commentary reflection Tyson Seburn  

Observations are opportunities

I’m always a little surprised when teachers remark that they get nervous when being observed, be it by a director, peer or teacher trainee. It’s likely because I welcome it. I think of it more as a collaboration between them and me than an evaluation. I think of myself as being constantly observed, by students. I believe I know what I’m doing even if what I planned doesn’t quite work out as I’d planned. I believe it’s all good. This doesn’t seem to be a shared opinion though.

I’m well aware that in some situations, the observer makes it known that they are there to evaluate the teacher, that they are being judged, be it for more/fewer classes, more/equal pay or like the observer is the all-knowing, all-powerful expert. For those in this situation, I apologise on behalf of all observers.

Observation of your classes should be an opportunity to learn from one another. When I take the back seat in someone’s class, I often consider how I’d approach the particular lesson differently if it were me or how I could adapt what they’ve done to my own teaching. Observation should help raise awareness about the strengths and weaknesses of that particular lesson. It should be a tool to facilitate give and take feedback.

One thing I rarely hear though is that the observer has also asked for feedback from the teacher. After having spent a summer of program coordination and now going into the fall as both teacher and coordinator, I always want to give my colleagues (I say “colleague” because though I may have a different role half the time, I don’t want to think of myself as higher) a chance to give feedback.

I’d like to design a pre & post observation questionnaire for teachers.  To inform this questionnaire, I’d like to ask you:

1) How do you feel about being observed?
2) How could the observer help you feel more at ease about the observation?
3) What would you like to give feedback about to the observer?

For a little further reading into others’ thoughts on observation:

Tony Gurr (2012) – Classroom Observation 2 (2012)
Cecilia Lemos (2012) – The worst class I have ever taught…so what? (2012)
Han-Min Tsai (2008) – Improving an EFL class: starting from classroom observations (2008)
Peter Sheal (1989) – Classroom observation: training the observers
Qun Wang & Nicole Seth (1998) –  Self-development through classroom observation: changing perceptions in China
Ava Fruin (2012) – Observer’s paradox 

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20 thoughts on “Observations are opportunities

  1. lisamnoble

    I’m right with you on this one. Because I started teaching in an age when it seemed like someone was always drifting into my room to observe, it’s never really bothered me, and now, as co-plan, co-teach, co-debrief is finally starting to happen, I especially welcome it. I can’t see what I’m doing as clearly as someone else can, so observers can help me realize what I’m doing well, and what needs to be improved. Where am I physically in the room? Do I need to move more? How well am I using my resources? What am I missing in my students body language/response/etc. I would love the observer to talk to my students at appropriate times in the lesson (not interrupting the flow, obviously), and to make sure to circulate throughout the room, so they can see what we’re working on. Don’t just park yourself in one spot with a clipboard, and make it obvious that there’s a checklist to be completed. The observer, ideally, should come out with a good sense of how the classroom works.

    I also want lots of feedback, please.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      I like your attitude, Lisa. 🙂 Along the same lines as seeing things you can’t see yourself, I used to make a chart as I observed with the start and finish times of different things that occurred in the class (teacher presenting, activity length, Q&A, etc) that allowed teachers to really see how long they spent doing one thing or another. Sometimes it was very eye-opening, because not always do we notice how long or how little time we spend on various parts of the classroom procedure.

  2. Cecilia Lemos

    Funny you should write a post about observation this weekend, Ty. Last Saturday I observed a class of a colleague – part of our peer observations. I chose her because I have recently started teaching adult beginners again, and she has quite a lot of experience with such students. It turned out to be an even better choice than I thought. She is great at giving instructions, even at the first level. She combines a variety of techniques, all very naturally (giving instructions is a personal weak spot for me). And I hope I was able to give her some good feedback as well. As you, I like thinking how I would approach things differently – and my feedback reflects that. I like asking questions about how she/he did this or that in that way, or used that object, or didn’t write on the board. Sometimes something we feel is wrong may have a reason for being.

    In response to your questions:

    1) I really like being observed. It’s a chance for a fresh pair of eyes to (hopefully) question why I do (or don’t do) things in a certain way. But I enjoy being observed today, because I don’t feel threatened – or that my job is on the line. I have worked at schools where that is what observations were for and I dreaded them.

    2) Meeting before the observation and asking me if there was anything in particular I want him / her to observe. Having the chance to tell the observer a little about the group, so he/she has a bit more context.

    3) I think giving feedback about the observer can be a positive thing too. Not sure what could be included in that… maybe whether the observer’s presence changed the students’ behavior much? If the observer’s feedback was helpful?

    Thanks for mentioning my post, btw 🙂

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Personally, I like the idea of just visiting my colleagues’ classes and vice versa. I think we can all learn a lot and get ideas for ourselves just by seeing how another teacher approaches material. It’s almost like a mirror in some ways.

