Here’s a question for you. How do you go about making an ESOL lesson “purposeful”? ESOL lessons can, indeed should be wandering and tangential, building on opportunities that arise, but this doesn’t have to be at the expense of being purposeful 

As a starting point, let’s clarify what we mean. Oxford dictionaries give us three options

  1. Having or showing determination or resolve
  2. Having a useful purpose
  3. Intentional

It would be fun to discuss the first of these, but I think that would be semantic nitpicking of the most irritating kind, and we would end up talking about resilience or similar. 

And I don’t really think that the second meaning is terribly pertinent. Or rather it is pertinent but it is sort of the whole point of language learning in a second language environment: it’s the motivational wood we can’t see due to the trees. ESOL learning should have a useful purpose: it’s not academic study for the sake of it. ESOL students usually have a useful purpose behind their motivation for learning, and while humdrum daily reality shouldn’t be the only context for learning (although it’s a lazy quick win for an observation) it is, however, the main context in which students wil be using the language. 

No, I rather suspect that when you hear talk of purposeful learning, the meaning is the third: learning activities should be intentional. This suggests a couple of things: conscious engagement on the part of the students; and a clear something that the students can take away from the lesson. 

Conscious engagement, then. It’s becoming widely accepted, I think, that a lecture, if delivered interestingly with learning checked throughout, can be a damn good way of getting a stack of information across. No problems there, as long as what you are teaching can be taught using the same language as your students. But even for teachers who share a first language with all their students, then there is still a need for the students to make use of the language: theory and practical in one lesson, if you like. Engagement is crucial for production of language, that crucial stage of language learning which consolidates the learners’ understanding, tests it out, and provides you as a teacher some idea of how much or how well the students have learned. 

Which brings me to the second, and I think the most pertinent point: students taking something away from the lesson. I’m going to stick my neck right out on this one and say that in none of my lessons do I expect my students to come away with the target language or language skill fully developed. Not a single one. And neither should you. Students might be closer to full automatisation of the language point, be better able to apply a language skill, but I would be very surprised if I taught something in lesson A and the students were able to the reproduce exactly and in other contexts that language point in subsequent lessons. I was praised once because of apparent “deep learning” when a student had a lightbulb moment about relative clauses in an observed lesson, but despite this, the student was still unable to generalise and apply the thing she had apparently “deeply” learned. 

The problem is that we aren’t dealing with knowledge as discreet from application, but rather we are dealing with knowledge and application simultaneously. It’s of limited value to ask students to tell you the rule: it’s a start, and it does have value, but I’d genuinely question “explain the rule” as a sole learning outcome. I’d be looking at application of the language: what can students do with it?

But this then raises the big question: what are the learning outcomes? The usual “SMART” definition is of no help here: the S is fine, I think, but as soon as you go down the rest of the acronym you end up with a description of the activity. But if your outcome is simply “be better able to use passive voice”, then, how do you assess the learning taking place? Well, you listen to the students, you read their writing, you assess their performance in controlled and freer activities, all sorts. And different learners might demonstrate their skill in different ways, in an often unpredictable manner. And either way they will only be a bit better able to use the language, so why pretend to anyone that “use passive voice accurately and independently in six sentences or utterances” is at all meaningful. SMART outcomes limit and restrict learning in this context and dogged insistence on creating measurable performance is only going to lead to contextualised, limited and unrealistic performance. 

Assessment is part of the problem with this sort of atomising of language. I’ve taught enough higher level students who’ve “performed” at a particular level but have clearly not learned. I have had level 1 learners still struggling both conceptually and productively with first person present simple, and yet they and the system believe that they are “working at” entry 3. They’ve got a certificate and everything. This creates frustration all round: a student who believes they have achieved a level, a teacher who has to cope with managing that discontent. Summative and formative assessment based on tidy outcomes too easily reduces learning into neat observable tics, when proper formative assessment is complex and ongoing. It’s listening to students and correcting spoken language, reading what they have written and telling them what needs changing (and how).  Expressing these things as assessable outcomes, however, creates the false impression of achievement: take an outcome at face value and you have to say “so what?” So what if a student can use third person singular in six different sentences at entry 1: they’ll still be making mistakes with it three years later in a level 1 class. And if I say “oh it’s ok, what I really mean is “know a bit more about third person singular”, then what’s the benefit of the measurable outcome? None that I can see. What does a learner understand from that outcome? All of which assumes, of course, that we can set that outcome without teaching the language point first.

