A personal misfire as an observee

Lately I have been doing a lot of work with Korean public school teachers who will be observers and mentors in their schools. I have been wanting to share my experience as an observee for quite some time. This week I finally got the nudge and inspiration that I was waiting for in Tony Gurr’s ongoing series of “Misfires with classroom observation” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,).  Please be sure to check them out as they are incredibly insightful and hopefully related in many ways to what I am sharing here.

Context  

Before I start I will share a little bit about the context of my story, which occurred at a language school attached to a university in Seoul. The language school had an intensive English program (among other programs) where students studied for 30 hours a week with a variety of teachers and had classes like reading, writing, listening, and grammar. Students at lower levels also had two speaking classes. One was called “Practical English” and the other was called “Learning to Speak.” The former was supposed to be more focused on accuracy and speaking in situations while the latter was focused on fluency and was considered a precursor to discussion classes.

The observee from hell with his students.

Classroom Observation Process 

Observations were generally a nebulous mix of development and evaluation. This means that suggestions and critical feedback (along with the occasional positive point) were given with an eye to improving teaching and overall customer satisfaction but the observations were also a chance for the Director to think about potential re-hirings.

Teachers didn’t really know what the criteria was and didn’t really know what to expect in the post lesson conference.  There was no checklist. There were no guidelines.

Also, teachers didn’t know when they would be observed. The director didn’t want teachers to prepare too much for the lesson and it seemed that she wanted to “catch” people teaching in their normal way. Of course, there was no pre-lesson conference or any discussion except, “I will be observing your next class in 15 minutes if that is OK.” There had to be a very good reason for it not to be OK and teachers almost always accepted this.

From what I could gathered from experience and other teachers the post-lesson conference with the Director was generally pretty free flowing with the Director asking a (very!) few questions and then doling out suggestions and pointed critiques.

Does this sound like a recipe for success in observation and feedback? Read on…

Mike as the observee from hell

I loved this particular group of students. It sure felt like the feelings were returned. I think the students genuinely enjoyed the classes and their time with me and each other. I collected feedback frequently and it was extremely positive. The end of term evaluations were also very positive.

I was teaching “Learning to Speak.” Again, it was my first term at the school. The students surely seemed to be LEARNing a lot (though I surely can’t take too much credit for it as they were in class for 30 hours a week). I was happy and proud of the progress that they were making and the work that I was doing. Since I was told that the focus of these classes was on having students speak as much as possible that is exactly what I did. I tried to create situations for the students to talk as much as they could and was there to help when needed. I gave feedback and tried to provide some language during conversations, after conversations and after class on a blog I created for the class. 

I was very pleased with how the class was going and when the Director asked (told?) me that she would be observing me I felt confident. I thought that the previous class session  had gone well and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do in the class that was going to be observed. Since it is coming up on 5 years ago I won’t share too many details of the class here. I found the blog post that I wrote after this class as well as one from the class before it. I mostly just remember that the students talked a lot and that the topic was about traveling and planning a trip. I also remember being quite pleased with the class and thinking that it was a nice representation of the types of lessons that I was doing in “Learning to Speak.”

The Director seemed to be mostly pleased with the lesson (and I guessed that I wouldn’t be let go after just one term), though I cannot really remember any specific feedback on this. I think she might have said that it was good that students talked so much. Great. This was a bit of validation and relief. Then the negative and not so helpful comments came:
 

You talked too much at the beginning when giving instructions.

You didn’t talk enough throughout the lesson.

Students didn’t speak out in front of the whole class.

You didn’t correct errors enough. 

You didn’t pre-teach any vocab. 

You didn’t write anything on the board.

You didn’t use the textbook.

Do you notice any patterns here? Now, 5 years later, two things jump out at me. All the commentsinclude something that I didn’t do and this gives me the impression that they were things that I *should have done. The other thing that jumps out at me is that there are words like “enough,”  and “too”which clearly show some judgments about the right way to teach not being met.

These comments about a lesson that I was very pleased with struck me quite deeply and emotionally.

