I am an ESOL teacher and occasional teacher trainer from the UK. I am interested in teaching, obviously, but in particular in language teaching, teaching with technology, professional development for teachers and in professionalism in the lifelong learning sector generally.
A number of years ago, I taught PSD (Personal and Social Development) to a group of 16-18 ESOL students, and I hated it. Quite, quite profoundly, too. While I could get behind the idea of helping students with personal stuff like health, money management, teamwork, that sort of thing, gaining accreditation for knowing you should eat vegetables always felt a little bit on the Mickey Mouse spectrum. The other, and probably more dominant reason was my own validity in teaching these things: you feel a bit of wally talking about healthy eating, then heading off afterwards for some Pepsi Max and a packet of fruit pastilles. “Do as I say, not as I do” is not a great teaching motto.
Fast forward a few years, however, and “ESOL with” is an increasingly dominant model for all students. Adult ESOL has moved from discrete embedding of maths and IT on a voluntary basis, i.e. where students are offered things if they are interested, to where institutions are running courses where the maths and IT are increasingly fully integrated into a package of qualifications. Most recently, qualifications like employability have begun to be offered as part of this package.
Now, I have no problem with embedding, up to a point. I will, where appropriate, highlight maths in a class if it occurs naturally (statistics in a text, etc.) but I won’t shoehorn it in because duh, that’s not embedding. I have, badly, taught entry level maths in discrete classes for ESOL students: badly because the teaching of maths took me back to the naked boredom I recall when learning it. (This is a personal thing: I am very sure there are plenty of maths teachers out there who are similarly unimpressed by grammar.) I’ve also been a regular teacher of ESOL and ICT for the last goodness knows how many years, which is ironic, really, given that out of all the things mentioned so far, ICT is, on paper, at least, the one thing I am least qualified to teach, It’s been entirely picked up as I go along, which is, perhaps, a testament to informal learning.
Very often, both maths and ICT are things that, in my experience, ESOL students want or need, but not always in the way one might think. I have a student who comes to my ESOL and ICT class who does so purely for the extra English practice, as without the language barrier, she’s probably better qualified than I am in terms of ICT skills. However, even in cases like this, they can see the value of formalising their experience and understanding of ICT through the medium of English, in much the same way that I will, one day, get round to formalising my ICT skills through a qualification.
On the other hand, this kind of course isn’t for everybody. Neither is ESOL and employability, or ESOL and Childcare, or ESOL and Construction, or ESOL and anything. After all, any given cohort of ESOL students is massively diverse and complex. Sure there is diversity of need and background to any group of people, but in an ESOL setting superdiversity is the norm, with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, carers, accountants, civil servants, social workers, trained teachers, small business owners, semi-professional gamers, care workers, artists, nurses, graphic designers and farmers all rubbing shoulders.
Therefore it follows that to require that students do a course in any of the “ESOL with…” combinations is patronising at best, downright insulting at worst. It’s also a failure to meet the stated needs of the students. If I turn up at a college wanting to learn French, I don’t want to also have to do an entry level maths course at the same time. I might want the opportunity to do it, and there’s no harm in asking me if I want to, but it should not be a condition of enrolment: I reserve the right to say “no”. Of course, if my enrolment were enforced, I could vote with my feet, and only attend the bit of the course I want to attend, but the there are consequences – my reputation goes down as an unreliable attendee, and therefore a bit of a risk for subsequent courses, not to mention a reference for work.
The reason, of course, that this sort of thing exists is that the funding for these qualifications can be used to prop up the shortfall in the appalling funding situation for ESOL, not to mention financial shortfalls in FE generally. If ESOL were actually funded appropriate to the necessary learning involved then organisations could offer other things as an optional extra, and even be a bit creative with other alternatives, offering students a package which is not only useful in terms of developing language, but also in terms of developing and capitalising on their other skills; something which can only be good for all of us. The reality is that ESOL is not seen as deserving of funding, never mind respect or integrity, and thus teachers are squeezed into uncomfortable professional compromises by an unsympathetic sector.
As a contrast to my last post on last week’s lessons, I thought I’d reflect on a lesson I taught this week with two of the same groups as before: so level 1 ESOL (broadly B2 ish), mixed nationality esol in the UK.
It was the 7th March, World Book Day, and so I selected a text (note, please, the pronoun) on the benefits of reading together and for pleasure published by the World Book Day organisation. It’s quite a rich text, with some rich vocabulary and some fine examples of different ways we use the present participle, which is something I had planned to cover (again, pronoun).