But saying, for example, a non-SMART intention like “today’s lesson will focus on passive voice, vocabulary to do with the environment, and practising reading for gist” is purposeful. For  one, students have a chance of understanding what this means. They can see how the activity they are doing is likely to lead to them knowing more about the language point, or developing that skill.  And as long as you are given the opportunity to listen to and carefully monitor what the students are saying and doing, and think about what they are likely to know about that language, then there should be no concerns with students being bored or lacking challenge. Setting the measurable outcome is well intentioned but deceptive at best, blatantly mendacious at worst. Purpose is perfectly achievable without specific outcomes, but it does involve being clear and honest with the students about what will be happening in the lesson. 



I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

Frank Herbert, The Litany Against Fear in Dune.

I had my formal observation this week, and my feedback. It was, as has generally been the case, a pretty accurate evaluation of the lesson, and, as any observation should, picked up on a couple of bits that I missed, or perhaps was in denial about (like “do the differentiation which you planned.” which is an improvement on “plan differentiation”)

One of the other, less formal bits of feedback was an observation that I fluster, which is interesting because that’s something I’ve seen in other people and commented on as having a negative impact on the lesson. That same fluster and nerves was really the impetus behind my last post about planning as well: frustration, being unhappy with the ideas for the lesson, never mind anything else, all of which was compounded by nerves. The nerves beget fluster, the fluster begets mistakes, the mistakes beget more nerves: the little death becomes the total obliteration.

A bit of nervous energy is not always a bad thing, mind you. If I plan in too much detail, and too far in advance, for example, I get complacent about the lesson, and forget what it is I have planned, treating it as “done”. I plan more or less day by day because I find my brain works better that way, and part of that is nerves: a sense of pressure that acts as a motivator, and I have a hundred better ideas in the house before the lesson than I do in the preceding week.

However, when it comes to formal observation of lessons, why fluster?

A part of it is simple lack of confidence. I was reading the other day about “imposter syndrome” which is where despite being good at something, you lack confidence in that ability and as a result you are convinced that you are about to be outed as a fraud.

Sometimes the fluster cycle occurs simply because something goes wrong that you weren’t expecting: it’s why we get trainee teachers on CELTA to think about things that might go wrong. Mistakes beget nerves and suddenly we find ourselves trapped once more in the nerves-fluster-mistakes cycle.

In this particular case, a small part was to do with something outside the lesson: it would be indelicate of me to comment on what the was, but I was distracted by this and had dropped a bit of professional focus. Partly, I think, it was relief at being somewhere familiar for me, and settling into overly comfortable patterns, and really not following through on it.

But whatever. These things are all well and good. They’re  not the real problem with teacher fluster during observation. In another conversation this week, there was a sense of dismay that teachers should feel nervous at observation, or feel worried about the process.

This simply demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the process in which teachers are being involved. Teacher observation for quality assurance purposes is, essentially, a high stakes summative assessment, like a GCSE exam or a degree dissertation. Whether the lesson is graded or not, if there is the potential for punitive consequences for the individual, then there will be nerves. It’s ignorant and arrogant to suggest otherwise. Never mind the official “don’t forget it’s also developmental” cant, because if it all goes south, a quality assurance observation can be the little clatter of stones that precedes the landslide.

The irony, of course, is that this awareness is more likely to lead to it happening. Almost, I think, something like the rational meditative state implied in the less well known half of Frank Herbert quote is the only answer.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

A little dramatic maybe, but it gets to the point – you have to try, somehow, to get past it and work through the nerves. You have to consciously acknowledge the consequences, but also rationalise them. It may be the clatter of small stones, but the landslide may still not happen.  ‘ve only seen the landslide a few times, so to speak. As  awfully new-agey as it sounds, perhaps the answer does lie in some form of meditative reflection before the lesson, an opportunity to rationalise and clarify, and to focus on the important thing – the learning in the lesson. Don’t deny the negativity, or try to gee yourself up, forcing yourself into some manic pixie state of rabid positivity, just let it pass over and through you.

