Defunct? The Role Of Observations At Interview

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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I have a bee in my bonnet and a professional-personal dilemma that I’d like to share with my readers.

This blog is not discussing job descriptions or candidate specifications. It is a challenge regarding the nature of one-off lesson observations used as part of the teacher-interview process for new appointments. It also makes reference to the current debate regarding the role of observations. This is not a discussion on using judgements, but raising the issue of ‘what’ criteria is applied for a one-day interview.

Where do you now stand with reference to one-off lesson observations during an interview? I’d like to ask if we can all begin to redefine the nature of lesson observations for this very purpose. When observing during an interview, beyond appointing the right person, what exactly are we looking for in a one-off observation lesson?

The nature of one-off lesson judgements (or teaching for performance) is difficult to validate, particularly for interview purposes. We know that assessing a ‘good’ lesson/teacher stems from reliable sources of progress over time. Now, I am not proposing any new models (see Conclusions) for approaching this, other than raising this issue; yet, I am certainly keen to help shape dialogue before the next round of interviews commencing in all schools, next term.

What do you do when observing teachers for an interview?

Are interview-observations designed to:

  • give a potential snapshot of the teacher working in your school? Typically a 15-30-minute lesson.
  • to ask the teacher to teach a full 1-hour lesson so that they can put their best foot forward?
  • to see how the teacher interprets a particular lesson brief that has been set?
  • to observe how the candidate interacts with your students?
  • to examine the teacher’s character/credibility/subject knowledge and skills?
  • to study if the teacher would meet the school’s needs/values/vision?
  • to genuinely observe the teacher as a match against the ‘person specification’ advertised?
  • (all of the above)
  • or, to see if this teacher would fit with your own (the observer’s) ideology?
  • to assess the teacher’s performance against the school’s/Ofsted’s criteria?

I argue, that whatever your proposed method, this must be clear and communicated to all staff who are on the panel. We cannot expect teachers to hoop-jump through all the performances we have come to expect from being observed by Ofsted, or for appraisal. The context at the interview is entirely different and I would like to consider, that whatever criteria is to be used, it is shared with candidates who are invited for interview. This is exactly the same when sharing the success criteria with students in lessons. It is expected. We cannot expect students to succeed if we do not model or provide exemplary criteria. This can be said for teacher-interviews. We are given the person specification, but we are not given the success criteria for how we are to be assessed in the teaching section of the interview process. The selection criteria may indicate how the successful applicant is appointed. Here is a sample.

When looking at this information, the candidate should assume that where IT (InTerview) is stated, the lesson will form part of the interview assessment, and not any observational criteria as a separate source of validating evidence. i.e. Ofsted framework for judging good teaching.

It could be argued, that the former one-off judgement model – applied at interview – is dragging behind the national debate for progress over time and no-more lesson judgements.

From the hundreds and hundreds of lessons I have had the privilege of observing, when appointing new candidates, they all have been conducted under varying circumstances. Now, I am not going use this blog to discuss the horror-stories. This would be unfair, given the individual circumstances of the advert/role/school/Ofsted-specific framework applied at the time. Plus, the nature of each specific job-advert would require a ‘different hat on’.

However, I argue, that despite the immense range of circumstances/appointments, most, if not all observations, observed by you and I will have used the same criteria. One-off judgements and possibly observer-bias. Even though this has been (and still is) damaging, we now know this stance has shifted for the better. But, how can a ‘progress over time’ model be applied to a unique one/two-day interview process? We need to Get it Right.

I’d like to propose that all schools and observers take this discussion (progress over time vs. one-off) into account when observing candidates during one-off interview lessons. *n.b. I am not discussing job descriptions or candidate specifications.

The problems

  • For a start, candidates do not know the students. In fact, they really do not know anything about them!
  • If data is provided prior to the lesson, this may give a picture, but the validity of the data should also be questioned. We instantly trust the source and apply this to the situation.
  • Teachers will have no experience of working in that classroom. The idiosyncrasies of the room. The dynamics. Push this to open that; lift this wire to make that work and so on. Teaching-distractions.
  • Creating seating plans without knowing the layout of the room itself.
  • Creating seating plans based on data, without knowing the character of each student.
  • Creating name badges to help the teacher learn names quicker so that instant relationships can be developed.
  • Offering a praise/sanction system without knowing the school procedures/policy.
  • Being shuffled into the classroom (with no preparation time) with students already in the room.
  • Being shuffled into the classroom without students in the room.
  • Progress is expected in a one-off lesson!
  • That ALL students should learn something new in that lesson.
  • 4 candidates teaching 4 different classes/ages/subjects. Equal opportunity?
  • 4 candidates teaching 15-20-minutes each to the same class in one *whole lesson.

