Observations…A Necessary Evil?

By Andrew Matthews

I was talking to a colleague regarding our upcoming observations for contract renewals the other day. We were both dreading the process despite our experience teaching over many years and having done many observations already. It is normally just before an observation that I start to question the whole process. Why do we do them? Are they effective? Do they improve teachers and teaching? Is there a better way? Or should we just accept them and get on with it?

Darth Vader is watching you, by Stéfan. Click photo for source. Shared under Creative Commons license.

What’s the point, and what’s the problem?

Observations are there to ensure that students receive a good education – that’s it really, or at least that should be it. They are used to hire competent teachers, and they are used to help teachers develop, but do they work?

Formal observations are normally carried out before a teaching job is offered or renewed. These are high stakes and high stress, so naturally teachers choose a lesson that they think will look good to the observer, something they can control, and something that the students will be cooperative with. This would, bar nerves, ensure a good outcome for the teacher, if not for the students. These formal observations are teacher centered. The teacher knows it, the students know it, and the observer knows it. So straight away the observed lesson is completely unnatural. The dynamics of the normal classroom are not there; everyone behaves differently. So is this a good way to ensure a good teacher is hired, or are we just putting on a show? Competent teachers should be able to put on a good show, so no problem there, unless they are crippled by nerves. A poor teacher similarly, may well be able to make an observed lesson look good. What we must remember here is that an observed lesson is not teaching, it’s pantomime. It’s a demonstration for the observer, not a lesson for the students. So arguably, a formal lesson observation may have little bearing on the quality of education a student may receive during a normal class.

There is another type of observation that is common in institutions, the peer observation. The supposedly stress free, warm and fuzzy, we’re-all-just-here-to-help-and-get-along-and-improve type of observation. These are in vogue in some places as a way to demonstrate ongoing professional development, and to help teachers improve, but do even these types of observations achieve their goals? An observed lesson is an observed lesson – formal or peer driven. They are staged, acted, performed, controlled and often dreaded. How can this be an environment for improvement? We are told that after the lesson we can reflect on our performance and make changes, but this is rarely practiced. When its over, we often forget about it. Or, we didn’t agree with the feedback, or we were so nervous we couldn’t actually remember the point of the critique being made. I think that expecting teachers to learn and improve their techniques and plans whilst in a stressful, staged environment is unlikely, but improvement is what we are aiming for.

There must be some kind of repeatable process to ensure quality education, and if it’s not formal observations, what are some alternatives?

Formal Observation for New Hires

Some people liken the teaching profession to a performance, so could we learn from the arts to improve our recruitment processes? Artists are often hired based on an audition, so there is some similarity here. But performers and artists are also required to present their portfolio of work in some way in order to secure a new role. Should teachers be encouraged to keep a portfolio of their work in order to get that next job? In fact we do this already to some extent with our CVs, but could a more structured, formal portfolio be created for our profession: videos, lesson plans, material developed, extra training attended, etc.?

Maybe we just need to do very thorough reference checking and offer a 3 month probationary period to new teachers, which is often the case now with teachers being hired from all over the world. But, we still have that pesky observation at the end of probation, the performance that nobody wants. Again, maybe cameras during probation would give a much clearer idea on how a teacher is performing every lesson.

The All-Seeing Eyes by Caneles. Click photo for source. Shared under Creative Commons license.

Formal Observation for Contract Renewal

Webcams or CCTV have become cheap and easy to install. These would allow management to ‘sample’ teachers’ effectiveness in a real class over a long period. They would also give the benefit of having a record of anything inappropriate happening during a class, both from the students and teachers. They would guard against false accusations, and would send a message that every lesson is important, not just one a year. Sure there would be concerns about the use of cameras, Big Brother coming to a school near you, etc., but as a more reliable method of assessing teachers I think they have merit.

Can we get any ideas from other professions? Doctors can be assessed on their results and their patient feedback; they don’t have to do an observed operation every year. Can teachers be offered the same? Our students do exams and get results, they all do end of course surveys about the course and teacher. Are we not able to utilize these instead? Often the answer is that both are too unreliable. Exam results are based on many factors, and students surveys are often popularity contests, not balanced assessment of a teacher’s performance.