Teach the students, make them learn. Everything else can wait.

Planning – it’s a love/hate thing.

I like planning lessons, that is, I enjoy planning lessons and thinking about what I might do in that lesson, and coming up with interesting ways of teaching something, or practising a skill, or eliciting a language point, or whatever. I like making or finding or developing a resource. I like thinking about how I am going to make sure I can keep everyone engaged and learning. I like planning.

I hate Planning. I hate the boxes, the “have you thought about whichever governmental whim you are supposed to be embedding”, the “we don’t expect extensive planning but we expect you to show us how you will differentiate for the individual needs of your students” double standards. I hate the hair splitting “ooh, your learning outcome isn’t smart enough, and if you reword ‘write 5 sentences using past simple’ as ‘use past simple to write 5 sentences’ you will be fine” (because students couldn’t give a stuff, because all they really understand is that they will be learning about past simple. Although they can’t self assess against that learning outcome until you teach them what it is…). I hate the stupid “assessment” box. Yes, it does look like I copy & paste, because I do, because I use checking in pairs, self assessing against the answers on the whiteboard, teacher marking and all the rest of it most of the time. I hate the tedious, mechanistic “input > output” simplicity a lesson plan form suggests, as if by achieving said learning outcomes, and assessing said learning outcomes means something. It doesn’t. It means the student achieved that once. Whether or not that outcome is now automatically achievable in any setting is highly unlikely.

I hate the way I find it ard to fiddle with a formal lesson plan and make changes at the last minute, even though I will happily chuck the entire lesson out at the last minute for an exciting but semi-formed idea if, and this is important, if the lesson is not being observed.

But actually, of course, what I really hate is that I have an ok set of lessons for the next few days, but they are missing something and I can’t put my finger on it. And there is no form in the world going to help me there.

When the students know it is bad. 

In one of my earliest lessons, whilst doing my initial certificate, I really screwed up. Oh man, did I ever screw up. There are screw ups who can only dream of screwing up that badly. The lesson, a badly judged hour on adjectives for an upper intermediate group, had involved ages of painstaking work on planning and resources (cut out of fluorescent card, for reasons lost to posterity), to result in thirty scraped, desperate minutes at the end of which my trainer stood up and finished off the lesson while I sat in a corner with my day-glo cards and optimism in tatters in the floor. To my credit, I knew it was dying, I knew it was bad, just by the slow, deadly collapse of student interest and the polite, albeit frustrated, sympathy on the students’ faces. Unfortunately, being three hours into teaching, I just didn’t know how to make it stop, short of running from the room and never coming back. I have the expressions on the students faces burned into my memory, and the shame, oh the shame. 

(This wasn’t the only excruciating moment on that course; honourable mention should go to the oh so embarrassing hand out I did which I claimed was about the past tense of “have” but was, in fact, about the past perfect and my furious Wiltshire born insistence that the “r” in “car” was widely pronounced. Yes, I do know these are incredibly geeky things to be embarrassed about.) 

Since then, of course, I have been impeccable as a teacher. Mostly. Sometimes. Or at least occasionally, but always, always, the most affecting, most devastating feedback I have ever been given on a lesson is from students. This feedback, can take many forms, of course, through indirect feedback like the stony expressions as you flog the dead horse of your lesson to death. Students may simply tell you directly that said horse should have been put out of its misery a long time ago; although in my experience of such things, adult ESOL students sometimes find this hard, almost embarrassing, perhaps because they come from a culture of trust and respect for teachers. If anything, however, this makes it even worse: the very fact that for some students it is hard to give negative feedback to a teacher makes it all the more important to respond to that feedback appropriately and with respect. 

Sometimes, of course, a problem is not one of your own practice, as such, but of student belief or expectation: for example where a student thinks there are “too many games” because you use game-like information gap activities for speaking practice, or because they have unrealistic expectations about their abilities, and want to take an advanced exam by next Thursday. But whether it be the cold, stony silence of polite disengagement, or the niggling chatter of a disinterested group, or perhaps a student with an eloquent, genuine comment which is clearly rational, and based on the opinions of their classmates, you can tell if the problem is real, because, deep down, you know full well you have messed up. 