We did a pre-reading discussion; we read for gist; we read for text type and purpose; we read for detail; and we did some vocabulary work around word formation (create/creative/creation/creativity, etc.). There was also a task around identifying and using the ing forms which we didn’t get round to in the class, but which I set for homework.
Now, and I’ll let you into a dirty little secret here, it was, without a doubt, absolutely fine. Not problematic at all. The students all engaged with the text, and succeeded in understanding it. They got the questions and challenges around type and purpose, and were all good at the reading for detail tasks. They did great at the vocab, and we had a number of “ooooh” moments. Partly this was with the vocabulary itself, but also with the use of paper dictionaries, which I made the students use. This was a genuine novelty for the students, because they are very very used to online dictionaries. For me, researching vocab like this, a paper dictionary beats any app or website, no matter what Ms Ticky-Tick-Box MicroManager would argue is a missed opportunity to develop digital literacy (FFS, they use their phones all the bloody time – it’s hardly something they need to develop.) The familiar CELTA type structure meant that I could switch off from managing the class because I know how a lesson like that “works”. Instead I could work the room a bit and promote and encourage interactions and questions, scooping up the gobbets of interesting language and conversation that came up during the lessons.
Which is where this all starts to come together a bit. Not every lesson has to be based on walking with a smile and a question and seeing what happens, and anyway, that can be quite wearying, even with a little more structure involved! Plus sometimes, no, quite often during a dogme type lesson you notice language areas that really do need some in depth analysis and presentation, a bit of formal input and practice, which is really hard to do on the fly. The reality of the job is that you change your approaches to fit the context. This is why I am wary of “standard” practices imposed from management (and they do impose), or of “best practices” because what works in class X could very easily bomb in class Y.
I’m not, and have never been, a purist. Not for me dogme only, or TBLT, or whatever. You can keep your educational fundamentalism for pointless spats on Twitter. I have always been a bricoleur (if I may borrow the concept), choosing the most appropriate tools from a range, and hammering them together into something that works for the teaching situation. If someone pinned me down for a “what kind of teacher are you” discussion, then I’d say magpie, pinching all the glittery shiny things from whatever I like, and using them how I like. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You learn, you listen, and you avoid making the same mistake twice. Well, three times, anyway.
Like many (well, 100 or so) in the UK ESOL community last week I managed to rush home to pick up a webinar run by Scott Thornbury on an “ecological” approach to ESOL: essentially drawing together ideas from dogma, participatory education and task based learning and applying them to the UK ESOL context: that is, teaching English to migrants in an English language setting.
A couple of things struck me: first was that this was a very similar line to the approaches I’ve described at various NATECLA workshops: using the lives of the students and the language contexts in which they live and work as the starting point for learning, and within that, enabling and using the students’ emergent language arising from the those contexts as the course content, rather than teacher selected grammar and vocabulary items. I don’t mean in a situational “Mr Khan goes to the chemist” sense, but rather using planned classroom strategies to open the learning space to whatever language the students need: creating a space for language to arise through interaction. You create interactions which expose gaps in the communicative skills of the students and you fill them. It’s not winging it, in the sense of planning and thinking about the how of the lesson, but leaving the what up to chance. This is a bit of a distance from the standard model of FE (in which I work), which requires that there be teacher dictated learning aims for every lesson, with teacher dictated activities and teacher selected content: the content and “aims” originate with the students on the day. We move from aims and outcomes, and the dreaded SMART, and instead we look at affordances and thus learning opportunities: not so much we will learn to we have learned.
There’s a lot of skill and understanding involved: where some language arises, you’ve got to know whether to explain and analyse, perhaps expand and practice, or whether to simply “infill” the correct form lexically, so to speak. You’ve got to be on the ball, listening to the students across the room, to decide whether one students’ language is something that will benefit everyone, and is whether it is worth sharing with the whole class. You need to know your students: how are they likely to respond to your lesson structure? How will they engage with each other? Which students are likely to produce more complex structures and who is likely to need more support?
So anyway, inspired, or perhaps reminded, by the webinar, I thought I’d have a go at an explicitly “unplugged” lesson. I had three groups of students at level 1, two on Thursday morning, and one on Friday, and I did a sort of mini-action research project by using the same basic lesson structure to see what happened.
As a stimulus I used pictures of various places around town. I chose relatively significant places: supermarkets, libraries, the job centre, the council offices, and fairly commonplace ones: a cash machine, a railway station, a chemist. I quite like these as a stimulus: they’re familiar and reusable: one set of 25 A4 colour photos (ssh, don’t tell the boss) can be used on multiple occasions. Plus there’s lots that can be done with them.
