Teacher observation: Could you benefit from self-observation?

In his 2nd guest blog, Richard Whiteside (@nutrich) talks about the value of teacher observation.

Have you ever seen or heard yourself teach? Many of us cringe at the thought! It’s strange that people generally fear seeing themselves as others see them all the time. However, despite the initial pain and suffering it is potentially a very useful tool in teacher development.

Our school policy on teacher observation is that there is one round of them each term, which I think is fairly typical of language academies. This year we started with the DoS doing an observation in the first term, focussing mainly on the students and the class dynamic. In the second term we initiated a round of peer observations, which were well-received by the staff and seemed to be quite motivating. This term, we were wondering how to follow this up and decided to offer a choice: either a traditional observation, by the DoS or another member of senior staff, or a self-observation, with a follow up discussion for both choices. When this idea was put to the staff recently, ten out of the thirteen teachers opted for a self-observation.

As we all know, observation is a tricky beast. There is the obvious paradox of having an extra person in the room, as well as the nerves it generates in the teacher being observed. An interesting post I read recently compared the paradox to Schrodinger’s Cat and theories of quantum mechanics. For many reasons, teachers often have an extreme dislike of observations, though fortunately at our school there appears to be a positive attitude towards them.

Self-observations can be done either by making a video recording, an audio recording, or using a reflective questionnaire or a checklist – meaning that one wouldn’t have to endure seeing or hearing oneself. Of course, a questionnaire can be used in conjunction with any recording as well, and I think that is the better option. Hunt (1994) (click link to download doc) proposes the creation of checklists and describes a teacher using one to focus on language foci in his lessons and then engaging in discussion afterwards.

A large number of teachers appear to have taught for years and never seen or heard themselves in the classroom. I had a friend record me on my DELTA course, doing a slightly extreme experimental practice lesson using ‘Silent Way’ techniques. I didn’t get much chance to hear myself, but my miming and gesticulation were amusing! I could observe myself and the students, and noticed all the language that they would not perhaps have produced had my interaction not been governed by a self-imposed silence. It taught me the value of shutting up in the classroom.

In time, self-observation could perhaps lead teachers more towards being able to reflect ‘in-action’. When we are being observed, I think we all consciously self-monitor more than usual, but when another person is watching this can lead to nerves and panic. In a self-observation, this noticing can be done without worrying about things going wrong and being seen by someone else. Through consciously self-monitoring during a lesson maybe we can become more able to make the right decisions and also to recall incidents to reflection ‘on-action’ later, after the class.

Richards suggests that “teachers who explore their own teaching through critical reflection develop changes in attitudes and awareness which they believe can benefit their professional growth as teachers”. We all naturally think about classes after the event, but there is benefit in formalising the process, not all the time, but on chosen occasions. In this article, Richards also explores different ways in which this can be done.

In our school’s round of self-observation, the participants will engage in post-observation feedback, as in a regular observation, but will not be on the receiving end of feedback. Instead, they will choose the focus and use the opportunity to verbalise their reflections and hopefully the discoveries they have made through the process.

This process is also designed to raise teachers’ awareness of the fact that self-observation can be done at any time and needn’t only take place during a time which a school has identified as a formal observation period. I think that all types of teacher observation have their place, including those with an evaluative element. However, I think the common form observation, as being done by a superior and the feedback being evaluative, should form only a part of an observation cycle and that mixing up the forms of observation can be of great value.

So, if you have never seen or heard yourself teach, switch your webcam on, set up a video camera, record audio on your mobile phone or laptop, use a dictaphone or an old fashioned cassette player, or any other method you can think of. There are many options, so there’s no excuse for not giving it a go!

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10 Responses to Teacher observation: Could you benefit from self-observation?

  1. T Bestwick says:

    Hi Rich,

    Great post! I think one of the best reasons in favour of self-observation over traditional observation is, as you point out, the effect it has on the class. With another body in the room, the students act completely differently which in turn puts extra pressure on the teacher – whether students act up or suddenly turn into quiet, perfectly behaved individuals.

    My plan was to do a self-observation earlier this week and I set my laptop up to record the lesson, though not visually. Whilst I was teaching I was aware that I was “being observed”, as I intended to listen to the recording after the lesson, though unfortunately my tech level is not up to scratch and my means of recording didn’t work! I paid more attention to my language, use of praise, volume – all the points I had intended to focus on in the observation and did find myself changing the way I taught “in action”.

    As a colleague pointed out, we are our own most critical observers and perhaps the thought of being observed makes us think more carefully about how we teach – whether there is someone else in the room or not.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks T, sorry for the delay in replying! I think it’s true that when we force ourselves to focus on something in our classrooms we really notice what’s going on a bit more. I think that process of noticing is really important. Then we can hopefully find time to make it a focus of our personal development!


  2. melike says:

    Thanks for your article! This is fabulous! Last week I wanted to do peer observations with my teacher-friend. But another teacher-friend(!!) said that it wouldn’t be a good idea because he might think that this is an attack for himself so I couldn’t do anything! In Turkey I am working a state primary school as an English teacher. Therefore, after reading your article I decide that I will use a camera for my teaching skills. Thanks again have a good day.

    • Richard says:

      Hi Melike,

      Many thanks for your comment. Sorry for the delay in replying! I think it’s great that you’ve decided to do a self-observation. I think what you say is true as well, involving other immediately makes things more difficult, for many reasons. I that since you write this comments you have been able to self-observe. Perhaps you could tell us about it!!

  3. Nice post Richard.

    Here is a view on observations from a new teachers perspective: http://www.tefljobslondon.co.uk/tefl-advice/teacher-observations-youre-being-watched/

    Best regards, Jon.

  4. Richard, just come across this post of yours as I’m speaking about self-observation at the conference in Istanbul at the weekend – videoing myself teach and watching it later was one of the most enlightening things I’ve ever done and marked a clear before and after to my teaching of young learners, so I highly recommend it – there is so much good advice here, I’m going to mention your post and quote from it in my session, if that’s OK with you.

    • Richard says:

      Hi Graham, you certainly may quote me if you wish! Funnily enough, I was going to apply to speak in Istanbul about the same subject! In the end, I never did apply because unfortunately, I realised I just couldn’t make it – time and finance. I’m really disappointed actually, I would have loved to be there. I hope it all goes well for you and everyone else!


  5. Pingback: ELTchat » What is best practice for observing teachers – #ELTchat summary 18/04/2012

  6. I heard my nephew talking about classroom observations and that the teacher would like to have someone to come and make notes about what could be improved. It is a great tool to, like you said, take note of certain things in the classroom or being done in the classroom. This way everything is run efficiently.

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