Observations: Be Careful What You Wish For

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Observations Teaching Abroad

A Teacher

I'm a teacher and sometimes I'm a combination of more than one voice. I'm sharing the things that are going on in our schools - things that need to be talked about and brought to your attention via anonymity - meaning I'm safe from attribution...
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What kind of teacher do you want to be, and how would you like to support others?

This anonymous school leader shares why he left teaching in England one year ago to work overseas…

Pride or embarrassment?

As teachers, we all feel observations can be a burden, but be careful what you wish for! In a high stake, high accountability, performance-related pay system of education within the UK, evidence gathering in 20-minute slots is paramount. It’s a system I know only too well, having been the dreaded school leader for teaching and learning for a large ‘then failing’ secondary school in a deprived area on the East coast of England. Tasked with a mission of moving the school from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ in two rapid years, undertaking 100s of lesson observations, I look back on the successes and failings of the system I once prided myself on delivering.

Why would you do that?

After 15 years of teaching in the UK, I made the decision to move abroad and teach in Thailand at a recognised international school. This could not be professionally further away from the school I left behind in the UK. In my first year of international teaching, my first observation, and what was to be my only lesson observation of the year, the assistant principal came in and sat at the back of the classroom. There was nothing different from the norm, but they did spend 15 minutes or so, sitting back, not writing a single word on paper. They simply observed me and the pupils. In that time, they never spoke to a pupil, looked at the pupils’ books or asked for any data. In the post-lesson meeting, I asked if they had looked at my pupils’ data. They were stunned: ‘Why would I do that’?

The ‘progress over time’ fallacy

Once I had the opportunity to speak with other more experienced international teachers on the circuit, they conveyed the message of observations not being the same as those in England. Many of my co-workers share the same stories of being ex-teachers in the UK, overworked and tired of poor behaviour and the constant changes of the British education system. The overriding message was that it was not out of the ordinary for observations to not look at progress over time or be based upon any hard evidence.

For an educational organisation in Thailand, especially from a school that some teachers will know and one that UK state schools (should) look up to, to have little or no accountability structure and only observe teachers once per academic year, I was surprised.

I don’t want to go back…

Looking for interventions and closing the attainment gap is a constant battle for teachers, leaders and schools around the UK. The rigour of observations is also one that brings about constant professional reflection, which is why over the last two decades, lesson observation has a long-standing tradition in most schools in England. It has emerged as an important tool in measuring and improving professional practice in schools and colleges and has been increasingly associated with the performance management system in England. For the record, I don’t want to go back to relying on simplified rating scales to grade teacher competence and performance – in the UK or in an international school.

As teachers, we all want to feel trusted to do our job, after all, we’re all adults, yet the one thing for many of us is that we are not treated as qualified professionals – even by the people working in our own profession!

In an ever-changing education system, observations and observers can make teaching feel less of a lonely place, to bring about a real positive change in classrooms for the benefit of the students we teach, and the colleagues that we are supporting. Observations should be about bringing about teacher motivation and a sense of being valued. Yet, despite the research on the validity of grading teachers, some schools choose to grade their teachers, with some school leaders peddling myths in order to hold colleagues to account, even though the observation models they are using are designed to drive standards of teaching and learning (despite many external influences out of our control). This is not to say that we shouldn’t aim high, or at least conduct more frequent observations of one another, but what we can all do, is choose to conduct lesson observations in a more responsible and ethical way.

We need more professional dialogue

To improve as a practitioner, a teacher need someone to unlock their potential, triangulating evidence from classroom practice, student exercise books and of course, pupils attainment data. To be truly excellent teachers, we surely need more observation and coaching taking place in all of our schools to be the best we can be. To be even better collectively, we all need to do it. If I could offer one piece of advice for teachers and school leaders: One, choose a school in which you will be supported and two, make sure that you use observations to develop and monitor improvement, rather than just monitor for accountability purposes. We may just stop thousands of teachers leaving an education system I once loved.

No teacher gets better with countless checklists. Teachers become better with regular, professional conversations.


3 thoughts on “Observations: Be Careful What You Wish For

  1. Hi,
    This piece is inspiring and I will try to remember the closing ‘ideal’ quote.

    Barriers for me are the blankets that SLT smother us and robotic approaches that efficiency demands. Working to data = a synthetic, analogue response. Where’s creativity and personality within schools? It’s not there because there’s no time. Where’s the quality mentoring it’s not there because there’s no time. Where’s the team relationships to create the conversations? There’s no time because time is being spent on recording insignificant data. Ok, short term, coercive strategies create quick improvements to headline figures but short term gains are not signs of better learning. Even worse, when the head is still slamming heavy intervention 6 years later you’ve got gains but they’re not a reflection of better understanding. In my view the future is in the retention of staff picked correctly in the first place and nurtured to stay for at least 5-10 years creating a school personality and bond that’s strong enough to be passed to the next. These analogue, data driven schools have weak souls and are missing the love of exploration. Ask people industry what 18-25 year olds have to offer…… it’s not love of the work, it’s a complicated mess of confused children….. ok, I can’t quantify that…. I haven’t got the time!

  2. Hi, please dismiss my previous rant. Apologies, I realise this is not at all a platform to have a good moan.
    Merry Christmas

  3. As long as observations don’t feel like a “gotcha”. In the United States they can be a dog and pony show, only have someone point out all the ways you aren’t good at what you do.

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