  3. Adir Ferreira

    I used to teach at this school here in Bebedouro, back in 2002, 2003. The principal and coordinator went to SP to take the CELTA course and we had no idea about it. They came back full of ideas on how to make classes better and I thought, “That’s fantastic!”. I had been teaching for over ten years at the time and as they say, “old habits die hard”. The principal approach was not very efficient because he didn’t explain it to us why we were being observed and feedback sessions were more of a “threat”. He said, “We are going to change, and that’s that.”. Mind you, I’ve always been “pau pra toda obra” and I think I deserved a little more clarification before this process started. It traumatized me so much that I resigned, I felt worthless, like I hadn’t done a good job for years, everything I had done was wrong. Well, I started teaching private classes and one school invited me to teach there. The atmosphere was so different, the library was full of great books for teachers and that was the first time I heard about Braz-TESOL. Nowadays I train teachers in several areas and I see observation with a whole new set of “eyes”. Feedback is of utmost importance and has to be given with respect and be straightforward.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Man, Adir! That sounds terrible and I’m sorry that it happened that way. Probably the coordinators had good intentions by certainly didn’t execute it in an effective way. It’s always tricky when you get ideas from others and then want to implement them in classes that aren’t yours. There’s a way to do it that inspires and empowers others and then there’s the way they did it to you.

  4. Sophia

    1) A bit anxious. Can’t help it, but hopefully it doesn’t show to sts.
    2) Emphasize that it is FREE PD, developmental, and work with me to establish what I want to focus on/how
    3) How useful their set up was (goal setting pre-obs), how useful their feedback was (clear, specific, feeding into future practice), manner (constructive, cooperative, non-patronizing)
    Good idea for a project, let us know how the final version looks!

    1. Tyson Seburn

      I love your #2, Sophie. Observation and feedback IS free PD. I do agree it’s vital to set up with the person you’re observing what the purpose is and what the teacher should expect.

  5. mikako

    1 ). I am a learning teacher from Japan therefore I need to be observed regularly. Being observed will help me to have stronger motivation and improve my class in order to become more interesting and more useful for students if the observers give me some good feedback. The things I and the observer are thinking about may be different. At the same time, I would feel stress and pressure because I would be afraid of making more mistakes than I would usually, and if students don’t pay attention to me, I would feel embarrassed. It would be difficult for me to concentrate on teaching and paying attention to my students without thinking about the observers’ opinion or what may be going on in their mind.

    2 ). The observer and the teacher who is being observed I should meet before the class and discuss the observation. They should share the lesson plan and make sure about things that both of them want to be observed.

    3 ). Observers are also teachers and can take an active part in the class. They are members of the class. It means they might affect students’ motivation or behavior. This situation could be good or could be bad for students and their teacher. On one hand, their presence can boost students’ motivation. On the other hand, they have to be careful about not interrupting the class.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Hi Mikako,
      Thanks for your perspective. 🙂 I can definitely understand the stress and pressure you may feel when observed since you are just getting started at teaching. There’s always an uncertainty at this point in your career, which is very normal. I’d keep in mind though that it’s ok if everything doesn’t go swimmingly even when observed. It’s more telling how you react to those situations and what you do as a result. The observer, if good, will be less critical and more helpful in how to deal with challenging classroom situations.

      As for your suggestion in #3 for the observer to be involved in the class, I’m not so inclined to agree. For me, if I get involved in the activities, it creates actually an even more unnatural dynamic for the class and defeats the purpose of the observation. If I am participating in activities with the students, I cannot really get a feel for how the class occurs without my participation–something that will happen on a daily basis when I’m not there. I’d rather the class aim for normalcy and not a special event.

  6. Svetlana

    1. I have been teaching ESL in Canada and abroad for over 8 years now. Over the years of teaching and learning how to teach (and I hope I will never stop to), I’ve been observed for one million times, and guess what, I am still very nervous about it. I feel a lot of pressure when someone’s sitting and evaluating my teaching (especially when this someone is scribbling down everything I do.) It doesn’t have anything to do with my teaching skills; I think that I’ve been like this all my life. With time and experience I learned to cope with my anxiety. Now, when I’m observing teacher-students myself, I try to teach them to be observed and cultivate confidence in them. I still believe in the effectiveness of the unobtrusive monitoring. I don’t want any of them to agonize while being observed and then not been able to remember anything when the lesson is over (did it happen to anybody before?). I remember one of my mentors in the early days of my teaching experience, sitting in the corner of the room, every time I did something suspicious or silly from the teaching point of view, she would raise her eyes on me and then look down and write something in her notebook. Every time she did this I completely forgot what I was supposed to be doing next. I’m very happy; I’m so over it now.

    2. When I asked these three questions in class today, one of my dear students said that both the teacher and the observer should be clear about the purpose of the evaluation. I couldn’t agree more. It will definitely make it easier if both of them are on the same page.