I got emotional.

I defended.

I explained.

I argued.

I tried to prove my point.

I explained how well my students were doing.

I explained how well I thought I was doing.

I shared some of the tenets of dogme.

I shared some theories about speaking that I had heard around the staffroom or on my CELTA course.

I told her that I had a blog for errors.

I told her that there was plenty of words on the board yesterday, reminding her that she wasn’t there yesterday or the day before.

I made sure to say that I was the world’s leading expert on my class and that she really didn’t know about my class or my students or what I was trying to do.

I spent a lot of the post-conference time explaining my decisions not to do the things that she mentioned.

What didn’t I do?

I certainly didn’t reflect. I didn’t really listen to anything she said, though I surely heard the words and responded. I didn’t consider that her perspective could offer me anything of value. I didn’t doubt for a moment that what I did was right. I didn’t imagine that I was doing anything but great things for and with my students. I didn’t make any reasoned changes to my teaching practice. So, I think I was a pretty horrible observee.

I don’t want to make excuses or explanations for myself or my actions as an observee at that time. I will leave that to readers if they wish. Again, I think Tony’s blog posts offer a lot of insight into how this sort of unproductive observation session might have happened.

I would love to hear any similar stories. Thanks for reading!

Next time I will share the time I was an observer from hell.

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26 comments

  1. Pingback: Personal MISFIRES with Classroom Observation (…NOT Part 07) « allthingslearning
  2. Kevin Stein

    Hi Michael,

    Wow. You are a real mench. Willing to reflect on your role in an observation gone wrong when the reasons for its wrongness can so easily be found elsewhere. I guess a big part of it is confidence (or belief…hmmm…belief and observation, running blog themes this week). With the confidence of experience, we realize that there is almost always something of value when it comes to observation feedback. But still, I hope that director has taken some mench lessons since then.

  3. mikecorea

    Someday I will tell you all about this director.
    In the meantime I will say that this was the first time for someone to call me a mench. I like it! When I get to my next post you will see I didn’t really learn so well how to be a better observer from this experience. Or, better said, I had some nice misfires in my first few times as an observer. There were certainly some lessons learned there!

    I really like your point about getting something from value from observations and I truly believe that we can. There is that word, believe/belief again.

    Thanks so much for the comments. Much appreciated.

    Cheers,
    Mike

  4. mikecorea

    I suppose it is not necessarily directly related but I was flipping through a book this afternoon
    (Language Teaching Awareness: A guide to exploring beliefs and practices)
    and saw the following quote in the section on observation.

    “Here I am with my lens to look at you and your actions. As I look at you with my lens, I consider you a mirror; I hope to see myself in you and through your teaching.”

    The author? John Fanselow.

    Mirrors and lenses are things that I think about a lot when thinking about observation.

  5. Kevin Stein

    That is such a perfect John Fanselow quote. Have to cut and paste it. But it’s true. I think when we are really critical while conducting an observation, it’s usually about those things we feel we most need to correct in our own teaching. But if we can be less critical and defensive, all that energy wasted on admonishing, can be spent on self-growth instead.

    Oh no, my UNH is almost up. Time to go to sleep.

  6. Tony Hoca ;-)

    M,

    Loved that quote, too 😉

    My wife often tells me that the people we meet are also ‘mirrors’ for us / ourselves – I hope not ‘cos I’ve met some really bloody idiots in my time 😉

    Take care,

    T..

  7. mikecorea

    Thanks for the comment, T!

    I think your wife makes an interesting point but I have to say that I am more inclined to hope that people we meet are not mirrors for ourselves. I will keep it in mind though, especially when I have a reaction to a certain type of person.

    As for mirrors and observation… one metaphor that I have become attached to is that the observer ‘holds up a mirror” for the teacher. This was the teacher can see things differently. For me, this holding of the mirror works as a metaphor because the observer can angle the mirror in such a way that the teacher can see things that they otherwise couldn’t see. I really like this image though sometimes it can be tricky.

