NQT Special Edition: Handling lesson observations

Written by: Allen Hall | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Lesson drop-ins and observations are commonplace for new teachers. School leader Allen Hall advises on how you can handle these to ensure they support your professional development

A teacher’s job is unique in that it brings great stress yet reward and humour (although the humour found in the classroom is more likely to be appreciated on reflection as opposed to during the moment). As any teacher will confess, this is magnified enormously during your NQT year.

The first few weeks as a new teacher can be overwhelming but exciting. However, once the shine of the new school year has slightly dulled and the dark days of autumn take root term one can be tough.

There is a quick realisation that work/life balance does not exist as everything blurs into a mirage of meetings, trainings, assessments and lesson observations. Nothing appears to go to plan and the unexpected also seems to show its face at the worst possible time.

The initial experience of failure or the perception of failure can sit deep and heavy as a dull pain in the pit of your stomach. It clouds your judgement and tarnishes the perfection you seek. But before you register with a recruitment agency, I can assure that such experiences are merely the foundation building for a long and successful career.

I cannot say that my NQT started in the best possible way. I was timetabled between two departments and my classroom was not in the safe comforts of the main building surrounded by colleagues but outside in a pod of mobile units. There was a no bell system and timing was not one of my strengths and I found behaviour support difficult being separated from the main building.

I’ll start with the strangest but not most memorable of my classroom fails. The class was a top set but they were my most difficult. Behaviour was erratic and challenging and they quickly became my highest detention issued class. I can’t say it was all bad as there was a strong core of great students who just wanted to learn. However, the stars aligned and this class were chosen for an NQT lesson observation by one of my subject leaders. The words “nervous” and “terrified” were understatements. It felt as though my entire career hinged on ensuring that I could make progress with the majority of the group in 60 minutes without anything crazy happening. The day came, and then the lesson and it started surprisingly smoothly.

The first part of the lesson was fantastic. There was a good interaction among the pupils, my toughest boys were participating and class discussion was provoking and challenging. It was pleasing to see how the pupils respected the situation and it demonstrated a year of hard work setting a positive classroom culture.

In the mist of my eternal sunshine a noise from the middle of the class roared out piercing the tranquil learning environment. At first I thought it was merely a figment of my imagination until it roared again this time bringing the cascading laughter of hyenas.

I shuddered as reality began to creep in that my “notorious pupil” had reared her head. She was now standing up with her arms tucked up imitating a velociraptor. My career began to crumble under each of her steps as she moved stealthily around the classroom and then stood firmly in front of my subject leader.

This was a moment of truth. Will my dinosaur pupil respond compliantly to my boss and return to her seat or will she continue to roam about her new domain? The stand-off lasted for a few seconds before the mighty raptor roared loudly and scurried under a desk. The next 10 minutes were surreal as senior leaders poured into my classroom to end my nightmare. My dinosaur did not go quietly or easily but she soon was removed. I can’t say normality reasserted itself but I was able to complete the end of the lesson with something approaching success.

As the pupils were dismissed I watched them leave one by one thinking that this was the end. My subject leader sat me down and said little. There was no mention of our prehistoric friend or the ensuing armada of school support. The feedback was constructive and there were many positives that reminded me that teaching is difficult.

Too many times lesson observations bring anxiety, stress and an unnecessary worry. I know that this can be a result of school culture, which is why school leaders need to ensure that observations are not seen as a grade of teachers’ capability but as a tool to support the development of teachers. This is why I have moved my school away from individual lesson grading and shifted the objective of observations to challenge and support with a focus on developing positive classroom habits.

Athletes watch video play-backs intently to study their form, composure and execution of a skill and to evaluate their performance. It is a formative exercise that helps them identify key areas for improvement to develop in practice and execute in the next game.

For me, lesson observations are similar. It may be a colleague, line manager or a video system but the outcome is the same – the observation experience can help shape our classroom practice and improve teaching.

Therefore, instead of dreading the word observation, DARE to see it as development tool.

  1. Deliberate practice.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Reflect.
  4. Expect feedback.

Deliberate practice

Have a clear focus for your lesson observation – presumably on a habit or strategy that you have been working on. Teaching is busy but setting a clear focus will help you refine individual development goals. For instance, you have been practising engaging all learners with questioning. Your observation gives you chances to show it and receive feedback on its implementation and the impact it has on pupil learning in the lesson.

Ask questions

Sometimes observations can feel one way. Usually it’s the observer feeding back and the observed nodding while thinking “what the heck, am I really this bad!”. But the process should be a two-way model of communication. You may want to know more about how certain groups responded to instructions or you may be struggling to understand the feedback. This is not about being confrontational with the observer, but about ensuring that you maximise the learning opportunities.

Reflect

Whether the observer feedback was supportive, constructive or critical, find some space to reflect on it. Thinking about the impact your planning and teaching has on pupil learning is important. What were the successes and why? What are your development points and why? And what changes to your planning need to take place next lesson and why? Even better to talk through these questions with a colleague or subject mentor.

Expect feedback

Expect feedback and ask for it. To improve, good constructive feedback is needed that drills down to the core of your teaching. In basketball, feedback is regular and incisive with a clear focus on one area to improve in practice. The same should be expected in the classroom. Feedback can be a gift that is not always pleasant but can have a positive impact on your teaching.

Conclusion

I highly recommend viewing lesson observation as an opportunity to grow and develop as a teacher. Some of your lessons will be great, a few may feel like failures. But by adopting a fixed mindset you ignore the importance of deliberate practice, asking questions, reflection and feedback. I firmly believe that my dinosaur observation disaster and the many other moments of what seemed like failure have helped and enriched me as a teacher and a leader.

Master Yoda once said “the greatest teacher, failure is”. I would have to agree. Stay positive and keep learning as each moment makes the next brighter. 

  • Allen Hall is vice-principal for curriculum and assessment at Waterhead Academy as part of the South Pennine Academies in North West England. He comes from Kentucky in America and has been teaching in the UK for 11 years. He blogs at www.allenhalledu.com and tweets @ahalledu

NQT Special Edition

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NQT Special Edition. The publication offered eight pages of specialist best practice advice for NQTs and trainee teachers across the UK. Supported by the NASUWT the special edition published on June 28, 2018, and the eight pages are available to download as a free pdf from SecEd’s Supplements page: www.sec-ed.co.uk/supplements


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