I am often reminded of my first experiences as an observer. I think it is safe to say that there were quite a few misfires. I hope that by sharing my experience here I might help people avoid the pitfalls that I so easily fell into as a beginning observer. Another hope is that my examples here might help people think about observation and feedback in a slightly different way.
In my previous post I detailed my experience being observed and misfiring as an observee. About 18 months after that I was Assistant Director at the same institution and was given the task of observing and helping the recent hires adapt to the program and getting them ready for the “real” observation that would be done by the Director.
Armed with a CELTA, 7 years’ experience, lots of enthusiasm, a desire to help my fellow teachers, the (false?) confidence that I knew what I was doing, high student evaluation scores and the not-so-fresh wounds of painful observation experiences I jumped right in to the task of observing the new teachers.
(This is now nearly 4 years ago so the usual caveats about memory and me simply making things up apply, but this is how I remember it happening!)
I knew that I didn’t want to follow the same model as the Director. One big difference is that I wanted to come to classes that the teachers wanted me to come to. I wanted to come when they wanted me to come, with no surprises. I set up a schedule with my free hours and they determined when would be best for them and asked me to come.
We had a very brief conversation about the lesson beforehand. If I saw a lesson plan before the class I don’t remember doing so. I most certainly don’t remember them telling me what they wanted me to look for. I don’t remember me telling them what I would be looking for. I don’t remember much collaboration or discussion about what they hoped to get out the observation and feedback process. After all, I was the Assistant Director so of course I had all the answers and ideas! No criteria or anything was set up before-hand. I was just going to come to class and then talk to them after it. Tony Gurr, friend of the blog, doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of checklists (me neither actually) but I think that some sort of shared understanding about what I would be looking for would have been helpful. They had no idea what I would be looking for and neither did I. We were confronted by the nebulous mix of development and evaluation that often plagues observations.
During the lessons I often felt uneasy because I knew that I wanted to give balanced feedback. The problem is that my eyes and ears were more attracted to the negative things. They jumped out at me and prevented me from seeing things clearly. Everything I saw was clouded through my lens of what I thought made “good” teaching. It is as though I had a hidden checklist of right and wrong and good and bad things that *should or *shouldn’t be done in class.
In the post lesson feedback sessions, I knew that I didn’t want to just focus on the negative things. I wanted to highlight the positive things. I wanted to give a mix of positive as well as negative feedback. So, I made an effort to stay positive. There was a problem, though. My positive feedback was nearly devoid of specifics. Sentences like, “That was a nice lesson,” and “You did a good job” innocently sprung from my lips. Sadly, the feedback recipients likely had no idea what they had done well or no way of thinking about how to replicate this again. I think this is a good indication of a personal misfire.
I remember thinking that a feedback sandwich would be an effective way to deliver negative feedback. The idea is that by giving positive, then negative, and then positive feedback we can lower the risk of hurting the recipient’s feelings. I am not convinced that this worked, especially when the meat in the middle is all they really heard and the positives were sort of just thrown in there for balance and for the sake of sandwich making. Again, looking back, I think that the lack of specifics means that the “good” points I mentioned were pretty superficial which made the feedback much less helpful than it could be.
18 months previously, during the feedback session after my lesson the Director simply told me things and gave me commands or advice. I wanted to move away from this so I tried to ask a lot of questions. The trouble is that most of the questions I asked had a “right” answer. This answer invariably matched with my perceptions on teaching and what I had just seen. I also asked quite a few “Why” questions but these questions were focused on practices that I thought were problematic. I also asked “Why not?” as in “Why didn’t you do this thing that I think you are supposed to do?” Even though this has a question mark, I think it can still feel like an attack and still possibly put the teacher on their heels and ready to defend what they may have chosen not to do. Thinking about my questions, it seems I wasn’t there as a fellow explorer or even a guide but more as a nagger who was there to point out what I they did wrong or missed even though I used questions, smiles, and gentle words.
Another major potential problem with my feedback was that it was almost solely focused on the teacher and what the teacher did and said. I don’t remember saying anything about the students or student learning. I don’t remember saying or asking anything about what might have helped or hindered student learning. As my focus was almost entirely on the teacher I think I missed the chance to help the teachers see the lessons in terms of LEARNing.
I think that the biggest problem is that I completely stuck to my idea of what “good teaching” might look like. Did I mention that I had a CELTA? I mentioned that I had high student evaluations, right? When watching the lessons of the newer teacher my vision was blocked by the thoughts of what I would do in that situation. The teachers and lessons I was observing were unfairly compared to some idealized version of myself and my lessons. Somehow I didn’t make the connection that I was not them nor they me. These days if someone asks me for advice about observing and giving feedback the first thing I say is “Forget about your lessons” and I think this is generally good advice. What other advice would you give to new observers?