I divided the lesson into rounds, rather than stages. Round 1 was simply identifying the places. Each group of students received an envelope with some of the images in. They looked, identified and discussed their ideas before handing the photos to the next group. Repeat as necessary until everyone’s seen all of them, then a bit of teacher led plenary to pull together answers and ideas, and to share the emergent language. And what a lot there was, even at this stage. In one group, we ended up with zero hours contract,minor ailments and insufficient funds; with another we had time waster and pass the buck; and in the other a clarification over the difference between jungle and woods.
For round 2, the students worked in pairs to identify problems which might arise in these places. This is where it got really interesting. With the first two groups the focus was much more squarely (but not purely) focussed on problems in the places themselves (being overcharged, refunds, benefits problems, a card getting swallowed, that sort of thing). With the third group, the issues more often focussed on outside: looking at issues around parking, transport services and so on. This was significant because this influenced how the third round played out.
Round 3, then, was intended to have the students writing a dialogue based on one of the problems identified. However, the most appropriate response to, say, a lack of parking, isn’t to harangue the guy on the front desk of the council office, but rather to write, or email, the relevant department. So where, in rounds 1 and 2, the emergent language was relatively similar, particularly, as you might expect, with the two groups based in the same geographical area, the language arising for Round 3 was radically different not only in the individual bottom up language (grammar, vocabulary, etc.), but also in the types of language interaction the students needed in order to deal with the problem.
There is much talk in FE, and indeed in education generally, about meeting individual needs. The traditional ESOL approach to this is assess students, identify areas for improvement, design course to meet these needs. This is all very lovely and idealistic, and perhaps in the early Skills for Life ESOL class maxing out at around 12 students it might even have a little value. As class sizes have swollen to 18+ students, the reality is that across the course everyone will probably need some exposure to pretty much everything. What this sort of approach does is create a learning environment which is based entirely on individual needs: after all, whose language are we working with? Where are the gaps in communicative ability coming from? In some ways, this approach is far closer to the holy grail of individualised learning than anything which involves various formalised assessments, target setting and the rest: it’s assessment for learning in action, if you like, making use of what you learn about your students in the lesson to maximise their subsequent learning, unfettered by planned aims and teacher dictated content. Plus it probably winds some people up, and that, quite frankly, is reason enough for anything.
I was involved in a small debate on Twitter last week about the value/benefit of lesson observation. It’s a well worn topic for me, and I’ve spent plenty of time discussing the problems with lesson observation linked to performance management, the benefits of peer observation and so on.
But one thing came up and that was this statement which I made off the cuff, but realised was probably completely true.
I found myself wondering if this was just keyboard warrior braggadocio or whether it was true: is there anything in my practice that I can trace directly back to lesson observation feedback?
Luckily (or not) I have a bit of a data trail for this, and I have lesson observations from records going back quite a few years, so I went and had a look through them, focussing on the areas for improvement identified.
I don’t want to bore you with the details, but what I did find is that where my practice was confirmed as meeting the standards, that is, the stuff I was doing well, then those things stayed, even where (as in my most recent observation) those things were relatively new or experimental. That is to say, where the feedback confirmed something was effective, then these things have generally become (it remained) a part of my practice.
The areas for improvement, on the other hand, have been more challenging. Sometimes, I think, they’ve been too specific: something which occurred in that lesson and that lesson only but which, as a general rule, don’t seem to happen in most lessons (like an attendance issue in my last one, for example) or which are specific to a type of lesson and may or may not make their way into practice. A good example of this was demonstrating progress and feedback by using email exchanges in an ESOL and ICT class. I know the person who suggested this sometimes checks in on the blog, so just in case, I’m sorry, but I never really did get round to ever doing it, not properly. I gave it a go for a week or two, and it just never felt like it was doing much for me or the students, apart from generating a bit of a paper trail which nobody looked at or cared about.
There are a batch of “procedural” actions, around paperwork or admin, or tracking, or something, which, yeah, next year, I promise, but which are never going to be my strong suit. I’ve had stuff like that in every appraisal, never mind lesson observation, since time immemorial, and I’m still useless at it. Related to this are the comments relating to standardised practice – patronising comments about things which are so bland and meaningless (health and safety, learning objectives on display, that sort of thing), that you have to wonder whether or not the feedback was generated by some managerial predictive text, with the writer simply stabbing the middle button on an iPad app.