    Cheers!
    Mike

  8. Chris Ożóg

    Hi Mike,

    Enjoyed this post a lot and it chimes with the ideas I wrote about on my blog the other week there (this post: http://eltreflection.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/on-being-an-observer/). If observers were more attentive to the needs of the individual teacher and offered teachers the “mirror” that you and Tony refer to above, then I think we’d all be better off for it.

    Here’s an observation anecdote of my own. I was observe just after being hired at a language school after having just completed my DELTA. I did really well in DELTA and this seemed to intimidate the then DoS, who had commented before more than once about this fact and her amazement at it (is that a compliment?). Anyway, during feedback to said observation, when she was telling me “I should’ve… x”, I argued a point and she changed immediately! After that, all the feedback was “you could maybe have…x” and then at the end she asked me for feedback on her feedback, which was such an odd experience at the time as I didn’t really know what to say (I wasn’t an observer then and she was my boss). I ended up just saying that I thought it was ok and that she could’ve asked me a bit more to explain why I’d done certain things (no materials, learner output, etc).

    Looking back, this probably influenced me more than I had realised. I do like to try to get teachers to reflect and work out a rationale for why they do certain things and I find it most satisfying when they do! Moreover, I also find it gratifying when teachers tell me that my feedback benefited them in some way (feedback on feedback). This usually happens – when it happens – weeks later, when a teacher seeks me out or e-mails me to tell me that something I suggested, highlighted or that they’d never though of before is now working better for them. Maybe I should blog about that next time…

    Cheers,

    Chris

    • mikecorea

      Hi Chris,

      I really appreciate the comments. Thanks. Your post really resonated with me and I thought there was a lot to think about there. Actually, I am doing a course for future observers/consultants/mentors and I shared your post with them.

      Thanks for sharing your experience as an observee. A word that jumped out at me in your interesting and instructive story is “should.” In our observer training course we spend a lot of time on suggestions. Sometimes we scare participants off suggestions a little bit too much but I still think it is worth it to realize just how often we tend to throw out “shoulds.”

      I have been kicking around some ideas about my misfires as an observer for a potential blog post. I would love to read about your successes! Thanks again.

  9. Chris Ożóg

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the comments about my post. What’s this observers’ course your doing? I’ve never seen such a thing and would be interested in hearing more.

    Chris

  10. mikecorea

    Hi Chris!

    I guess the course I am doing is a bit rare. Thanks for the question. I think of it as sort of “teacher-training light.” All the participants are experienced public school teachers who will be asked to take on more responsibilities in their schools and districts. In South Korea teachers are often asked to do “open classes” (like a demo class). There is usually a feedback session after these and giving feedback on the lessons was usually mostly done by Board of Education staff. Partially due to the explosion in “open classes” the responsibility of observing/helping is being given to teachers. My course hopefully helps prepare these teachers to be better observers. The other role that they might have is something like a one time mentor, helping a new teaching through a demo lesson before and after.

    In the course we focus a lot on:

    beliefs
    awareness of ourselves and our teaching
    different reasons for observing
    observing (vs. judging)
    intervention styles
    The experiential learning cycle

    We also have a strand for 4 skills teaching and running workshops/input sessions.

    The course runs nearly 11 months with 2 intensive 2 week face to face sessions (and the rest online).

    The best part of the course (in my humble opinion at least) is that in the face to face part we have participants (micro) teach** a lesson and then have another participant run the feedback session. As trainers we just observe the feedback session and run a sort of meta-feedback session on the feedback. It is a really interesting experience to have the chance to ask the feedback receiver how it went and what was helpful for them.

    Thanks again for the question, it was a nice chance to step back and think about what the heck we are doing in the course. Please let me know if there is more you’d like to hear about!

    Cheers,
    Mike

    **by microteach in this case I mean do a lesson with their peers.

  11. Marián Steiner

    Loved the post. I often feel there are so many variables to consider when we try to evaluate the “not enough” Vs. “too much” aspect of the lesson! I understand a teacher trainer should provide some kind of practical feedback, not only praise, but I wouldn’t be able to say if this approach is most effective. I’m not surprised you got defensive.

