Annually, teachers in my school are expected to be observed by a member of the school’s senior management team once. Just once. Departments also have their own internal observation policy, and this usually involves PTCs observing teaching staff in their department one time during every 12 months.
Teachers decide on a focus and pick which class they are observed with. A form is filled in during the observation and time is built in afterwards for feedback. This is all good, because it gives teaching staff an opportunity to get some valuable feedback on their teaching. The problem is…it’s fake.
It’s the same thing that happens with inspections. You get notice. And between getting notice and the time of the observation you stress and stress and stress. So you work jolly hard at making sure everything goes perfectly well in the lesson. Maybe you warn the pupils the day before to “behave” because Mrs So-And-So is coming to see them learn. The observation comes round and you show off the fact that you can write Learning Intentions and Success Criteria and differentiate the material so that the fast finishers are kept busy and the less motivated learners are supported. You even squeeze in a plenary full of AifL.
Is that learning and teaching in action? Ticking boxes in an observation? I want an observation policy that means the senior leaders and my PTC know that I strive to make sure that every lesson ticks all the boxes. I want them to know that sometimes it goes wrong. Sometimes the learners misbehave and sometimes I don’t use clear Success Criteria. Occasionally I forget to make my instructions clear enough. Sometimes I miss out having a tough problem for the high fliers to sink their teeth into when the intended learning has been achieved. Sometimes the bell rings before I expect it to.
What surprised and disappointed me most recently was something that I heard at a union meeting while discussing the Working Time Agreement: “You will be observed once by the senior leadership team. You will agree on a date, time and class and the observation will go into the diary. If, for any reason, the observation is missed (e.g. the senior leader is out of school or has to attend a meeting) you are not required to reschedule your observation. They get one shot.” Who is this for? Is it to comfort teachers that don’t want to be observed? I piped up “But you’d miss out on valuable feedback!?”. The reply was “well if you want to reschedule the observation, you can, but you don’t have to – they can’t make you”.
I think, as teaching staff, we’re missing the point. And our school leaders have got it wrong. It shouldn’t be that easy for teachers to get away without being observed. A colleague of mine recently commented that they hadn’t been observed for 7 years. How does that happen? In my opinion, observations serve a few purposes:
- They let teaching staff gain valuable feedback on their teaching – this is the most important purpose.
- They allow subject PTCs to gather evidence of how the department is performing – this helps with the writing of department scoping papers and so on.
- The allow school leaders to monitor the standards of learning and teaching across the whole school, highlighting areas of strength and areas of weakness so that interventions can be put in place when needed.
Basically, we need to calm down about observations. The stakes are too high and they really don’t need to be. If the school is supportive and the staff are supportive and everyone is reflective then observations should be the norm. They should be able to happen whenever the observer likes. You shouldn’t be putting on a show for an observer then settling for “fine” lessons the rest of the time. Treat every lesson as if it’s an observation. You’ll quickly see that that would be unsustainable. So instead treat every lesson like you want the best possible learning and teaching to happen for the learners in your class. At the end of the day, that’s what really matters.