Personal Misfires as an Observer

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?



  1. Tony Gurr

    Mike – Bravo!

    A really open, honest and reflective post – at the woes from the “other side” of the fence. Like teachers, observers have to be (first and foremost) reflective LEARNers – this is how we grow, this is how we improve…this is how we make the world of TEACHing a better place (I almost hear a song coming on) 😉


    • mikecorea

      Thanks so much T!

      This is a post that has been brewing for 4 months…or 4 years. I am happy to get it out there. I am also very happy that you saw it and even happier to see your comments here. Excellent point about observers needing to be reflective LEARNers. Indeed, this is something that can be forgotten. Can’t wait for the song!


  2. brad5patterson

    “The problem is that my eyes and ears were more attracted to the negative things”

    I think this is typical, and I’d even go as so far as to say that it’s hard-wired into western-thinking à la Socrates or “the Gang of 3” Greek philosophers who put so much emphasis on argument and critical thinking.

    Have you heard of the Six Thinking hats? A fellow teacher here in Paris and I are going to do a presentation on it for BESIG in June. When exploring all of the possible ways to react to an idea or observation, (positive, negative, creative, emotional, horizontal, vertical etc) there is a lot more space to evaluate, reflect, improve and in a much less personal way.

    Loved the post, and always nice catching what you’re up to, Mike. Tip of the hat to Tony Gurr while I’m at it too 😉

    Cheers, Brad

    • mikecorea

      Hey Brad!

      Thanks so much for the comments and support. Much appreciated, bud. Your comment about looking for the “bad” really got me thinking. An interesting that I have noticed/heard in Korea is that often times teachers giving feedback feel that they “*need to” give some negative feedback and this often what sticks out in the listener’s mind even if it was just a throw away, thrown-in type comment added because just can’t say all positive things!

      Off to google “The Six thinking hats!” Cheers!

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  4. Eljee Javier

    Thanks for being honest about your observation experiences. I think, as teachers (speaking for myself) we do get caught up with the “ah, why didn’t I do/think/act/try that during the lesson” sort of mentality and eventually paint a picture of what is our ideal teacher-self. Considering that there is no ideal, I think having a goal of improving as a teacher is sometimes lost in the shoulda-woulda-coulda circle of thought that is and can be quite hard to break out of, much less be aware of (even retrospectively).

    Advice? Hmm…perhaps going back to why you/they need to observe/be observed in the first place. If I’m being observed, I’d like to know why, for what purpose. If there’s an evaluative element to it then I’d like to know the criteria so that I can use that on myself and perhaps make it as a useful starting point for discussion and development? If the observation is for other purposes then what are they? I found, in my limited experienced, that being very open and clear about the purpose of the observation helped immensely!

    • mikecorea

      Hi Eljee,

      Thanks so much for the comments!
      I really appreciated your point about getting caught up in the shoulda-woulda-coulda circle which, as you say, can be hard to break out of. I think this is part of the reason I am so into the description part of the Experiential Learning Cycle, where we focus on what actually happened. Of course we can still creep into the dangerous *should zone but I also think that we can keep a focus on what happened.

      I also liked your advice/point about keeping the purpose for the observation in mind! I think that very often it is easy to get mixed up on if the observation is for development or evaluation or promotion or hiring or something else. It can get pretty pretty muddy!

      Thanks again for the comments and insight! Very helpful.


  5. Rachael Roberts

    What a great post, really interesting (and honest). I think I was also far too concerned with whether things were right or wrong- no doubt a reflection of my own anxiety about getting this observation stuff right or wrong..
    In terms of advice, I definitely agree about trying to set aside how you would do something, and maybe try describing what you noticed and then discussing together how the teachers decisions contributed to that?

    • mikecorea

      Thanks Rachael,

      I really appreciate the comments! I am glad that you found the post interesting and honest. I knew it was honest but wasn’t really sure how interesting it would be for others! I really like your advice and I will add it to the ever growing list. I also thought it was interesting how you related the anxiety of getting the observation stuff right or wrong to thinking about if what the teacher was doing was right or wrong. I think this is a really astute point and one that I don’t think I would have thought of!

      Once again, thanks so much for the comments Rachael!

  6. Kevin Stein

    I was sneaking a peek at this post while I was supposed to be prepparing a grammar lesson on the present perfect continuous. It immediately caused me to visualize my lesson as a big PPP sandwich. And that made making the lesson much more amusing. So I thank you for that. And I thank you for the honesty and the tips. I’m not the world’s nicest guy, so your suggestion to not think about your own lessons when observing another teacher’s lessons is going to be a big help in reaching a place of nicety I think.

    One wee little question. You know the whole check list thing? If an observee digs check-lists (those people are out there) and the observee helps determine the nature of the check-list, mightn’t they make for a safer feeling observation? That being said, I actually got steaming mad while reading Nunan’s observation guidlines because of his seemingly never ending flood of checklists.


    • mikecorea

      Mr. Stein,

      Thanks for the comments and question. I don’t want to seem like Mr. anti-checklist, but I am quite certain they can be overdone. The situation you described where the (checklist digging) observee helps create a checklist sounds fantastic to me. This idea has my full support. My full support and 500 yen might get you a cup of coffee in Osaka these days. A PPP sandwich on the side is extra. Umm. Yeah.

      I am glad that the advice to forget about your own teaching/lessons resonated with you. It seems to me that teachers that end up in the observer chair are often expereienced, trained or doing something “right” or some combination of these. I think it can be too easy to want to create an empire of clones of ourselves going out into the world and teaching excellently. (Maybe this is just me). No, but seriously I think that it is important to meet observees where they are (just like we would likely do with students) and not try and impose too many of our own *shoulds on them.