The ugly truth

In my experience, I have taught lessons with all of the above. A 15-minute showcase in the school hall as the classroom was not yet refurbished. A one-hour lesson for a school (not yet built) in another school with their students! A lesson during a strike-day with a selected group of students invited on-site. Another lesson with the naughtiest students removed. And plenty of other lessons with students/classrooms just as you find them (and quite rightly so), day-to-day.

In all of these situations, I would ask if I have been teaching for performance? The answer: yes. Teaching for a one-off judgement/flavour/show-case of my ability to teach a good lesson to the panel. Whatever you want to call it, this is a performance.

I have proposed *a solution here already in my teacher-portfolio for all teachers. This proposal includes a bank of video-footage containing the best and worst samples/snippets that teachers can showcase for interview purposes – with their own students in their own schools! One example from me is here. (Click to watch it) Some of this footage could then be validated by appraisers and headteachers which would be recognition for the new school to use and trust. This portfolio could be made reliable with:

  • a video of lesson observation.
  • a record of ALL my appraisal targets.
  • my classroom data.
  • my CPD records over the past 3-5 years.
  • access to my references over time i.e. for each job application.
  • an honest ‘about me’ section that could contain a voxpop, a blog or twitter account that could validate who I am.
  • student, parent and colleague-comments.
  • photographs of displays and marking.

Recruitment Portfolio


What better way to showcase a teacher over time, rather than a one-off performance? Perhaps we could consider looking at teacher-footage to make an assessment on the interview day and not see the teacher in the classroom? When I was on #MyEdHunt through Scotland for senior leadership, not once was I asked to teach or observe a lesson. I once viewed this as bad practice, but on reflection, one may argue, that an assumption of the applicant could be made that ‘they are a good teacher’. That prior to an interview, the ‘good teacher’ validation was already made based on sources of information gathered.

What do you think is the best way forward for one-off observations at the interview? Perhaps a case of The Dunning–Kruger effect? And if you do agree with my sentiments, that this is the right way to proceed with one-off observations, how can you ensure your colleagues will also do the same when you are not observing an interview lesson?


18 thoughts on “Defunct? The Role Of Observations At Interview

  1. Totally agree that a lesson observation only gives part of the picture during a selection process – but I use them. However, I always watch the lesson at the candidates school (for student teachers, at their last school placement). This means I can look at relationships (pupils and other staff), work in books (the most important source of evidence, especially for progress) and how they have set up the class. No final judgement is made, but it feeds into discussions during interview. This process is very time consuming – especially when the candidate is currently teaching at the other end of the country. But it is worth it.

    1. Hi John. As you say, this will be time-consuming… but potentially is the ideal solution for the panel to go-see candidates in their own domain. Again, the need to triagulate sources of information – so as not to create an Osfted-sensation – prior to the visit/observation interview on canddiate territory, would be a useful solution for discussion at interview with the panel. I like very much.

  2. This year, I too have been observing potential candidates in their own setting rather than them coming to us. It really is so much more useful. You can look at their books and marking, classroom environment and the relationships they have with their own pupils. So far it has proved much more rewarding!

  3. A thought -provoking piece. Funnily enough when recently recruiting I dispensed with sample lessons for the first time ever, having come to the conclusion they were pretty pointless.

  4. Thanks for this, Ross.

    It’s interesting that when I started teaching in 1980, asking an interviewee to teach just wasn’t heard of. In fact, as I went through interviews for second in department, head of department and head of sixth form through the 1980s and 1990s it still wasn’t common practice and so I have never been asked to teach a lesson as part of the job selection process.

    By the time I became a deputy and then a head in 1995/2000 respectively, though, it was becoming common practice, and certainly during my 10 years of headship I never appointed a member of staff below deputy head level without taking into account how they fared teaching a group of pupils. It seemed to me to give a much better indication of how they might be in the classroom, which was what we were interested in, of course. Prior to this, interviews focussed on just TALKING about what you might do as a teacher. Adding the practical component seemed much more sensible.

    As you know, this was in an independent school, so we were never hung up on Ofsted and its lesson grading/descriptors. Where possible we asked candidates to teach parallel groups, or to teach the same group different things (so the pupils didn’t have to sit through the same lesson several times, which seemed unfair on them and unfair on candidates too). They were always observed by a subject specialist (usually the HoD, and if it was a HoD appointment then by a subject specialist senior leader from our school or another school). The same observer watched each candidate so they could comment on all of them. Each one had the same period of time, of course, and clear instructions about what was being asked of them. The observer would always elicit views from the learners after the session, too, and this would be taken into account in the observer’s feedback to the selection panel.

