Teaching can be quite a lonely profession sometimes; despite constantly interacting with other people, lessons are conducted alone – certainly in the context of private U.K language schools. This has been the case everywhere I’ve worked. Probably the best part of working in a school, as opposed to the year I spent in Chile teaching in students’ offices and homes, is seeing colleagues regularly. They represent a network of support, a fantastic resource bank, an opportunity to catch a glimpse of other approaches and styles, and a chance to get feedback on your own ideas, or to workshop them. I value this highly – liaising with other teachers feels like a luxury.
Even so, it’s very unusual to witness the same lesson as a colleague, meaning that you’re liaising about things which only one of you is present for. This limits its value, and this is the benefit offered by peer observations. The main reason I can see for how infrequent they’ve been at the institutions I’ve worked at is “logistics”, in other words an unwillingness – often a financially based unwillingness from management – to regularly disrupt teaching schedules. Although Jill Cosh’s article (‘Peer observation: A reflective model’) alluded to negative attitudes some teachers can have towards peer observations, seeing them as a vehicle for a form of judgement or didactic evaluation, this does not correspond with my experience. Some colleagues have expressed a personal aversion to being observed, but all have entered into the process in a productive way, and I’ve never seen a negative outcome. Whenever I’ve had a chance to be observed or to observe, it’s added so much to the potential of collaborating and sharing ideas with other teachers.
My conception of a productive approach to peer observations lines up with some of the formats Cosh describes. I think of it as an opportunity to get a second, equal perspective on the same events, and to cross-reference your own perception of what happened with someone elses. The observer’s point of view is invaluable in that they are not involved in the lesson, so can get a more balanced, complete picture of it. However, they are not in a position of higher knowledge, from which they should “correct mistakes” or pass judgement. One of their roles is to help you understand the connection, or disparity, between what you want to happen and what actually does happen. Another is to pick up on incidents or habits, and help the observee to reflect on them, perhaps by asking questions. Without the opportunities provided by peer observations, your own development is hindered by the blinkered view you have of your and your students’ actions.
As well as the significant impact on developing and exploring your own teaching, my positive attitude to peer obervations is influenced by the effect it can have on a staff room. After doing a round of peer observations in 2017 at my current school, we were all much more effective when liaising – if, for example, we were alternately teaching the same class, or if working together on a strategy for a particular shared student or level. Having a more accurate appreciation of each others’ methods and classroom interactions enabled us to make stronger, more tailored plans, or at least to reach an understanding more quickly. In short, in my opinion, more institutions should be more committed to peer observations, in the name of a better teaching staff, hopefully followed by better learning outcomes.
I’ve experienced peer observations fewer than five times, but I can still point to useful learning they’ve provided me with, from staple activities to snapshots of a broader style, which has given me something to focus on when we get a chance to collaborate. I remember observing an experienced teacher in my first job whose conciseness and simplicity when introducing vocabulary struck me, and led me to ask them about it – they said it was practice, so I started practising, and still am!
Concerning being observed, it was actually an observation that resulted in me applying for the Diploma. It was technically a DELTA+ teacher observing me, but in the management structure of our school the atmosphere felt as non-judgemental as a peer observation, albeit with slightly more evaluative, instructional feedback. I was advised to apply for the course. The rationale was that my teaching had been noticeably shaped by ideas and theory from the CELTA and from professional development sessions we had carried out at the school, so I should keep exposing myself to new opportunities for development as much as possible. This is something I hadn’t noticed until then, but I was glad it was brought to my attention so I could act on it. I’ve had more critical feedback from other peer observations, highlighting the grading of my languge and my management of interaction patterns, but again it felt good to get that opportunity to develop an area that could have gone unnoticed. Being alerted to an aspect of teaching which you could quickly develop is arguably the most immediately practical benefit which can come from being observed.
In all of the peer observations I’ve received, the common theme has been that another teacher with another perspective can provide you with that crucial insight into your own teaching, which perhaps would elude you otherwise. This shapes your development by drawing reflective attention to specific areas.
Giving observations has actually felt less developmentally beneficial sometimes. I think this is something I should work on during this module – how can I get more out of observing another teacher than suggestions and ideas? I’m aiming to apply what we’ve learned about methodologies and approaches to my observation; this could provide an opportunity to compare theory with practice from a more neutral viewpoint, and help to build my understanding of the results produced by different approaches in different contexts. I’m looking forward to getting started.