Developmental Observations

There are far more effective ways for teachers to improve than through observed classes. My first Director of Studies (DoS) was a very experienced teacher who regularly hired new teachers fresh off their CELTA. He asked me on my first day whether I would like a formal observation every 6 months or whether I would allow him to drop into my class anytime, without appointment or warning. He gave me a few days to think about it and decide. I had only just met him, and I was a new teacher and very unsure. I spoke with a few colleagues, all of whom had different opinions and most had gone for the formal observations twice a year. I decided to take a chance on the ‘drop in’ approach, and I am so glad I did.

My DoS did just as he said, he ‘dropped in’ two or three times a week. At first he didn’t do or say anything, he was just getting me used to the idea. This meant I was always well prepared for class, but never nervous or anxious. One day he was sitting at the back (usually he would stay for 10 or 15 minutes then just leave), and I was clearly struggling trying to explain an activity. My DoS jumped up and asked if I would mind if he joined in, to which I replied no (relieved actually – help!). At that point he took over and did what I was trying to do whilst I sat and watched. It was fantastic. I watched and learned. After that stage of the lesson was over, he excused himself and left. Later we chatted about his interruption and whether I was ok with that, which I most definitely was. After that he dropped by just as often, sometimes joined in, sometimes didn’t. He helped when he saw me needing help. He didn’t explain or question or critique, he ‘did’ while I watched and learned. This, for me, was far more useful than any peer observation had ever, or has ever been.

In my last place of work, I introduced this ‘drop in’ idea to some of my co-teachers, those I thought I could work with in that way. (It is important here to point out how much trust and confidence you must have with your ‘buddy’ teachers to make this an effective experience.) Once again for me, there were tremendous results. We were sometimes teaching the same class/levels and would drop in on each other when our students were writing or doing something by themselves. We would join in teaching, monitoring, explaining, whatever was going on at the time. The students enjoyed the interaction, and benefitted from it I believe, and as teachers we were always learning something new or sharing something. There was no observer/observee divide; we were doing our jobs together to help the students, and to learn new ideas. Often completely new ideas came out of these collaborations, things that we may have never noticed or come up with in a single teacher environment.

Final Thought

Finding a buddy to drop in on could be a much more effective path to self improvement. Try it and see.


When you start to see CCTVs and video cameras go up in classrooms around the world, don’t be too surprised. Bill gates has a $5 billion plan to do just that in the US, see link below. But if they do arrive in a classroom nearby, maybe we could argue that we no longer need formal observations…every cloud has a silver lining!

A Camera in Every Classroom

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2 responses to “Observations…A Necessary Evil?”

  1. Edward Rush says :

    I’ve always liked observations. I agree they are a bit artificial, but they help to get me focused. When I taught (I hope to again one day), I spent much of the time flying by wire. A regular observation caused me to really slow down and consider what I was doing.

    I think observations aren’t very helpful unless the procedure is well-established and both parties (the observer and observee) are both clear about the purpose. Observations in my experience work well if the observee targets an aspect of their performance for which they would like feedback.

    I’ve done some shocking demos in my time, and I’ve also witnessed some travesties. However, I’ve learned a lot from all the observations I’ve done, good or bad.

    I do like Andy’s “drop in” idea, and I’ve actually done this before with Andy. That was a very valuable experience because we had good trust and very similar ideas. Would it work with people who were not close? I’m not sure about that.

    Cameras in classrooms do not worry me. Most teachers have an element of the show-off in their characters (I think that’s desirable), and I think they could be conducive to improvements in performance if they were built in to a formal feedback/action research cycle.

    Well done Andy. I’ve never before seen you hold a train of thought for so long.

    • Andrew Matthews says :

      Thanks Ed!

      A few people have mentioned the fact that observations get them focused. That was something I did not really consider myself.

      Glad I’ve surprised you with my concentration span!

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