trying to convey to you and seeing the overall picture of improvement he or she is most concerned about is what matters the most. You accept another person’s view, who is in a position to comment on your teaching methods and delivery, and you apply it to your next lesson. Like our students, every educator is always in the process of learning as well.

We all have bad days at school, whether from struggling classroom management to the timing of the lesson not going exactly as planned. But another day is another day and, with it, the chance to shine anew on the stage of teaching.


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