Observe to learn

There is so much to be learned when watching a teacher at work

There is so much to be learned when watching a teacher at work

I believe it to be a great privilege to spend time in a classroom watching a good teacher at work. When in this situation I often find myself thinking about the approaches that the particular teacher being observed is using, sometimes commenting to myself that “I wouldn’t have done it like that,” or “I wish I had thought about doing things that way.” I suspect that as teachers we all tend to be critical of the performances of our peers, but hopefully our critical reflections are for the most part positive and as much focused upon ourselves as on those we observe.

So it was that today I spent time in two separate classes observing a couple of student teachers working with primary school aged students, all of whom had been assessed as having a range of special educational needs. In such situations I always feel that it is important to put the student at ease, a friendly smile and cheery hello can only go so far towards relieving the inevitable tensions felt, but not to give either would be churlish.

After watching each lesson it was a pleasure to discuss what had been observed and to listen to these excellent young colleagues as they talked with great enthusiasm about what they had learned during their brief placement in the school. Both articulated their experiences in a thoughtful manner, describing their many successes with the students, and asking questions about the few difficulties they have experienced along the way. Getting to grips with new forms of assessment, the use of augmentative systems of communication and school approaches to behaviour management had clearly presented a challenge. But these two tyros were clearly equal to the task and saw each new experience as an opportunity to learn.

Teachers in English schools have become accustomed to being observed as they work. Sometimes this is characterised by the creation of a supportive environment in which peers with a genuine commitment to their own professional development share ideas and reflect in a positive manner upon the performance of a colleague. At other times the experience lacks the supportive conditions that we as teachers claim to value so much in education; as for example when a school inspection is in place and teachers are scored rather like performing skaters on an icy rink.

I was once told by an inspector colleague, a good man and experienced educator, that teachers can learn much by being observed. I remember my repost was along the lines that it is equally important that we as observers, are prepared to learn from what we see. Furthermore, I suggested, the real value of the observation is only to be achieved when we engage in a professional dialogue with the observed teacher, and make the effort to understand the reasoning behind their actions, and the context in which we operate. Observations that are simplistically used to make judgements and do not form the basis of professional dialogue have little real value in education.

Each observation this morning lasted about forty minutes and was certainly an informative and enjoyable experience. The real learning, both from my perspective as the observer, and hopefully for the young student teachers, took place in the half hour discussions that we shared when the lessons were over.

As ever, my morning visit to school was an uplifting experience. Seeing children enjoying activities under the guidance of committed professionals in an atmosphere conducive to encouraging learning, ensured that my working day got off to a good start. So thank you to the two young teachers for the privilege of seeing you at work, and to the school which afforded hospitality to myself and continues to inspire both new teachers and students.


P.S. To my literary friends, I wish you a belated happy Bloomsday! If it seemed like a long day, reflect upon Joyce’s interpretation of the working week:-

“All Moanday, Tearsday, Wailsday, Thumpsday, Frightday and Shatterday” (Finnegan’s Wake)

If yours was really that bad, I suggest you go into your local school and (after gaining consent) watch a teacher at work – hopefully this will brighten your day!

You can’t expect to win them all!

Fortunately the vast majority of my audience did not look like this!

Fortunately the vast majority of my audience did not look like this!

There is a well-known expression sometimes used here in the UK that says “you can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink!” This came to mind yesterday morning during a session I was teaching to a mixed group of about 140 teachers and teaching assistants. These colleagues all work at a school about forty miles from the university. Yesterday they came for a “professional development day,”part of a longer course at which I was asked to deliver the first session on professional reflection and using classroom observation to understand classrooms. The topic seemed interesting enough to me, and indeed at the end of the session several of the audience approached me to say that they had enjoyed the experience, and looked forward to future work on their course.

It was the first day of a new school term, and I can imagine that many of these professionals were returning to work after a fortnight of Christmas and New Year festivities, a surfeit of good food and wine, and maybe an excess of scarce seen relatives. Inevitably it was going to take a little time for everyone to get back into working mode, so in preparing the session I had included a number of practical activities, and a short piece of video, surely enough to maintain attention and provoke some lively discussion. Happily, this proved to be a winning formula with the vast majority of the group, but…

I am quite sure that many of my colleagues will recognise the situation. As I gazed upon the massed ranks of teachers and teaching assistants before me, the majority nodded their agreement with various comments made, smiled or in a few instances even laughed at my jokes and participated with enthusiasm in the pre-planned activities, but…

I was not altogether surprised to see, inevitably sat towards the back of the auditorium, arms folded, a dark scowl of total disdain on their faces, a couple of male teachers whose expressions shouted – COME ALONG THEN ENTERTAIN US! This challenge would have probably been beyond the capabilities of the most talented of performers. Charlie Chaplin, Amithabh Bachchan, Dolly Parton, Frank Sinatra, all would have likely failed to move these recalcitrant grey faced pressed men.

I love teaching and fortunately, most of the students I work with enjoy learning. However, I have become accustomed to this type of situation over the years. I once had a teacher open a broadsheet newspaper in front of me whilst I was teaching in an attempt to interrupt my flow, and in order to make the point that he was in my company only under sufferance. I have to say that these days, so long as most seem to be enjoying the session and willing to learn, I tend to smile and draw sustenance from the majority. I often seek these dissenters out during break times and emphasise how much I enjoy having them in the group – a tactic that meets with varying responses! Perhaps in my younger days I might have worried about this kind of situation, but today I tend to feel sorry for the suffering of those who are unable, or unwilling to engage and whose sole occupation appears to be watching the slow movement of the hands on their watches.

There is of course a more important point to be made here. Those individuals who were unwilling to engage yesterday, either with myself or their school colleagues, were clearly in attendance under some pressure. Their learning needs had been identified for them and they possibly had difficulties seeing the potential benefits to be gained from a day as learners rather than teachers. Understandably, the head teacher of the school is making efforts to unify her staff through professional development that will enable them to work together efficiently and with a well co-ordinated response to the challenges of working in school. Ninety per cent of the staff are with her, but a few remain to be convinced and choose to make a point through demonstrating their non-cooperation.

The majority of teachers and teaching assistants I met during the morning exhibited a keen professionalism and were looking forward to further sessions with my colleagues throughout the day. They have an immense commitment to their own professional development, and whilst some of them would not necessarily have identified the same priorities as the head teacher, they recognised that working together is a vital aspect of being a professional teacher.

In one respect this situation is sad for the few who do not wish to participate. The majority of these school colleagues were eager to learn and keen to work together as a team in order to better address the needs of their pupils. I’m quite sure that whilst they will have enjoyed their day, the odd couple will have returned home just as miserable as when they arrived. For all I know, they may be outstanding teachers once they return to their classrooms, for the sake of their pupils I hope that this is the case. I sincerely wish, for their sake that the pupils with whom they were working today as they returned to their classrooms, were enthusiastic participants in their lessons. After all, we would not wish too many learners to go home with long faces at the end of the day.

Fortunately the majority of horses (no insult intended here) drank well!