    I think the main things we were looking for was the building of relationships with the pupils, subject expertise and the capacity to adapt the teaching to the group as the lesson unfolded. At the start of the formal interview I would always ask, “How did you think the lesson went, and is there anything you would do differently if you were to teach the same lesson to the same group tomorrow?” which gave some indication of how reflective/self-aware they were. The lesson also gave them a taste of what teaching in our school might be like, which helped them decide whether the job was right for them, too.

    You have, of course, also got the candidates’ written applications, their performance in the panel interview, and their references, so how they perform in the observed lesson is only one part of the picture, but, I have to say, for me it was a really key part. I would have been very unlikely to appoint a teacher whose lesson was considered by the HoD/senior leader to be weak.

    What do you think?

    1. Hi Jill. I still think teachers SHOULD teach at interview. And as you say, it’s the dialogue that follows which is the most telling. I just fear that judgements will still be used in this context for a long time to come, and this will be detrimental to the process unless there is a collective consciousness to recognise that one-off lessons for interview, must be assessed with a different ‘hat on’.

  5. It’s a really interesting post Ross. Thanks for thinking aloud. I had been in the profession for 2o years before encountering the interview observation as an appointment feature! The ‘progress in 20 minutes’ dogma was the aspect which made the process so tricky. I definitely concur with the suggestion to clarify what expectations are and to make them reasonable for the circumstances. The digital career portfolio is an idea to ponder .. not sure what I think about that yet. The only point I would like to make is in relation to equalities. If there was an expectation of presenting a digital portfolio including footage of yourself teaching then that would be a real barrier to anyone returning to teaching after an absence .,,. eg illness, caring responsibilities etc. Peoples’ lives and careers often take unexpected paths these days and the interview process needs to reflect that.

    1. A valid point. The portfolio problem lies in the availability of the technology and the validity of the footage, but it is not impossible. PC webcams? IWB webcams? Skype interviews via classroom observation? An IRIS Connect solution via triangulated Skype calls with a panel-observer and a current school appraiser all tuned in.
      Perhaps an online cloud solution up archive footage and valid information via professional algorithms.

      1. Just a word of caution on the ‘digital portfolio’ idea. I’m mature enough to remember pupil Records of Achievement from the 1980s, and my memory is that this didn’t work because it was too time-consuming for potential employers – they couldn’t cope with that degree of detail when making decisions. Similarly with the idea about observing candidates teach in their own school, above. I have known that happen, but it isn’t common because of the time factor.

        Heads want to do appointments properly – they know how important it is to ‘get the right people in the right seats on the bus’ but the appointment process can take a significant amount of time (especially when you have a fair few, and there are other things happening in busy schools at the same time). It has to be manageable as well as meaningful. Anything that takes longer for the schools may founder at that hurdle, I think.

  6. speaking to teachers in a variety of other countries show this seems to happen almost exclusively in Britain – I have heard comments such as “but that would be utterly pointless”! I have been through many interviews in the last 3 years due to getting 1 year temporary contracts each year, and I feel that the interview lesson favours charismatic type teachers – who in my 12 year experience in a tough inner city school, are often not as good as the slow burners who grow on the kids over time, building solid, strong relationships with the students and sticking it out. This latter cohort tend to be more sensitive and self aware, which makes them better teachers, but also more prone to performance anxiety and therefore not giving a good account of themselves.

    1. This comment hits home as I feel I fit into the latter interview ‘type’ and am very anxious during the observed lesson. I have struggled to gain employment and am still an NQT after 3 years. Please rethink the format!

  7. I’m wondering if this is occurs more in certain countries or maybe regions of countries. I’m in the States, in Missouri to be precise and I have never in 16 yrs in education been asked to teach a lesson to students or provide a recording of teaching a lesson in my own class (this by far to me is preferable). Only once have I been asked to teach anything, in an interview last spring I was given the option of five every day activities and asked to on the spot teach the interview committee how to do that task. I debated between teaching to tie a shoe or throw a ball and chose throw a ball, I felt totally uneasy, on the spot, and just lost. I could see if they asked me to pick a topic and step outside for 5-10 min to prepare a plan and then teach it, I still wouldn’t have felt comfortable but it would have been better than what I experienced.

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