I have to say that I love having my lessons observed and enjoy watching other teacher’s classrooms in progress. I know this is not what every teacher says, but I love it for one reason only and that is because it helps me to get better!
At one of my schools, we were given funding and we put this money into relieving teachers to conduct classroom observations. Each of us had our class observed by two teachers and had to observe two teachers. I remember that many of the teachers were worried and had some pretty big anxiety over the whole process, especially when you add to this that students were also going to be providing feedback on your teaching. But me, I relished it! I saw it as a fantastic opportunity to find out if what I was doing in my classroom was actually any good. I had two great teachers observe my lessons, but I was disappointed in the lack of critical and constructive feedback. Mostly what I received was positive comments with very little that was actually going to help me with my teaching.
In fact, for the first seven years of my teaching I had very few classroom observations and most of these were along similar lines. I’m not entirely sure why we are all so scared to help each other and why even more of us are so stressed about what another teacher might say about our classroom practice. For me, this is something that really needs to be addressed! Until we shift our own mindset into one that sees this as an opportunity for both the observer and the teacher observed to grow in their classroom practice and not as a judgement on our self-worth we will not be able to grow to the extent that we should. We will definitely not become the best, or even a great teacher with a closed door mentality.
I have been teaching for a long time now and in this time I have grown most as a teacher when others have come to watch me teach and provided me with feedback about the lesson. I still remember finding out that one of my students was meant to be wearing classes and would not be able to read anything I had at the front when he sat at the back. I was told this by a senior executive member who obviously knew this because she had seen it in a file somewhere. I had worked closely with this student and even mentored him for a year and had never seen him with glasses on. He hated them and I’m pretty sure had never worn them, but I still should have known and adapted my classroom to help him learn. So, let’s look to change our mindset, open our doors and get better together.
3 Ways to do Classroom Observations
There are many and various ways to do classroom observations. The most basic of which is to do basic one-to-one full lesson observations. Here you find a colleague and invite them to come into your lesson to provide you with feedback. But let’s stop here! We are meant to be thinking about classroom observations as deliberate practice and deliberate practice requires clear goals, feedback that is specific to these goals, then adjustment and repeat! So, when it comes to your invitation for your colleague to come and observe your classroom let’s begin to get a bit more purposeful. We do not want them to come and provide you with the same sort of useless feedback that we so often get. “You presented well” “You clearly have good rapport with the students” etc. This is not what we are after.
Instead, when you are looking for a teacher to invite, first go to your goals. What are you looking to improve? Hopefully you have already reflected on the Teaching Standards or other research or criteria around effective teaching practices and set goals for what you would like to improve. So, select someone who you think is doing well in this area where you are wanting to improve. For example, if you are looking to improve your use of learning intentions/goals and know that there is a history teacher who is fantastic at doing this, then ask them to observe you, and I would also encourage you to observe them (maybe even observe them first to get some good ideas you want to try out).
Once you have selected the other teacher. Ask them, but be clear about the purpose and intentions of the observation. Send them an email and tell them that you would love to observe them and have them observe your class with the purpose that you will improve in the area you are targeting. Tell them that you would love to watch them to get ideas from them and then you would also love them to come and provide you with meaningful, critical and constructive feedback. Remember, you want to get better at this! You could give them a checklist or co-create one with them that they will use in the observation. This will help to keep the discussion afterwards focused on improving the practice.
Then you need to make sure that you both set aside time to discuss the observations afterwards. It is no good just having people observe your lesson and leaving you a bunch of notes. You need to discuss this with them and this is really where the growth happens. This is where you find out why they did particular actions rather than others, or where you may both come up with better responses than were given during the lesson. I cannot overstate how important these conversations are.
The second method I want to mention is learning walks. Learning walks are basically when you gather a small group from 2-4 that walk through 3-4 classrooms spending 15 minutes in each with a focused aspect to be observed that relates to your goal. As you walk through the lessons you are looking to find strategies that could be used to help you in your classroom. This is not an observation where the teacher being observed is the one growing (they can, but it is not the goal) it is the observer who is looking to grow. You need to ensure that your observation is focused on set goals as you walk and then you have a discussion with your group of walkers after each class. You could also add in the classroom teacher for discussion, but I would recommend this is done after they have finished the entire lesson.
Remember the conversation is key to your growth and improving your craft. It is not just about learning new classroom strategies, it is more important to know when to use them and why they are used. You get this information from the teacher being observed and possibly from others during these discussions. The use of checklists and focused notes will help improve these discussions and ensure that growth in the craft of teaching is always the focus.
This method of observation does not fit into the same mould as the others, but has the benefit of being able to be done completely on your own, with a colleague or even with another teacher on the other side of the planet. Here you can be as simple or as technical as you like. You can simply put your phone on the window sill in the classroom and have it video the whole classroom as students learn and you teach. You could use a GoPro or something similar and have a student wear it. This will give you more information about the lesson from the student’s perspective as well. Or, you could go all out and get a system such as Swivl which will track you around the room, record your audio as well as allow you to place mics around the room to gather more data from the students. Where you want to start is up to you, but I know that you all have a phone and so could at least use this method (if you like, you could even plash out and buy a stand to hold the phone for the lesson.
Once again you want to use a checklist and focused notes to ensure that you get them most out of this. Go through your lesson and see what you are doing. I can guarantee you will notice that you have certain habits you want to kick quickly. But you may also find some great strengths you didn’t know were there. You could watch the video with a colleague, or have them watch it separately and then meet up to discuss each others notes. Remember, to keep the notes and discussion focused on your improvement in your chosen area. And keep doing this until you are ready for a change or identify something else in your teaching that required further development.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!
Don’t forget that with deliberate practice one of the key aspects is to repeat the process until you have mastered the objective. If you were trying to improve your student time spent on learning tasks, then you should continue to have lesson observations etc that focus on this until you have managed to improve this to a specific amount that was part of your goal. For example, maybe you wanted to increase this time from 60% to 80%. You could of course come back to this and improve it further, but maybe you also have other more pressing areas to improve as well. The point is that you will not make this improvement in two lessons. It will take time and you will need to constantly be reflecting yourself and also asking for input from others. The more you are observed and observe others, the more you will improve.
I would love to hear how you do classroom observations at your school. If you don’t do them regularly, why not do some further research and propose something to your executive team to help all your teachers grow. And if they won’t begin a school wide approach, you can always do it yourself with other colleagues who are keen to grow just like you. Please leave a comment below if you have ideas on this. I really like the Quality Teacher Rounds from Newcastle University, which if you would like to learn more about I highly recommend you attend one of their two day workshops (you can find more information about these here), but would love to hear how others go about doing classroom observations. If you begin doing classroom observations after this article, let us know how it goes! I want to know how it felt? What you learnt? How you grew? and How you have helped others?
Now, if you want to do this sort of a process and also get NESA accredited hours for it, we have a course to help you (Go to the online courses page here). But remember, it will require work from you. In fact, there are a minimum of three observations, readings, as well as reflections and discussions in this course, but if you want it please become a member and we can do it together! I love nothing more than growing my own craft and helping others further improve their own.