Student feedback, perhaps more than any other, triggers guilt. Guilt, as Yoda never quite said, leads to anger, and anger leads to the Dark Side. In this case, however, rather than donning a scary black mask and throttling people through the power of the force, one merely gets defensive, albeit sometimes aggressively so. It is, after all, genuinely upsetting to be told you’re not doing as good a job as you hoped. And maybe you feed on this, and you respond negatively to the students, all defensive and cagey “it was the lights/the management/the direction of the wind”. Or perhaps you internalise and dwell on it and lie there awake at 4 am wondering what you have done, and whether you are in the right job, and wouldn’t it just be better for everybody if you stopped now. 

Both of these, while human, and understandable, are also deeply unproductive. They are indeed the Dark Side of professional reflection: and as such we should all be good Jedi and move beyond them. Whether the feedback is direct, as in a student complaint, or indirect (my stony faced certificate class), then take it on board, and, crucially, change. Because that is the only thing you can do. If you don’t change then you might as well give up. Getting defensive with the students, or indeed with anyone, is pointless: listen to the complaint, notice what has gone wrong, make sure you understand it, promise to take action then, and this is the important bit, take it. 

Everyone wins. Students are happier with their course, and with you. It helps to rebuild a bit of faith and trust between you and the students, which makes teaching a whole load easier. It also helps you become a better teacher. A much better teacher because you are a better learner. You have received information (feedback), and changed your behaviour based on it. That, I reckon, is a fair definition of professional learning, and any teacher who isn’t learning is either lying or dead. Sure, students need and deserve good teaching, and you can come over all quality control assurance at me if you want, but as a teacher perfection is a rare thing, and learning is what we are all about. As teachers we learn from feedback and reflection, and students are one of the best sources of information on how well we are doing. 

So yes, make mistakes, get it wrong and listen to your class, but, as Samuel Beckett said: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 

Episode VI: Return of the Teacher

Everyone likes a trilogy, right? So this is my third post on the theme of observation, in particular my own: if my last post was the Empire Strikes Back, with the empire triumphant, then this my Return of the Jedi. Hopefully not Revenge of the Sith.

Anyway, it occurred to me that meek and weary acceptance and passivity is very possibly the very worst way to approach lesson observation feedback. After all, grade or no grade, judgement will be passed, and the comments will go down against your name somewhere, probably on a spreadsheet. So time, instead, to gather my big guns, my justifications, arguments and my “yeah but no buts”. Not defensive: if there is something wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it, but definitely veering towards being on the offensive. Proactive, not reactive, for those of you who like things a little less martial.

First the lesson. That probably deserves a capital letter: The Lesson. Essentially three stages. The first stage was homework feedback. The students had been set homework to write advice using “should” for a hypothetical learner of English. I’d marked this ready to give back. To lead into this, I did a bit of a board based task on using the definite article to describe a unique item: something which many of the students had made mistakes with, along the lines of “You should use library.” It was the Queen’s 90th birthday too, so, swallowing my darker republican tendencies, I asked the students to talk in pairs and write down why they thought today was special. This led to the students writing sentences along the lines of “today is the Queen’s birthday.” Sort of. Then I gave the homework back: the majority of students had completed it, so I asked them to work in groups to discuss the errors and suggest changes. They did this remarkably well, with guidance. This probably lasted about 20 minutes in all.

Naturally, of course, students were still making mistakes with should, so I’d planned a longish recap activity. It’s also good to revisit language in a different context, so using the theme of health (linking to the theme of the rest of the week) we briefly (and somewhat unsatisfactorily, I have to admit) revisited parts of the body, and (equally unsatisfactorily, to my mind) revisited ailments and illnesses. This then led to a series of PowerPoint slides with different illnesses on: “I have a cold.” Students worked in pairs to write advice on mini whiteboards “you should….” I monitored this, used peer checking of good sentences, asked for group feedback or suggestions on sentences with errors on, and so on. The eliciting and practice here took a second slot of 20 minutes.

The final stage was meant as a free practice activity: students received a slip of paper with one of the problems on and had to ask each other for advice, at least three times, and decide which was good advice. This closed with a brief group discussion on the advice given, followed by a fragile and tenuous link to the next half of the lesson. At this point the observer left.