More often than not, however, the ideas are just, well, a bit meh. Fair enough in their way, nice ideas, but nothing that really excited me. There was nothing in the “rejected” pile of action plans from previous observations that made me go “fuck me, that’s the answer I’ve been looking for!”. I’m not sure if I feel comfortable with the word uninspiring, but it’s the closest I’ve got.
So, the answer to my question? Was I just showing off? Sadly, no. Sorry to all my observers who read this, but all that carefully crafted feedback and those individualised suggested actions have all come to a big fat bugger all. Partly it’s the reasons above, but also, I think, there’s the element of the observation being done to you. I didn’t get to choose the lesson, for example, be it a comfort zone lesson where I’m trying something a bit out there, and would like some help, or one with the bolshy teenagers where I struggle with what is probably some pretty basic behaviour management stuff, and again, would like some non-judgmental support where the feedback is entirely without consequence on a professional level, but which focusses has n something important. The word I’m looking for here I think is safe. Not safe from criticism, mind you, but rather that the observation and the feedback are safe from the demands of performance management. But what happens instead is that the lesson might have been a bit of a so-what lesson to start with, with me following a safe, predictable and reassuring procedure that I know works well, and ticks lots of boxes (in fact, the chances of that are pretty high, I can tell you now), and so the feedback tells me very little.
There have been some observations leading to change, but these are ones which go back over a decade or more, to when I was doing my DELTA, and thinking through the linguistic and theoretical frameworks behind the lesson. Even here, however, the observation was the culmination of several other factors. Yes, the observation was the agent for change, in the sense that had I not been observed for the course, I wouldn’t have made those changes, but it wasn’t the source of the change. The ideas did not grow from the act of being observed, but rather from other things.
All of which takes to the question of where changes have come from. I’m not in some weird stasis, after all, and I’m not the teacher I was fifteen years ago. Some of it, no, an awful lot of it, has come from me thinking about things for myself, reflecting on things and adapting accordingly, either in the class or after. This isn’t big-headed (well, not much) it’s just that the only regular observer of my lessons aside from my students is me, and that’s what I do. I’ve changed lesson styles, teaching ideas, resources, all sorts, as a result of my own reflections. The other change “from within” is more about trying new things – sometimes I just have an idea I want to try, so I do. It either works, or it doesn’t, and so it goes. By the same token, feedback from students has also contributed to change: less dramatically, perhaps, but where they have made suggestions, I’ve listened and adapted through the lens of my own professional judgement.
Changes have also come from reading. Dogme/Teaching Unplugged has been a huge influence on me, and I’ll tell you now, nobody in mainstream FE teaching would dare suggest that you can learn without having everything painstakingly planned and dictated by the teacher, so that has definitely not come from lesson observation feedback. The main driver for that change has been through exposure to ideas through books, followed by practical experimentation.
The other big source for ideas has been through conversations with colleagues – talking to a peer and listening to their ideas before taking them on. In fact, I can identify several concrete teaching practices that have come from these conversations, or from virtual colleagues via Twitter, or indeed any other source but again rarely, if ever, where these conversations have followed a formal observation.
But perhaps we are being too hard on the lesson observation. Perhaps it’s really not meant to be that effective in promoting change, certainly not the standard once a year model, anyway: why would it be? In educational terms, an observation is an assessment and this model is more like a summative rather than a formative assessment. It’s something that happens once a year, and captures the development and changes that have occurred across that year. It presents an evaluation of the performance of that individual, measured against externally dictated criteria. Actions following feedback are too an afterthought, from both an individual and an institutional perspective; that is to say, development is not the principle driver behind the process. So yes, I am being too hard on lesson observation: perhaps I have raised my expectations too high, or have believed somewhat idealistically in the system as a force for development.
So in answer to my question, after quite a lot of thought, the answer remains no. All that effort around formal observations, mine and my observers, has had negligible impact on my professional practice. It’s quite a frightening reflection, really, given the status accorded to lesson observations, but also one which should be acknowledged by observers (I include myself in that group as well). Could we observers do better? Feedback is so often a recitation of judgements, rather than a discussion and a challenge, but again this is because judgements are demanded by the process: we can’t just debate the pros and cons like professional adults, but are forced into an unequal teacher-pupil type relationship by the observation system. And that, I guess, is why lesson observation has categorically, emphatically, not improved my teaching practice.
