This post concerns my musings on lesson observations. The mere thought of lesson observations can have some teachers quaking in their boots. Others will take it in their stride and show no fear. This is in part due to the personality of the individual teacher, partly due to the culture of the school and a large part of it is due to the fear of Ofsted. My opinion is that this wrong. Fear is not a word we should associate with lesson observations. Support is the word I would rather we associate with observations.
The unions say that teachers should be protected from stress and the unnecessary workload caused by excessive use of classroom observation. This is certainly true. I don’t want to be political here, that’s not my intention. That said, I will agree with the Unions stance on this. Too much observing can distract teachers from their main role of teaching. Much effort goes in to planning a lesson that will be observed by Head Teachers and this can be onerous if there are too many observations.
Observations are now a part of Performance Management. Ofsted require data which backs up evidence on the SEF regarding the percentage of Outstanding or good lessons observed. It is the responsibility of the HT and the Governing body to evaluate teaching standards. This is the primary purpose of lesson observations.
This brings me to Ofsted. I have recently read on Twitter that Ofsted Inspectors have been less than supportive with some of my colleagues. My earliest memory of Ofsted in 2000 were of these wonderful people who joined my lessons for four days. They observed, fed back constructively and genuinely helped me to develop as a teacher. The lead inspector even rolled his sleeves up and joined in with a particularly messy activity to help support my SEN children. They were a wonderful team. Four years later we were treated to another fabulous inspector who helped me to gain further knowledge and expertise. In 2008/09 the lead inspector was again an expert in the field of SEN. I had the feeling if he didn’t know something it wasn’t worth knowing. I owe him a debt of gratitude for his advice on data collection in my school. So, in my experience Ofsted has been supportive and helped me grow as a teacher and as a member of SLT. On the flip side there is now a worrying number of teachers who have not received this support recently and I find that saddening. I also think that schools may be inadvertently playing a part in introducing this fear of observations and Ofsted.
Schools have a huge role in preparing teachers for Ofsted. Increasingly schools are running mini Ofsted weeks in preparation for the big event. Ofsted is the mantra on the lips of every member of SLT. This in itself brings a culture of fear. Teachers are undergoing planning checks, data trails, work scrutiny and lesson observations in readiness for the big event. Ofsted is beginning to rule our lives. I may be wrong but I’m not sure this is the way forward. A large part of me thinks we are cultivating this fear of Ofsted by doing this. Please do not forget that I am part of SLT myself but I’m very uncertain of this new approach. Should we not all be teaching to the best of our abilities anyway? Should we not all be up to date with marking and planning? Should our data not be used in lesson objectives as a matter of course? Anyone can have a bad day and produce a lesson that is not top drawer but this may still happen during the big O visit. I realise that having many observations on file to prove your teachers’ worth will help if indeed a bad lesson is produced for an inspector, but I’m still unsure of the value of too many observations. Continually observing lessons increases the chances of observing a second rate lesson. Teachers may become so hung up on planning for observations that they lose sight of the bigger picture in their class. Others will of course rise to the challenge and produce outstanding lessons each time. Whatever your view on this I make one plea to all teachers and SLT, be supportive of your colleagues. Support is vital.
It is very easy to pull a lesson apart simply because it is not delivered the way you would do it. Most schools have a check list for observations. They may include brisk pace, differentiation, resources matched to pupils’ ability, lesson objectives, behaviour, good rapport, AfL and the list goes on. If you observe a lesson and the points are covered the lesson is at least good. We should not be in the business of damaging teachers’ confidence.
Feeding back constructively is essential. Remember to start with the positives. End with ‘even better if’ (EBI) and a point for development. Try and leave the teacher feeling good about themselves. My own school is embarking on training all our teachers in the art of observation feedback to ensure consistency across school.
There are alternatives to observations which I believe are more beneficial. Coaching and peer mentoring are two of my favoured approaches but they are another post. My own school has a mix of observations, coaching and mentoring and I think my school has the balance right.
In summary lesson observations are a necessary evil. Teachers need to be accountable for the lessons they produce. We are, after all, responsible for educating the Nation’s next generation. This is a huge responsibility and one which we take seriously. The message I want you to take from this post is please let’s support each other to do this and let’s remove this culture of fear that is becoming widespread.