I’m learning how to do formal observations!

Look, I’ve done observations before, obviously.

Every time I’m struggling for ideas, I like to pop round a few neighbouring classrooms on the hunt for something new I can shamelessly steal. Sometimes colleagues even come to me first and ask if I wouldn’t mind sitting in for half a lesson, so they can get a second opinion on something that’s been bugging them. And heaven knows that my TP group on the Delta were observation-obsessed, every last one of us only too happy to take a lesson to shreds with pen and paper, and then put it back together again via verbal feedback.

The problem was that I’d never conducted a formal observation before, you see. At least, not one with real paperwork that would be scanned and filed forever, or actual real-life stakes at play ranging from that teacher’s self confidence in the classroom to the size of their end-of-year bonus. Up until a week ago, formally observing my colleagues still seemed like a role I’d somehow never be ready for. The problem with taking promotions at work, however, is that they also come with added responsibilities, and my boss quickly made it clear that this was to become the newest skill in my arsenal without any further ado.

The silliest thing I did was not asking for help straight away. Instead, I notified my “observees” that I’d be sitting in for a full lesson of their choice the following week, and willed everything to go smoothly without asking anyone what that was actually supposed to look like. When it finally occurred to me to ask Twitter for help, I realised I should have sat down with each teacher beforehand: firstly, to ask them what they were most concerned about, and secondly, to tell them what particular areas I wanted to focus on when observing, just the way we do with students before they sit exams.

Oh, well. Too late for that. We’d been through the lesson aims and the plan together, everything looked good, and in we went.

I wrote like a madwoman during those two observations, only realising my naivety afterwards as I combed through six full pages of barely legible scrawl in my notebook. How could I make sense of my notes in a way that would potentially mean something to the observees as well as my future self coming back to the observation documents a few months down the line? Having learned from my earlier mistake, I immediately turned to my DoS for help with the written feedback, and between her category-based method of grouping similar points and my traffic-light system for ranking their importance, we managed to redact those six pages into a pithy A4 page per teacher.

The final hurdle was meeting with my observees and talking them through my feedback, which from my perspective was far and away the most stress-inducing component of the whole rigmarole. What if they hated what I had to say? What if they got defensive and refused to accept it? What if they couldn’t see how my suggestions lined up with what I had observed in the classroom?

Obviously, none of those things happened, because I work with lovely, polite people who are incredibly keen to develop. And I daresay the conversations were actually more informative for me than they were for my observees, given how much I have to learn in my initial period of trialling this newly learned skill. But it all went off without my destroying anybody’s morale in the process! And the paperwork was all done on time too. Wonders never cease.

I know that this is one area at work where I have a very, very steep learning curve ahead of me, but it’s one of those things I’m only too happy to put time into, especially as I can feel it moving me ever-closer to my teaching endgame, i.e. working as a full-time teacher trainer. Having said that, part of me also let out a sigh of relief when I realised I wouldn’t have to do any more formal observations until next term … So, until then, if you need me, you’ll find me buried under a pile of books that are more or less all entitled ‘How to be less terrible the next time you observe someone‘. Thanks again for the help, ELT Blogverse and Twitterverse – I’ll let you know how the next one goes!

I’m no longer scared of being observed!

So, I’m walking out the door of the staffroom. It’s 6:05pm. (Last class of the day – almost done!) I’ve got one foot in, one foot out, when my DoS walks up to me and asks if the new teacher who joined us earlier this week could possibly come observe my class. (The one that starts five minutes from now, that is.) For a good few seconds, I stand there slack-jawed, waiting for that old familiar observation panic to kick in … but it never comes. And then I hear a calm voice (my voice?) coolly say, “Yeah, of course. That’s absolutely fine.”

How did we get here, ladies and gentlemen? Was it really that long ago when the mere idea of another teacher being in my classroom was enough to make me break into a sweat, mess up my staging and forget half my lesson plan? How many hours would I spend slogging over lesson plans and language analysis sheets that my line managers would inevitably spend a maximum of ten minutes glancing over during a quick pre-obs meeting? How many nights would I spend obsessively going over an observed lesson, making a mental note of all the things I could have done differently?

Hard though it is to pinpoint exactly when and how my observation-related fears suddenly vanished, I think it mainly comes down to the following factors:

Saturation. I was observed so often during Delta Module 2 and the IH CYLT that it almost started to seem weird not to have someone sitting in my classroom at all times, making notes on every single thing I thought, said and did, and then reporting those notes back to me afterwards in minute and at times frankly unnecessary detail!

Awareness. Again, thanks to Delta Module 2, I’m much more aware of my own beliefs and assumptions as a teacher, and I can use them to fully justify every one of those instinctive decisions we constantly have to make during a lesson. This also means I’m comfortable identifying, analysing and criticising my own decisions post-obs, all the while avoiding that rookie CELTA mistake of, “Oh god, it was terrible!”

Interest. As a lover of teaching and learning, and an ambitious young professional, I am chomping at the bit to learn everything I possibly can about what I do. Observations are, hands down, one of the best ways to do that. There’s nothing like personalised, constructive, forward-looking feedback to boost your standards!