I liked the tripartite structure. It flowed neatly and made sense. There was no shoehorning of awkward bits and pieces. I liked that I had students working in pairs to compose sentences, and using the mini whiteboards gave me a chance to use peer correction by getting students with correct sentences to show them around the room. This then allowed lots of self correction (call it peer and self assessments if you like). This also made it very easy for me to check students and to go round monitor it. I enjoyed giving students the chance to self correct, and the subtle shaming (for want of a better word) encouraged a couple of students to sheepishly dig out their homework and hand it in, which presented later opportunities to feedback. I thought my lead in was a fairly engaging bit of fun, with a serious purpose to it.

But. But.

As I mentioned in my last post, I used the five minute lesson plan, and I was feeling less than well-disposed to the whole process. Aside from the overall structure, there was nothing much else in place until about 45 minutes before the lesson began. Even then, I spent most of my time checking resources and marking the last bits of work. I essentially took the decision that I would take the hit in the formal lesson planning document, rather than on the content and structure of the lesson. There was a lesson plan, and it was all there; it just wasn’t very good. The outcomes were fairly “rigorous” (i.e. completely false representations like “be able to write five sentences…”) but not differentiated to the different skills and levels in the group, with the exception of one student in the E1 group who is definitely a beginner writer.

And I’d say that this was where the lesson was shakier. It’s a big group at E1 and as such covers a pretty huge ability gap, with students doing all sorts of different qualifications. Because of the hurried planning, mostly, none of this came out particularly in the plan, nor especially in the lesson. So I could have moved students round into ability groupings, for example, giving me chance to push those stronger students, or tailor activities to the exams they will be taking (after all, we all like differentiation by negative backwash).

Would this have made a difference to the students’ overall learning? Probably. Not significantly, maybe, and the lesson would have run the risk of becoming dour individualised workshoppy bleurgh at one point. I am sceptical of the individualisation priority, but that’s not an excuse (although it does sound like a spy novel). I know that this is not the official view, and my own opinion is mostly a hunch, not an evidenced stance, and as such, doesn’t pass muster. And if I had spent an extra half an hour on the lesson plan, using a full lesson plan, I probably would have included this kind of detail. I’m not entirely convinced by the five minute lesson plan, I don’t think: but then perhaps I’m just an all or nothing kind of guy.

More time planning would have probably nudged me to remember things like formal reviewing of the learning outcomes. Again, I’m sceptical about this as a universally applicable practice, but I know that it’s generally expected, and takes no time at all to do with minimal negative impact. However, at the end of the two hour lesson, I did do a formal review: grouping the students into small groups I asked them to think of things they had learned in the lesson: groups of 3 had 3 things, 4s had 4 things to think of. This elicited, yes, that’s right, giving advice with should, and using the, as well as the work from the second half of the lesson. The brief plenary closed this lesson nicely, and would have been good to do in pairs at the end of the observed section before moving onto the writing half of the lesson.

So if we are casting around for blame, where do we look? It’s easy to say “the planning form”, but that’s not really true. I think it could work for someone else. Time management outside of the lesson? Definitely. Absolutely. Let me be clear, as well, I am fully responsible for this. I had some time in the week, and as such I mismanaged it. Mea absolutely culpa.

And it wasn’t a bad lesson. I’ve observed far worse, and taught worse. Students learned some stuff, and proved it to themselves and to me. So all in all, nothing to be ashamed of, not really. I’ll see what the feedback brings.


So if happened, finally. In the penultimate hour of my teaching week, after 7 previous teaching sessions across the week: I got observed.

And I’m not going to blog about it, or at least not about the lesson, anyway, because I can’t. Not because of some professional boundaries stuff, but because I can’t actually remember what happened.  So much so, in fact, that I rather hope my observer will be able to tell me what happened.