    3. Talking about advice I would give the observers: DISAPPEAR! I am so very thankful to a Cambridge professor who I was honoured to be observed by during my CELTA TPs. The difference between him and all other observers in my teaching practice is that he dissolved in the class and I would completely forget about his presence. I believe it’s a mastery skill indeed. Now with my new trainees I’m trying to follow his steps and learn to be the most effective while unobtrusive. I’m observing aspiring teachers and every time they start their presentations I am very nervous. I so very much want them to do very well, succeed and show the best they can.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Hi Svetlana – I’m sure there are many people like you that just get anxious no matter how much experience they have with observation and like you, I hope they learn to cope. One purpose I wrote this is to not only encourage teachers, but also those observing not to do so with suspicion or in ways that intentionally make the teacher uncomfortable. That’s just wrong and not useful for anything but feeding into that observer’s need for power. The one part of this anxiety I always wonder though is that everyday we are in class, we are being observed. Our students are always assessing what we say, challenging us (often usefully) and scribbling down what we say. I always look at it from this perspective too and I have grown the ability to just pretend the observer isn’t there. Besides, the point is to see my classes as though they weren’t there and that’s exactly how I proceed.

      As I mentioned to Hyeyoung & Mikako, I’d hope the purpose for the observation is always to cultivate an environment of supportive feedback and learning among colleagues. That’s what should be communicated in my opinion. Your students who told you this are wise!

  7. haeundaelife

    Hi Tyson!

    I would echo the sentiments about observation above. I am a young teacher in Korea (little less than 2 years) and I very much look for feedback from anyone and everyone, students and teachers alike. I teach with a co-teacher and am always trying to illicit thoughts and opinions from them, although because of their culture that can be a bit of a process. This being the case I do not much care whether I teach alone, with a co-teacher in the room, or with a series of people floating in and out (so long as they are not distracting about it). However, I also have seen the dark side of observation. Some teachers are so concerned about their observed class that I have seen them conduct a lesson with a class twice; the day before an observation, so that the class will know exactly how to react, and the following day when observers are in the room. Kind of defeats the purpose right?


    1) As I have mentioned, I’ve no problem with it, but know many many teachers who despise it.

    2) Observation CAN be super useful if proper pre-observation discussion takes place. If the observer makes known that the observation is meant to assist in collaboration and that the teacher can be most helped by treating the class just as they would any other.

    3) As a teacher I would like to hear what the observer thinks, but also be given the opportunity to express my thoughts about what I did in class. Then, I would like to have a constructive discussion about the positive and negative elements that we now, both, hopefully recognize.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      I can hardly believe that the students who attend the same lesson twice don’t complain about it. I wonder if the teacher tells them the reason and they just empathise and take it at face value, a sort of ‘for-the-teacher’ attitude. I have to tell you, I’ve been in your exact shoes though – I too was once a young teacher in Korea and taught with co-teachers who were Korean, but the difference was that often that Korean teacher and I did not collaborate so much.

      Regarding your #2, it’s echoed several times in other comments. I think this is obvious, but -obviously- it’s not to a lot of the observers many have encountered. I’d suggest that should always be the reason for observation, and therefore be a given. No?

      1. haeundaelife

        It is a surprise that it does not seem to be done. And as much as I try there still is not much collaboration. 🙁

        No idea how the kids handle it, but I know I would see right through it, even at their age!

        1. Tyson Seburn

          Ahh, we’re talking children here? They’re more likely not to voice any dissent, or be “forgiving”, shall we say. As for the Korean co-teachers I had, there were varying degrees of proficiency on their parts, which in the end, was largely fear of speaking to me.

  8. Brad Patterson

    Great post, Ty.

    1) I like being observed when I’m comfortable in the classroom (know the students fairly well and the material). Otherwise, it can be a bit stressful as I, like many, feel I have to do “perfectly” all the time…. #virgo

    2) I think it’d be great to have a pre-post talk and even if they asked me what kind of things they could help me improve upon.

    3) Hmm… stumped on that one. It depends on what kind of feedback they give me. If it’s helpful and well-delivered I think I’d thank them for that and encourage that kind of feedback for teachers in the future. If it’s somewhat colder and critical… I might question it carefully with them 😉

    Cheers, b

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Hey Brad – I think you bring up a very valid point in #1 – the appropriate time to be observed. On one hand, I see that waiting a while until you are familiar with your students and the material (though if taught long enough, I’d venture to say that any material really is ‘familiar’ already) because then you are most likely to demonstrate the most comfortable atmosphere in front of the observer. On the other hand, all points in the duration of a class period are worth having feedback about too. It’s not just the middle that is the representation of how you teach a class or handle certain situations. Perhaps it’s useful to have discussion with others about how you approach the first few or the last few class too?

  9. Tyson Seburn

    Hi Hyeyoung,

    I would hope that the purpose of the observation is always communicated to the teacher as not evaluative so much as an opportunity to help teachers (and especially trainees) see things they can’t see when involved in the lesson themselves. It is an opportunity for collaborative feedback between the teacher and observer, one that encourages the teacher, not penalises. So, I think your #3 answer is right on the spot!

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