Confidence. Having received, on balance, more positive observation feedback than negative in my teaching career so far, I can now tell myself I’m statistically unlikely to make any life-altering mistakes that will have me berating myself for hours afterwards. (Not that this doesn’t still happen from time to time, of course!) TLDR; I can say with some certainty that I don’t completely suck at my job.

Prudence. Now that I’ve been teaching for almost four years, I know that observations are not the time to try new, complicated activities you’ve never done before, unless that’s the specific aim of the observation as pre-arranged with your observer. I know not to try to fit two hours of teaching into 80 minutes. I also know when to throw the lesson plan and the rules out of the window and just go with it.

As for my observation today, it went very well, thank you very much for asking! My students were absolutely stellar, as they always are, and gave me a lot of food for thought via a discussion about fake news and the modern role of social media as a primary news source for the public. Here’s the #ELTwhiteboard from the lesson for your viewing pleasure:

Observations - #ELTwhiteboard

I work 48 hours a week!

I’ve spent the last couple of days feeling like a bit of a prat.

On Friday, I saw a hashtag that piqued my interest.

I blithely tweeted back with my honest answer.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a tweet blow up like that one did.

Look, it’s not that I was previously unaware of how hard I was working. I even wrote about it here. I just didn’t realise that it was unusual to work that kind of schedule in ELT; I honestly, genuinely thought everyone did it.

I quickly found out that wasn’t true when the replies started popping up on my Twitter feed. f you’ve got a couple of hours spare, I do encourage you to check out the original hot mess on Twitter via the link above, but if not, here are some particularly tasty morsels for your viewing pleasure: “Bloody hell, go easy on yourself!” “That’s an insane amount of work.” “It *really* isn’t worth it. Your health and sanity are worth a lot more.” “With hours like that you have to question your quality of teaching.” There was even one guy who just tweeted back at me with the words “Burnout alert!”

… and so on, and so forth, pretty much continuously for the next two days, until my original Tweet had spawned a kind of monster comment thread, riddled with shocked reactions and well-meant suggestions and when-I-was-younger anecdotes from my fellow teachers. I have to tell you, I spent my Sunday afternoon perched at my living room table, with one panicked eye on my Delta Module 3 assignment and the other eye, mildly horrified, on my Twitter notifications.

I felt, and continue to feel, incredibly stupid. And if ‘stupid’ isn’t quite the right word with quite the right nuance, then ‘naive’ certainly is. How could I have thought that this was the done thing for so long? Why did I just blindly accept it all, despite acknowledging to myself on my own blog that work was completely exhausting? How had I managed to get through the madness-inducing workload of Delta Module 2, promising myself that it was only a temporary arrangement, only to let myself promptly drown in a sea of work upon starting back at my regular job? How was I supposed to know?

The scariest thing, I suppose, is the thought that if Marc had never tweeted the original hashtag, I might never have realised there was anything wrong with my status quo. It really does make me wonder how many other young ELT teachers are out there dealing with the same sort of demands and expectations at work, without the support of more seasoned teachers – or even colleagues with experience in other industries – to support them. I certainly would never have got to this point without the help and advice of all the lovely Twitterfolk who took a moment to stop and leave me their words of wisdom and support. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is an issue worth adding to initial teacher training courses.

As it stands, I went straight to my DoS on Monday afternoon to hash things out. Despite being utterly convinced that I was doing the right thing, and with all the validation of written comments from several other ELT professionals, I was still absolutely terrified going in to that meeting. It’s made me realise that I have yet to fully confront my (unfounded) feelings of doubt and low self-worth at work.

We discussed the problems as I saw them, as well as a couple of solutions to help make things more manageable for me, and while I have no guarantee that any of those ideas are going to be taken on board, I do feel much better for having faced things head on. As one of my colleagues reminded me, you can only change the things that are directly under your control. Whatever happens now, at least I can say I tried.

I gave my managers some feedback!

Our school has problems.

No surprises there; all schools have them. But our school also has an all-too-rare culture of regular developmental feedback, and that makes all the difference.

Today I chaired an open meeting for teaching staff only. Management was away at the AMT conference in Greenwich, and we all know how the old adage goes: while the cats are away, the mice will get together at a mutually convenient time and identify what they feel are the school’s critical weaknesses, before compiling a document of constructive suggestions in order to effectively address the situation.

A full ninety minutes had been set aside, but it wasn’t enough time. I’m proud to say that despite only managing to cover six of the nine points on the agenda, my colleagues and I managed to fill every one of those ninety minutes, as well as six whole A4 pages of 10-point Calibri. I’m proud to say I work at a place where teachers are invested enough in the school’s heart and soul to actually want to make long-term changes, despite the inherent hard work and uncertainty involved. I’m proud to say that not one of my colleagues seemed uncomfortable voicing their (at times, unpopular) opinions for fear of repercussions down the line, despite the fact that everything we said was written down for posterity.

And as if that wasn’t already enough catharsis for one day, our school director came into the staffroom straight after the meeting and asked if we could sit down together at the end of the very same school day, so that she could personally read and try to understand each of the suggestions we’d included in the document.

What more could you ask for?