My lessons at the back end of last week were centred around the theme of Brexit. Now, I am assuming you know what this is, but just in case you are blissfully unaware, here’s a link to help you. I pitched it as a reading lesson, using resources adapted from that link, and, needless to say, the topic caused some discussion. I chose it because it’s all over the news, inevitably, and will have a direct impact on a number of the students in the class, and probably affect most of the rest through potential changes to immigration laws.
However, it’s also a nakedly political topic, steeped in prejudice and bigotry, and as such raises all sorts of questions, around the inclusion of politics in general and around the inclusion of potentially worrying or upsetting themes for some students. Politics is also one of Thornbury’s PARSNIP topics, avoided by the mainstream ELT publishing world as too controversial for their target markets.
I guess my question is this: should I avoid topics like Brexit, on either personal grounds, in that it might upset people, or on ideological grounds, i.e. that teaching is an apolitical act, and should remain divorced from the terse reality of topics like Brexit.
My short answer on both counts is no.
Sensitive topics shouldn’t be avoided because they might upset. If we avoided things that might upset ESOL students in the UK we’d have nothing to talk about in class, quite frankly, because all sorts of apparently innocuous things might upset someone somewhere, even if it is just a trigger: “My mum used to make a cup of tea just like that…“.
That’s not to say we should be riding roughshod over our students feelings, mind you. If I know a student has lost their family in a war, I might not probe too far, or rely on personalising that topic. And if I found out mid-lesson, I could still adapt accordingly: Last night, in fact, I included a “getting to know you” activity which involved students making notes about their personal life (family, etc.) to share. One student chose not to write anything under that section, and correspondingly I chose not to dig further. I’m not so inhuman that I’d tell them to man up, or put a brave face on it: but also I don’t think I’d avoid the topic either. As hard as it might be, being able to talk about sensitive subjects might even be useful, during that Home Office immigration department interrogation, for example,where keeping your facts straight is half the battle, even if you’ve given the same information at several interviews across a decade of living in the UK. And politically difficult subjects are often a slightly different ball game anyway: there’s a degree of distance from the personally sensitive which allows for a more measured discussion. Sure, students might disagree, but they are adults and would be expected to behave as adults would behave. A little political sensitivity might come into play: two students from historically/socially/politically antagonistic backgrounds might take a bit of handling, and would certainly represent a topic to avoid. The trick is not to avoid topics on might but to avoid topics on the grounds of will and to do this, you need to know your students. It is a question not of principles, but of behaviour management.
And neither should we ourselves be apolitical in the classroom. For one, we can’t. ESOL teachers in particular are engaged in an openly political act: whether you see us as enabling conformist integration through language, or enabling two-way, active integration, where the culture and language of the migrant is recognised and celebrated as equal to the noisy majority, or perhaps you see what we do as just helping students to help themselves or others. These are all political stances, as are the multitudinous motivations of our students, which are far more complex than simply intrinsic/extrinsic.
It’s almost impossible to avoid – while an ESOL class should be a safe space for all students to be themselves and be open, they are also part of a wider linguistic community where students are exposed to political discussions, even on a face to face level. The only answer here is to embrace the political. Embrace it compassionately, of course, sensitive to the human beings in front of you, but embrace it. Understand that in the UK teaching ESOL is a profoundly political process, in a top down policy sense and in a bottom up personal sense.
This is why I will actively bring politics into the classroom. And with Brexit in particular, the issues are now so tangled and complex that whatever your view of the purpose of ESOL, enabling students to understand these issues is a key part of what we do. But our own stances will always come across: I can’t talk for Brexit for more than a few moments without my personal beliefs becoming clear. It’s like accents: It doesn’t take long for my students to notice that I have a different accent to those in the communities where the live, usually leading to a discussion about good and had accents. However, in both cases, my role is not to win people over: rather it is to make it clear that whatever my opinion or accent is, it’s not necessarily the right or best opinion or accent, it is merely mine (I do joke about the accents, gently and lovingly mocking the boos and moog of Yorkshire’s buses and mugs). By acknowledging my own failings in this regards, this allows students to recognise their own limitations when it comes to perceptions of right and wrong, and gives me scope to (sensitively, appropriately) challenge those opinions, particularly where those opinions are potentially upsetting or offensive to others. I teach adults for the most part, after all, and as such we are equals of experience and understanding of the world. ESOL is sometimes dismissed as a bit cutesy, “lovely ESOL students”, which may be true when it comes to behaviour management and motivation, but brings its own challenges: students who have expectations, students who have beliefs and opinions which can’t be dismissed as being immature or developing, but beliefs and opinions formed out of a lifetime of habit.
