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.

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