    I saw a video on YouTube recently where Jeremy Harmer was talking about using video feedback in teacher training, in which he said that the best kind of feedback is the one that the trainee teachers give themselves, based on watching themselves teach, with some gentle guidance from the trainer. I completely agree – after all, personal reflection that leads to improvement is the most effective tool for development.

    On the other hand, learning to listen to feedback and deriving the practical input from it, despite the fact that it might hit us on emotional level, is also a good skill to develop.

    So, I guess, all things considered, it was a valuable lesson, after all! 😉

    • mikecorea

      Hello Marian,

      I really appreciate the comments. I love your writing and your blog so to write something that caught your attention like that makes me very happy.

      Starting from the end of your comments…Yes I think it was a really valuable lesson for me!
      It took me over a month but I finally posted about my early experience observing. I surely took lessons from my experience as an observee.

      I think you (and Jeremy Harmer) make a really good point about feedback coming from the teachers themselves. I think that when teachers can see something for themselves it is much easier to deal with it instead of having a different person force an opinion on them. With that said I love your point, “On the other hand, learning to listen to feedback and deriving the practical input from it, despite the fact that it might hit us on emotional level, is also a good skill to develop.”

      Very true!

      Take care and talk to you soon!

  12. Nick

    Trainers and managers can do a lot to improve receptiveness of feedback, but it can’t all be put on the manager. As observees, what can we do to make the most of any feedback session, regardless of how it was delivered?

    • mikecorea

      Thank you very much for the comments, Nick! I totally think that observees can often do a lot better to get more out of feedback. I think that coming from a place of wanting to improve is a great start. Not assuming that negative feedback is an attack on our character or skills as a teacher is another. In my trainer-training courses we have played around with FB sessions were the teacher is only allowed to say thank you (or get clarification) and while slightly draconian it seemed to help people take on the feedback with a more open mind. I can’t say that I am highly skilled but I think it is important for observees to keep in mind that the FB is not about me but is simply about what happened today in the class that was seen. I think this makes things easier to take. What else?

      Thanks again for the comments/question!

  13. Pingback: Personal Misfires as an Observer « ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  14. Justin

    I’ve heard you called a mensch before, Mike. 🙂

    Interesting thoughts- I always WANT to be open to and reflective about feedback.

    But it’s hard when…the feedback…sort of…sucks.

    That’s the thing I find in myself. I can be really reflective about feedback that’s in line with my beleifs and values. I can accept that my performance is being criticized if I feel that the criticism is valid.

    But I’d have struggled with the list that you got- it’s all teacher performance based. (Only one comment on the students at all.) It’s based on an assumed “how to teach” that’s universal and general.

    I’d have struggled not to defend myself, or in fact not to attack the feedback given. Hell, I only read it in a blog, and here I am attacking it in the previous paragraph…

    Nothing to offer here. I agree that it’s not the most productive way to respond, but my response would have been like yours. At best.

    What would YOU do different next time?

    • mikecorea

      Thank you very much for the comments (and hard hitting question at the end)!

      (I typed up a long answer that somehow got lost. I am new to this blogging business!)

      Let’s start with your last question about what I would do differently next time. Hmm.

      Well I am pretty sure that I would argue my case a lot less!
      (Thought I must note that my conviction and passion while arguing was taken as a positive in the end)
      I think I would try to be more open minded and realize that there is always something more to learn or at least think about. I would do my best to not take whatever is said as an attack. The truth is that I don’t think she was actually trying to attack. I think she was trying to help in her own way–the way that she had experienced. I suppose keeping that in mind would be helpful, too. My thought is that I would take all the feedback she gave and then reflect on it at my own pace. Finally, I’d like to say that I would smile and nod and agree and then do what I think is best anyway.
      (Note for potential future employers: I am just joking. I would do exactly as told every time. Really.)