So I taught a lesson tonight. It was a short introduction lesson for a group of intermediate-ish students in preparation for their being taught by our CELTA trainers. It’s a multiply purposed lesson: partly to induct the students into the college; partly to allow me to gauge the level of the students properly; and to provide the CELTA trainers with an observation of an experienced teacher.
The lesson is a take on a first lesson idea I’ve used for years: post a bunch of words or numbers on the board relating to me, and the students have to guess what they mean (for example 2 (children), Banbury (where I come from), New Zealand (where I lived for a year and would happily return), hobbies, and so on. It’s a bit of fun, and by asking students to draft questions to ask, you get a good idea of their technical understanding. In this case I follow it up with a bit of reading where I’ve written about myself and included some deliberate mistakes (“I come from Basingstoke, and have 3 children.”) which I ask students to identify. The students then talk about their own details in groups, and then write about themselves for homework.
It’s a fun lesson to teach, not least because it’s a proper show-off lesson: you know when it’s going to happen, how long it’s going to be, and it’s hard to resist putting on a bit of a show for the trainees. It’s a bit of an ego trip, and not just because the topic of the lesson is little old me.
But because of all this, I tend to put a lot into the lesson. And again, when I say a lot, I don’t mean “a lot of my swelteringly vile ego”, but rather a lot of energy and focus, which is interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about that of late.
Where I work, you see, I’m not “just a teacher”. I have time off teaching to mentor and support colleagues, which is a profoundly rewarding role, but also one which can get, well, a bit adminny. Emails tend to be involved, records need to be kept, meetings held, and generally I have to think about stuff beyond the immediate concerns of the classes I teach. And this can be distracting: you can go into class worrying about a colleague, anxious about how you’re going to plan tomorrow morning’s class when you’ve got an afternoon of observations and mentoring meetings, things like that. It can, therefore, be quite hard to leave that at the classroom door, and so you can too easily end up being slightly absent from the lesson, in mind, rather than body.
I’ve done it, I have to admit, although I’m sure I’m not the only one. However, what you realise really quickly is that if you are not entirely present in the lesson, working in the moment, then something is lost.
A tempting metaphor is that of spinning plates: you take your eye off the lesson and the whole thing comes crashing down. But with a bit of experience and/or planning, it is possible to produce an acceptable, workaday lesson that more or less teaches itself: the plates do keep spinning. But (if you’ll forgive my perilously stretched metaphor) the plates don’t spin quite as well. Learning happens, for sure, even if you are a bit distracted in the lesson, tempted away by the siren call of anxieties and stresses from the office end, but you miss all those splendid opportunities for learning that occur when you are properly paying attention.
You also miss reinvigorating yourself somewhat. Take this evening’s lesson, for example. It was at the far end of a long day which had started with a 5am wake up with a poorly child, followed by a visit to the hospital (he’s ok now, thanks for asking) and prior to the lesson, I was basically running on empty. Coffee, lots of coffee, and some rather lovely jalebi was barely keeping me going.
It sounds daft, I know, but whether it was the coffee and the sugary fried deliciousness, but I definitely perked up in the classroom and not because I coasted and let it just happen, but because I was very much “in” the lesson; by which I mean focussed on, and listening to the students, reacting to their comments, noticing their errors and their achievements, and creating learning out of that as much as out of the lesson aims.
But I’m not recommending this because it was reinvigorating: the secret to my youthful skin is not teaching, after all. I’m recommending it because it’s what makes a lesson good, even excellent. You’re not going through the motions, merely following the lesson, but rather you are manipulating the lesson, and the only way you can do it is to be properly in the lesson.
And on that slightly delirious note, I’m off to bed.
The final thing really was the process itself. Happily for me, and for the person I observed, things were fine. No concerns, no problems, no anxieties. Just some lessons, and some learning, and that’s about it. However, I also spent the week talking to people being observed, both before and after and there was always a sense of anxiety, even in my own lesson: What if it goes wrong? None of us are immediately going to lose our jobs off the back of a lesson going south, I concede, but it’s part of the process that could end there. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Even if it doesn’t end in capability procedures, you still get involved in some sort of process which critically analyses your practice. Of course, we should all be open to this kind of critical analysis, but that doesn’t make it easy or pleasant. The additional performance management element of an observation means that the observer is not the critical friend that is needed for a balanced critical analysis, but more of a monitor and evaluator.
