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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