Partly it was the psychological pressure. It’s hard, really hard, to keep the momentum of planning and teaching at that kind of level, which sort of makes me wonder what is so different about being observed that you feel a need to go above and beyond. Part of it, of course, is paperwork. For the lesson in question, for example, I had planned a lesson, of course, but hadn’t written it down on a formal lesson plan: by the end of my four days waiting, this was, quite frankly, a right royal pain in the backside. I’m not a fan of doing stuff for the sake of audit/observation at the best of times, and this was far from the best of times. I was using the five minute lesson plan, or a version of it, but by Thursday morning I was feeling so grouchy and resentful that my handwriting and attention to detail had deteriorated considerably. 

There’s also the simple issue of physical tiredness: from Wednesday lunchtime through Wednesday evening and then Thursday until 3pm, it’s back to back lessons, with a brief spell for sleep and food. There wasn’t a lot of room there for writing out lesson plans, and normally I have enough time in between sessions to plan (small P). This rod, of course, I made for my own back: while my colleagues, apparently, were busting a gut over the weekend, I spent my weekend walking, cycling, watching movies, being with family and so on. Let me be clear as well: it’s not so much that there weren’t plans in place, just no Plans. I can’t do a week’s worth of lesson plans in advance: I always fiddle and adapt and add stuff up to the minute before the lesson, by which time I might as well have just done a lesson plan on the day. And if I don’t adjust it in any way I will think to myself “I don’t need to plan” then forget the plan itself. It’s worth nothing that the one memory I have of the lesson is never actually consulting the plan while teaching: planning, as the name suggests, is something I tend to do before the lesson, and once planned, the lesson just happens. Everything else just then slots into place. I keep a copy to hand, of course, but it is usually just in case, rather than actually being something I refer to in the lesson.

This isn’t, by the way, a pre-emptive set of excuses for a poor lesson. I am deeply unsympathetic to excuses of this sort, I’m afraid: an evaluative lesson observation is what it is and I’m lucky enough in the last few years to be observed by people who recognise this, and don’t use it as a proxy assessment for what you do over the whole course. This means that the feedback, for the most part, is for the learning in the lesson itself, and in this case, I think I’m probably OK, and if I’m not, then I know I can deal with that. Yes, I was weary, and somewhat manic by the beginning of that lesson, essentially running on caffeine, but that’s not an excuse. It might explain some of the more bonkers moments, perhaps, but if it was generally a bit shit, then that’s my problem not the system’s. I could have spent more time earlier in the week planning in advance. I could have been, no should have been, more organised so that when I spent time printing schemes and so on in the week before, I also planned the lessons. I could have chosen not to completely reorganise my scheme of work for my evening class so I could fit in a lesson around an interesting news item, and therefore not spent time planning those activities, writing questions and analysing language ready for teaching. I could have not changed my mind about the entire second half of the lesson on Thursday morning. I could have simply found a bunch of relevant pre-published resources and relied on those instead for most of my lessons, rather than spending my time writing resources (although I am rather pleased with what I made for my maths class, my beginners and my Level 1/2 evening class). There is a LOT I could have done differently to offset the tiredness, and it’s too easy, lazy, even, to want to lash out at something outside yourself.

Essentially, all I am saying is that I was tired, a bit overwrought, and quite frankly a little bit away with the fairies, and the most interesting thing to come out of the whole process so far is that I feel weirdly disconnected from the lesson, somehow. Me being so emotionally and mentally distanced from what happened in the lesson is an unusual, slightly discombobulating  experience, and being particularly unable to articulate what went well and what didn’t is frankly weird. At some point I am required to write up some sort of reflection – and this is probably going to provide the biggest challenge of all, because I’m damned if I could tell you what happened in the lesson.

But there is a lot to be pleased about: don’t get me wrong. It might have been an arduous week, but I know the feedback is not going to lead to a grade with automatic consequences, for example, and that I am going to be able to discuss the lesson on a fairly equal footing with my observer, rather than waiting for the number and the associated misery. And I want this new ungraded system to work, really work because I know there are people who are sceptical about such things. I want to be right, and them to be wrong. 

So I’ll be interested to hear the feedback. The feedback will be useful, and hey, who knows, I may be bloody fantastic when I’m slightly off my head on tiredness and caffeine. I doubt it, of course, but let’s wait and see.