A lesson observation is an exercise in power. The observer-observee relationship is one of imbalanced power, whether it be a teacher training observation, where the observer’s feedback could contribute to a failed course, or a managerial observation. A power imbalance can exist even between colleagues: the more successful vs less successful, more experienced vs less experienced.
And it is in this power imbalance that the problems arise: where the imbalance is profound, as in the quality assurance observation, the complexity of the feedback is hard to manage on both sides. Is the observer genuinely dissecting the lesson with the observee, teasing out the complexities of what happened with an honest but fair discussion or is the purpose of the feedback (consicously or not) simply to tell the observee what happened, and, crucially, what they thought of it. Too often observer “rigour” is confused with “I’m right”: using an ofsted-style Judgement-Evidence-Impact model for the write up: “X was good, for example when…, and as a result….”. A truly developmental conversation would get rid of the “Judgement” and discuss only what happened in the lesson, and what the impact of that was.
Observees are complicit in this as well – the ones who resent the system and simply await the judgement to fall, sarcastic deference at the ready. “No, you are the mighty observer who knows all, and shall now pass judgement on my lesson. I am but a mere teacher, barely worthy to sit in the shadow of your mighty wisdom in all things teaching learning.” For those observees I say this: grow some balls. Come into that discussion ready to fight your corner, with your own evaluation at the ready: and be honest in that as well. If you were shit, and you know it, say so, and be clear about it. I’ll say this time and time again about observations – try running the feedback. Dissect the lesson “So when I did this, I thought this, what do you think?” If you passive-aggressively await the comments of your observer because you think you are scoring a point against the system, then, you deserve to have the feedback done at you. You’ve simply rubber stamped the system, merely accepted, albeit resentfully, the status quo, not taken a stance.
Observation of this sort is therefore deeply flawed. It doesn’t work well as quality assurance (it’s an appalling sample size after all: 1/840th of a full time teacher’s performance), and neither does it achieve professional development terribly well (because it’s so distorted by the QA element). Until a system can be developed that divorces QA from professional development, then observation like this will never truly be a success in either.
The second thing that came out of my recent observation was a discussion about embedding. Anyone working in FE these days knows about embedding. Embedding maths, embedding English, embedding British Values, Prevent, equality and diversity, and probably a couple I’ve forgotten. Trouble is, there’s a fine line between embedding things meaningfully and shoehorning, and it’s too easy to end up with the latter.
Take a (different) lesson I taught recently, for example. We were looking at an infographic about world languages, and we looked at the proportions of speakers of different languages. In order to answer a question in the text we needed to work out that if 72 million Arabic speakers live in Egypt, and there are 242 million Arabic speakers in total around the world, then how many live in the rest of the world. This was natural, unforced, and to my mind the whole point of embedding: look, it says, maths is everywhere.
Except it isn’t. Look, for example, at the text I was using in the observed lesson. It was a leaflet from Anti-slavery International and for the sake of the students and sheer brevity, focussed on the first page. The lesson followed the pattern of read the text, identify some language, analyse the language and practise it. Nothing radical or revolutionary, although in this case perhaps identifying the uses of the passive in a text on slavery was perhaps a step away from the usual. There was, at a push, one place I could have included a single sum, calculating how many years it was between the abolition of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery in the UK, and we did have a bit of a discussion about the reasons for this gap in the lesson. But would the explicit act of calculating those years (a simple subtraction) have improved anything integral to the lesson, or improved the maths skills of an intelligent and in many cases very well educated adults? In both cases no. The sheer simplicity of explicitly working through the maths, relative to the abilities of the students, would have made it a deeply tokenistic act. Then there was the lesson I observed, focussing on a listening task about a family’s different jobs for a very low level ESOL for Employment class. In the section I saw there simply was not the opportunity to include maths: no numbers were involved, no times, no dates, no salaries, just very simple sentences like “My dad is a gardener. He likes his job.” To put maths into this would have not only been shoehorning of the highest order, but also potentially confused the students, particularly in this case, where their language skills were limited.
That said, the nature of both lessons demonstrated natural opportunities for embedding other things, questions of equality and diversity in the first instance, for example, was naturally at the forefront, not to mention aspects of British Values, with the discussion of the role of parliament in changing slavery laws. In the latter, we had again not only employability, but also diversity represented in the family involved, the jobs they had, and so on.
