I have had a few conversations with colleagues this week about doing well in lesson observations. We have had a two day mock inspection and as can happen in these kinds of situations, excellent teachers begin to second-guess their practice. The advice I usually give is ‘just do what you normally do’ but this advice is difficult when observers tend to have their own criteria for what makes a great lesson. I’m not really talking about the basics here. It’s more about those nuances which can take a formally observed lesson from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’. This is when a lesson observation, especially by someone unknown to the observee, can often become an exercise in mind reading.
I have heard many sweeping statements from different people of what would need to be observed in a lesson for it to be awarded ‘outstanding’. Some expect to see individual, paired and group work, others will mark the lesson as less than good if the teacher talks for a certain amount of time etc. I saw a comment on Twitter about someone who would expect to hear each child speak at least once. The fact is that people have their own criteria in their head. I welcome the idea of ‘what’s good is what works’ but this is still widely open to interpretation as ‘what works’ can be taken in so many ways.
This isn’t just about other people. My own ‘checklist’ of what quality teaching looks like has changed dramatically over the last few years. I remember how incredulous I used to be if I didn’t see an objective written on the board. Up until very recently I have promoted the idea that teachers need to do a mini plenary as soon as the inspectors come through the door. Today, if I were to be asked on my own criteria for excellent lessons, I would say that exercise books are the key and they will tell me most of what I need to know. I like to think that I am sophisticated and know what great teaching is like but it still comes down to my own ideas about what an outstanding lesson looks like.
I’m not sure that we can ever eliminate subjectivity from the process, but I do think we can take steps to avoid the scenario where teachers end up fretting over lesson observations, overthinking what they are doing and trying to satisfy an observer’s very personal criteria. To do this, there needs to be a dialogue between the observer and observee before, during and after the lesson observation. The onus is on the observer to do everything they can to make the process transparent and supportive.
As someone who has to formally observe teachers as part of the performance management process, I have no interest in ‘judging’ teachers when I observe them. I also don’t want to put them in the position of having to second guess my ideas. Any lesson observation needs to be developmental, otherwise it is an empty process. For the staff that I observe in the next half term, I will meet with them beforehand and discuss the lesson. We’ll discuss the context and any concerns. I will be clear about the things I am looking for. While there may be disagreement that these are always the right things, at least there is clarity and no one is trying to second guess my motives or my expectations. It could be argued that this will just mean that they perform to my set of criteria. However, I will encourage them to teach in the way that they normally do as that is what I want to see. I will offer developmental feedback where I think I can and follow this up by supporting them with whatever they need.
When I am observed, I try to stick to my guns. As an experienced teacher, I know that one lesson observation doesn’t define me. I am always realistic that if I am observed by person x then I might draw attention to certain aspects of my practice but gone are the days when I would plan a showy lesson just to be graded good or outstanding. The whole idea of putting a number to a lesson observation is pretty ridiculous to be honest but it assumes so much importance for teachers, particularly those in their formative years. We can’t underestimate the deeply personal effect that the grading of a lesson can have on an individual. We will struggle to be exactly clear about what Ofsted inspectors have on their personal checklists but we can definitely remove the mind reading element in our school systems.