Spring term has begun and while the world is still in the grips of winter, we are being encouraged to grow new shoots as part of our ongoing professional development.
This year SLT have decided to share the responsibility of observations and to this end middle management are being introduced to ‘effective and robust observation techniques’. While we are upstairs with John Medlicott, the rest of the staff are in a session downstairs on producing excellent lessons, presumably to ready them for the increased number of observations they are about to endure.
So what was my takeaway? To begin with the focus was very much on being able to make a valid judgement on the teaching that was being observed. All judgements seemed to come down to a simple question; “are the students making good progress and is it at a good pace?”
We had all the usual discussions about whether it was reasonable to expect to see progress every lesson and the need for consolidation time. If you needed to be a specialist of the subject you were observing to be able to judge the rate of progress. We thought about what evidence would help us reach (and support) our judgements and we even role played what to do if we had to share less than positive judgements. All of this was useful and thought provoking and I have many notes electronically stored that I will probably never read again.
However, none of this was my ‘takeaway’. If I had goggled ‘observation’ beforehand and found this line from Wikipedia I might have started down this road of thinking earlier. As it is, through John’s careful reading of his audience (always good to give the benefit of the doubt when the lecturer seems to wonder off the learning objective) I now have a very different take on what observations are all about.
Here is the line from Wikipedia
Observation is the active acquisition of information from a primary source.
So, what was my big ‘ah ha’ moment? Read it again…. The word “judgement” isn’t there. Observations are about acquiring knowledge, how you use that knowledge thereafter is an entirely different matter. As a middle manager, this got me quite excited, because observations were no longer to be seen as an ‘us and them’ activity, filled with anxiety and stress. From now on, the observations themselves were simply about learning: learning what other teachers are doing, learning what resources are being used, learning how different students needs are met, learning how other teachers use the space around them, learning how other teachers track the progress of their students, learning how other teachers teach.
Now, I’m not so naive to think that this would remove any judgements from taking place. But it you go in to decide if this teacher should be deemed as excellent, you will probably have quite a negative experience in the long run and probably not get a lot out of it yourself. But if you go in to learn how another teacher does it, suddenly an environment of sharing best practice has been created and not just between the observer and the observee (pretty sure that is not a real word), but throughout the department and school as a whole.
I have decided that this is my way forward. As head of department, I do need to know what is going on throughout the school with regards to the teaching and learning of my subject. But, I’m not really interested in finding excellent teachers, I am interested in what works for different people with different students and I am interested in how they are doing it. Now, I realize that at some point I am going to come across a teacher that may be struggling to make progress and some structured guidance and support may need to be put into place, but that’s ok. To be honest, I’ll probably be in a much better position to identify such a teacher, if I had a lot more experience of the range of different teaching styles out there. I think that the practice as a whole is a lot healthier if the observer goes in with the assumption that they are going to be watching an excellent teacher and use their observation time to find out how that teacher does it.
I wonder then if we shouldn’t have had all the staff at our session after all, because if observations are about learning, shouldn’t all the staff have that same opportunity? Well, they will in my department.