      I really like your point about beliefs and feedback. I think a lot of the nightmares related to feedback are a direct result from a clash of beliefs. The next time I meet crappy feedback I will try to keep my points above in mind and give a bit of mental space for differences in beliefs and not really let the *shoulds get me down.

      Thanks so much as always for the thoughts!

      See you soon!
      Occasionally mensch-like Mike

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  19. thesecretdos

    Hi Mike
    You menschened (badda-boom) this post in a recent conversation and I cringed when I read the observer’s comments. They are a good example of how to close down any purposeful conversation.

    I think it is crucial to be clear from the outset what the point of the observation is. If it’s a QA exercise, there isn’t actually a need for feedback. I doubt very much that the people who are lucky enough to be employed in cheese-tasting are required to meet up with the cheesemakers (blessed be they) to discuss every product test. QA is about making sure that standards are met. If they are not being met, then this needs to be communicated to the teacher. But the standards need to be clear and the failure to meet the standards needs to be backed up with clear examples. In that case, it doesn’t really matter what the teacher thinks – they are not an artisan who is free to ply their trade within the sanctity of the owner’s market place; they are a worker ant who is tasked with delivering the owner’s product, meeting the specifications that the owner has set down. Harsh? Undoubtedly.

    If, on the other hand, the observation is meant to be developmental, then…stand by for controversy…the owner(‘s henchperson) should not be doing the bloody observation.

    Life as seen through the lens of black and white…simple!

    • mikecorea

      TSD,

      Thanks for stopping by!
      (The conversation TSD mentioned was on his/her blog is here: http://thesecretdos.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/calm-down-dearie/)

      I am glad the cringe-worthiness of the comments shined through. 🙂
      What a lovely moment to reflect upon with some time and distance though.

      I think you make some great points about distinguishing between QA and development. I think a huge % of the problems and issues related to observation and feedback stem from participants not knowing why the heck they are there and what the purpose of being there is. Obviously quality assurance and development (and learning for the observer or any other possible reason for observing) will ideally have different formats/procedures.

      I think you also make a great point about institutions having the right to determine the standards and procedures. I think the problems arise when these are not made clear and they fall to the whims of the observer.

      I was thinking of a school deciding that they will follow one particular approach completely. I would hope that they’d be upfront about this so that I could decide whether or not I wanted to work there and how much I wanted to be a worker bee in that particular colony. As for henchpeople (not) doing the observations that makes a lot of sense too.

      Simple… 😉

      Thanks for the exchange,
      Mike

      Here are my thoughts on myself as the bad observer, by the way.
      https://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/personal-misfires-as-an-observer/

  20. timothyhampson

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for resurrecting this post on Twitter. I think I mentioned to you that I did some feedback with my class for the first time. I also spent way too long looking at the negatives and wanting to defend my teaching. I’m not really sure that you’re a horrible observee here (you might have however been bad at office politics). If someone is teaching very intentionally, coming in and saying ‘this is the wrong way’ isn’t helpful at all. If someone tells you that your teaching is wrong without some reasons, a healthy respectful debate might be valid.

    Do you think that if you had reflected more on what she’d said, you’d have made any big changes to your teaching style?

    Tim

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments, Tim.
      I am glad the post caught your attention.

      Your point about focusing too much on the negatives from feedback seems to be universal and typically human. In fact, I was just doing the same the other night!

      As for my performance as an observee in the post, I think I was horrible in some ways but also think I was put in a bad/strange position. Now that I am older and wiser I think I would have just listened to the suggestions and just done whatever I wanted the next class. I don’t think I would have been so consumed with trying to ensure that she saw things my way.

      I think what tripped me up throughout was this distinction between “the right way to teach” and “how I, as the boss would like to see you teach here.” I think I’d be much more accepting of the latter even if I didn’t agree with it and even if I didn’t end up following it.

      I think this observation was very much about quality control and not about development. I think if the purpose of the observation is development then there is lots of room for fruitful discussions but otherwise I am not so sure. Thanks again for the comments and food for thought!

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