Monday, 28 October 2013

Taking control of observations

Our school is about to do the first round of observations and as such there are a growing number of people getting stressed about it. From those recently finished their NQT year who have never had a "performance management" observation, to those established teachers who are massively capable day in day out, but suffer a massive loss of confidence when someone comes in to watch.

I'm not about to debate the concept or merits of graded observations here. Personally I believe that observations should only be used formatively and shouldn't have a summative judgement attached, however we have a system to work with so now it's about seeking the best outcome for my department (and beyond), which will leave us in a good place to get on with delivering great outcomes for the students.

To try and help the department do the best they can I put together a few tips. These are based on a range of mistakes I've either seen when observing or made myself when being observed, and also good practice I've seen or occasionally done. I'm sharing them here - hope they don't come across as too preachy - just intended to help.

1. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot
  • Ensure the basic hygiene factors are taken care of – your books must be marked up to date. (not necessarily to the lesson before, but recent marking is a must) – not doing this will put you on the back foot from the start in terms of feedback and marking.
  • Try to make sure that your students have read your recent feedback and know what they need to do to improve (or where to look to find that information) – they will be asked. This isn't about giving them a script for the observation - this is just good teaching as they need time to reflect on and understand their feedback in any case!
  • Get your seating plan up to date and in line with where the students will sit on the day of the observation. If this includes student data (I strongly urge you to do this - use the format from this post) ensure it is the most recent and up to date info possible. No point in giving anyone out of date data, and showing something out of date gives the impression that you are not on top of things.
  • Don’t plan something that is “a bit different today” and certainly don’t introduce it to the class as such (it instantly causes the observer to question whether you’re just putting on a show for them, and gives the class an excuse to behave in an unexpected manner)
  • Don’t over plan. Give the students the opportunity to make some mistakes and learn from them. A couple of well-judged tasks with opportunities for assessment and reflection are much more powerful than rushing through all the tricks you have up your sleeve.
  • Unless you absolutely can’t avoid it NEVER teach a revision lesson for an observation - a barrage of "but we've done this before Sir" instantly puts you on the back foot in terms of progress. If you have to revisit topics then make sure that you demonstrate the need early (expose misconceptions), and then direct students to targeted areas of weakness not just more practice of something they can already do.

2. Don’t assume that the observer will know the group’s background
  • If you want the observer to know something about the group or an individual pupil’s context/progress because it is relevant to the choices you have made for the lesson then find a way to tell them – this can be on a lesson plan, on a seating plan, on a markbook, annotated on the info you hand to them or simply explained to them verbally during the lesson.
  • Don’t assume that all of the information you hand over will be read in minute detail – highlight the key points (post its and highlighters) – physically point them out if needed.

3. Be bold - direct the observer to your best practice
  • If a student or group is doing particularly well then highlight that to the observer and explain what you have done to enable this (and how you plan to continue this) – encourage the observer to discuss this with the student.
  • If a student is struggling then it’s fine (even a real sign of strength) to acknowledge it – but as part of this explain what actions you are taking to help them recover.
  • If there is any other aspect of your practice you want the observer to take into account then TELL THEM – don’t gamble on them noticing independently.
  • Where you can refer back to previous lessons that may have used a different methodology to that in the observation lesson – this demonstrates that you use a range of teaching strategies without having to put them all in the observation lesson.

4. Demonstrate that the lesson is appropriate for the group
  • Try to give it a context (big picture) – if needed tell the students and observer about it as part of the lesson (see the 5 minute plan link at the end of this post)
  • Plan tasks that help keep the group are engaged in their learning – but don’t confuse passive participation with engagement, and don't confuse engagement with learning!
  • Take time during the lesson to “take the temperature of the class” – this can be via whole class AFL/questioning or on a more 1:1 level, but make it visible to the observer. Demonstrate you are responding to this within the lesson – even explicitly saying something like “based on your responses to this we’re now going to…” – this should include some kind of personalisation if pupils demonstrate the need.
  • Never be afraid to abandon your plan if needed and follow an alternative route. But make sure you take the chance to explain this decision to the observer.

5. Start with the outcome in mind
  • If you're being graded as part of this observation (not going to debate the rights or wrongs of that here) then try to see the observation under the heading “this is why my teaching is outstanding” – present it as such and challenge the observer to explain why it should be graded as anything other than that.

6. Don’t panic
  • You teach classes all day every day – have faith in yourself and your practice.
  • The observer knows you are nervous – just try to be yourself and do a normal lesson with the students.

Basically the gist of all of these points is that having an observation "done to you" is too often a passive affair where we try to demonstrate our practice implicitly - hoping that certain aspects will be noticed amongst the range of evidence seen in the lesson. Why leave this kind of thing to chance? - We should flip this on it's head - be active not passive in the process. Explain the decisions you have made, show off the best you can be, take control back - it's your classroom after all.

I also suggest you read this post by David Didau (@learningspy) which has certainly influenced several points in my list.

In terms of planning, while you don't really need a formal plan or format it is good to make sure you cover some bases. You might find the @TeacherToolkit 5 minute lesson plan useful for prompts, details here, or use something like SOLO taxonomy to help break down the learning. Even if your school insists on a particular format for lesson plans (they shouldn't!) then using the 5 minute plan to help structure is still beneficial before putting it into whatever format you're forced to use.

I hope that some of this is useful - clearly you're free to ignore it if you want. Any comments or thoughts please let me know.


  1. I have further information here on how to move from 'good to outstanding' here:

    1. Thanks for the comment Ross - will look to incorporate the link in a future update :-)