      Thank you as always for the support and for the nudge towards bizarre/foolishness.

  7. ddeubel

    I echo Tony’s initial comment fully. Very honest and helpful reflection.

    I’m not a big one for inclass observations now given how easy it is to set up a camera and push “play”. With a recording you skip being an invasive part of the class / teaching dynamic and you also have the benefit of having something asynchronous, that you can go over , rewind and discuss constructively. But education and especially administration is very conservative and resistant to these ideas and I’m afraid will continue the old command and follow structure of in class observations (but glad that you wrote about how you made the post observation process a dialog, a conversation and not about power).

    If someone observes a class, I think they should participate in the class, be a student and decrease the “Heisenberg factor” of influencing the events of the class by observing. It will decrease anxiety and allow things as much as possible to happen as if the observer wasn’t there.

    I’d also use something to frame the observation, needn’t be a checklist. But something should be used, especially with new teachers. A checklist isn’t evil in and of itself but rather it is how it is used. It shouldn’t be a mark or x of so many. Rather, a way to orient the discussion. As you suggest, keep is simple (stupid) and not some lengthy thing. One thing I’ve always insisted is that the teacher do some kind of post lesson reflection before meeting the classroom observer. That way, the meeting will be more constructive and have a focus.

    Another thing I think important about observations. The observer should let teachers see them teach. Dialog, professional development, reflection is a door that goes both ways – in all forms.

    Looking forward to your next post!


    • mikecorea

      Hi David,

      What a nice surprise to see your comments! Thanks so much!
      I think I saw somewhere that you were getting back into blogging. Excellent.

      I really like the ideas that you shared here…including the observer being a participant in the class. This is something I have actually tried a few times and would like to try again.

      One thing that I have found very helpful on training courses is, as you suggest, to teach the same students that the course participants are teaching. I think this can be helpful in tons of ways, not least “buy in.”

      You wrote, A checklist isn’t evil in and of itself but rather it is how it is used. It shouldn’t be a mark or x of so many. Rather, a way to orient the discussion.” I think this is a great point! I think checklists can be great to orient the conversation. My issue is more when they are the sole focus.

      I am also totally with you about (solo) post session reflection before an observation meeting. Again, I think it can make the conversation much more productive generally but can also take the edge (nerves and emotions) off a bit.

      Thanks again for sharing your ideas here.
      I look forward to future conversations.


      ps- This is one case were I will happily and fully agree with you about the value of video…though I have not really used it much for observing or being observed. Someday! (I think the benefits that you laid out are very clear and helpful for all involved)

  8. Marisa Constantinides

    Hi there

    Sorry I am coming to this post so late and possibly so out of tune to what a lot of others are saying.

    I have been observing teachers for the last 25 years or so and have trained several tutors at my centre to be CELTA or TEFL or DELTA observers.

    I have also sat through innumerable standardization meetings with other Diploma tutors and assessors as well as done the usual lesson standardization required of CELTA tutors and supervisors.

    In addition, and since I started offering CELTA courses at my centre in 2006, I have been very often observed observing myself and been given feedback on my feedback.

    This does not make me any more of an expert on this topic – no more than anyone else – but it has given me experience and a sense of perspective of a variety of teaching personae and teaching styles.

    It has also given me a good awareness and understanding of the stages in the development of observing tutors – at least those I have been involved in developing and training at my institution

    What you describe above, with all due respect to your honesty and your desire to improve, is to my mind, a sign of your lack of experience – both as a teacher as well as a tutor. I would be so bold to add that it also denotes a lack of awareness of broader theoretical/background knowledge of the research on the processes of teaching and of learning (or even acquisition, if you like).

    Most inexperienced teachers and tutors tend to focus on the negative and fail to see the positive

    In the same way, most inexperienced teachers who end up being CELTA tutors too quickly, fail to see any other solutions than their own ideas and cannot really help and support teachers in training take control of and develop their own ideas.

    If I might be allowed to suggest anything, I would say, do your DELTA and an MA – for me these are the minimum pre-requisites for anyone who wishes to engage in supporting and developing teachers.

    I am sorry but I don’t think a CELTA is enough – although I do see that your heart is in the right place and you have a genuine desire to understand where your views are coming from and why you don’t feel happy about these ‘misfires”


    • Marisa Constantinides

      Further to your email comment clarifying that this was a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ post – which I fear I failed to realize, a wee comment to add insult to injury 😀

      Don’t think I want to withdraw my comment, Michael – it looks like I am addressing the Michael of now who has done some of the things I mention – but take it as being addressed to the Michael of THEN – and all sorts of people put in a similar situation, possibly through no fault of their own. We all have to start somewhere!!! And I have been there myself and bought that T-shirt too.

      So, hope all’s well with my comment

      If you still think it misrepresents who you are or what you wanted to convey, do feel free to delete both my comments.

      • mikecorea

        All is great Marisa! Thanks so much for both comments! I think you offer a lot of insight and ideas for people of all stages and experience levels to think about.

        I like your choice of words with “people put in a similar situation” as I think “put” is often a big part of it. My thought in adding this blog post (which I have been thinking about for 4 years generally and 2 years intensely–after I started running a sort of mentor/observer training course) was that it might be helpful for others to avoid some of the traps that I so easily fell into.

        Thanks again for the comments and see you somewhere on the internet soon.


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