Observation: Reactions and Purpose

Hey ho. It’s observation week this week, so it’s time to dust down the lesson planning forms, polish up various forms of supporting paperwork, and generally pull up my socks. I don’t mind, especially as we have done away with the pointless process of graded observation: there have been compromises but then that was inevitable. However, it would be inappropriate of me to comment on that process here, and anyway, if we’re going to have observation for primarily performance management purposes, as opposed to having it for primarily developmental purposes, then hey, compromise is going to happen, isn’t it? I’d like to have a formal observation by a specialist of me teaching my specialism, which hasn’t happened for a couple of years, but as is normal in these cases, this is highly unlikely.

I always find people’s reactions to the announcement of observation fascinating.

There are some people, for example, who react like they have been asked to show their dubious tax dealings, even when you have just suggested an entirely informal and non-critical peer observation on a reciprocal basis. They bluster and fluster, suggesting that you are an entirely unwelcome intruder on their sacred space, impertinent to suggest that there might be other people in the class apart from themselves.

Then there are the swans. Externally, everything is fine, and they sail to the observation serenely and calmly, hiding the fact that underneath this, they are panicking, planning, preparing resources and generally being quite anxious about the whole thing. Occasionally there may be moments, flashes of stress, the odd sigh, perhaps, but this is quickly covered up with jokes and comments. They probably post blase comments on Facebook about how they are chilling with a glass of wine and a movie, but in reality they are mainlining espresso and throwing an all weekend planning bash.

While on an avian theme, then, let us not forget the ostriches. Yes, I know full well that a frightened ostrich doesn’t bury its head in the sand – they may not look the smartest of birds, but evolution would rapidly do away with a species of bird which chooses not to run away when danger approaches. That’s not the point, anyway, because there is such a thing as a teacher who sticks their head in the sand, carrying on regardless, doing whatever they normally do for their observations. La la la, they sing, their heads buried safely away, the observation isn’t actually happening to me, no no, not me.

There is, perhaps, a small, horribly organised and naturally confident minority who embrace the whole thing because they cut no corners, and have everything in place. These are also people who do every lesson by the book: SMART learning outcomes aligned to individual targets, shared and carefully selected “real life” resources of the “Mrs Khan goes to the doctor” variety, with differentiated workshoppy elements to the lesson, all of which is closed up with the students doing a neat reflection at the end. These people do this every single lesson, every day of the week. And yes, I hate them, but take solace in the fact that so do their friends and family, who almost certainly never see them.

At the opposite end of the scale you find the serial winger, Seat of the Pants Simon, Last Minute Laura, or simply Jammy Jason. A weird hybrid of the Ostrich & the Swan, these people have the knack of pulling it all together at the close of play, buoyed up by a natural instinct for the job and an ability to pull together a few decent lesson plans and drag their paperwork into place just in time.

The gamer is a new variety, or at least has had their job made far easier in recent years with the introduction of electronic diaries and timetabling. The gamer spends a portion of their time not planning but marshalling data about their observer’s timetable and planned meetings and triangulating the most likely time for an observation. They see the whole process as a system to game, even down to thinking about a potential observer’s preferences and peccadillos, and carefully planning lessons around these. 

But why do these reactions occur at all? Why the fear, the panic, the gaming? I guess we have to go back to the main purpose of observation: assessment. Graded or not, there will be expectations and criteria to be met, and consequences to those criteria not being met. These range from the severe, linked to capability procedures, to the pleasantly useful, developing as a teacher. The more severe those criteria, the more an observation becomes a summative process: a final exam showing all the development work you have been doing in the last year. You are on display, naked, and entirely at the mercy of the observer in a way that you never are in any other aspect of your professional life. Even though you are just as exposed to your students, the relationship is a completely different one, and one which does change when that relationship becomes critical and evaluative, when students are unhappy with the lessons, for example. 

Losing the grading system goes a way to reducing this, but not completely, by any measure. However, and this is really important, that’s OK. As long as the tensions induced in any observation are acknowledged; that a manager doing an annual evaluative observation is clear that the purpose of that observation may have an impact on the teacher’s reaction, or that a teacher trainer takes on board the nerves of their trainee, or that a peer observer recognises the impact that their presence might have; then that’s fine. It’s hard not to see the process as a challenge to a professional set of judgements: it’s what the teacher and the observer do with that challenge that counts.