This isn’t an excuse for missed opportunities, mind you: some ESOL lessons are crying out for it – a jobs lesson featuring images that challenge gender stereotypes is the howlingly obvious one; a “family” lesson that features more diverse family types than the heterosexual couple with two children and a Volvo; a lesson on a news article featuring statistical information; or a speaking lesson involving students discussing a topic, respecting opinions, rights and so on. I’ll let you think about which boxes they tick. You’d be daft not to as an ESOL teacher, not least because it might develop a discussion, enhance understanding of the text, or develop inter-personal understanding and respect. All good things.
However, this should not be an excuse for requiring it in all lessons. Yes, you can include, not embed, some aspects of all of these in almost every lesson, but whether you should or not is an entirely different question. And that’s not a question of whether improving maths skills, or raising awareness of diversity issues etc., is a good thing, but the extent to which it is the right thing for those students in that lesson: if it doesn’t fit, then it doesn’t fit.
So, I was observed recently. Regular followers of me on Twitter will have noted my mounting nerves through the form of increasingly critical tweets, followed by me being more or less silent. Interestingly, I also carried out an observation in the same week, so I was able to see the process from both sides more or less a day apart. This raised a few issues for me over the week – the relative stress of being observed, and its impact on teachers, the use of observation as a performance management tool, and the absence of development when the observation comes. To give this a bit of context, the system where I work means that you get a week’s notice of a three day window during which you could be observed for up to an hour at any time. This is fairly common, broadly speaking – the times and dates might change, but the system overall is generally the same.
Quite a few things have come out of it, so many, in fact, that it makes sense for me to separate them into three separate posts, so here is the first: paperwork.
We’re relatively lucky where I work: all we need when it comes to an observation is a group profile, a bit of a scheme of work, some marked work, and a lesson plan.
The lesson plan was no biggy. I’m old and ugly enough to know that I can put together a convincing lesson, and I do generally write a lesson plan, albeit in a blank notebook not a proforma. It works for me, so generally forcing this into a set of boxes in a Word document is only half a step extra. I don’t get on with the 5 minute lesson plan and won’t be convinced, just as I won’t try and convince you that the standard boxes format is going to be good for you, either. It’s what works for you, thanks. (And anyway, it’s the same boxes, just laid out differently with some tacky clip art round the edge.) Where I have been stressed about this in the past has been around the content of the lesson, where I just can’t think of what/how to teach something – Teachers’ Block, as it were, but never around filling in the form.
We also do a group profile. This one surprised me, to be honest. For one, it’s dead handy having a group profile as an observer; not essential, perhaps, but useful. More importantly, however, the discipline of writing one really made me sit down and think a bit more carefully about some of my students. But it’s such a “tomorrow” job that it never quite gets done until it’s far too late. There’s a part of me that hates that I found it useful, but really, it was. Even when it got a bit generic “confident speaker, needs to improve accuracy, and to work on writing accuracy” it was still worth it to know that I had some gaps in my understanding of my classes.
Then there’s the scheme of work and the marked work. Not too onerous, as these things go, but even within that small collection of items you can smell the noxious whiff of audit. have an intense dislike of conflating lesson observation with audit of wider processes. You want to observe my lesson, that’s fine, but don’t hang my poor feedback on a wider issue, like overall course attendance (as opposed to attendance and punctuality on that day), or whether I’ve got an up to date scheme of work, or whether I’m marking thoroughly. You want to audit that stuff, audit away. Demand work from a sample of students that you chose, ask me to submit or share my scheme of work, whatever. But don’t include that audit in my lesson observation. Lesson observation must be divorced from audit processes if it is to improve classroom practice.
Many managers don’t teach, particularly further up the pecking order. This seems reasonable. After all, there’s a lot to be done as a manager, meetings to organise, spreadsheets to put random numbers into, tea to be drunk, that sort of thing. I’m kidding, of course: the reality of management is that it can be an incredibly tough call. Never more so than at the lowest level, where you are the buffer between the random whims of senior management and the frustrations of teaching staff and students. Whatever level of management you are at, however, there is almost always some sort of quality assurance role, which involves observing and evaluating classroom practice. This is an emotionally harsh role, linked to process of quality assurance and performance management, with a token nod to teacher development. This political element therefore requires that the judgements made of the teaching of others need to be as subjective as possible of course, but also valid, in the sense of whether the observer is able to make those judgements meaningfully: is the observer not only qualified to make those judgemens in terms of their own experiences, but also in terms of their current practices. Put bluntly, do the judgements of an observer have validity if they do not have some element of face to face teaching in their current role?
It’s a mean question, because I know lots of these non-teaching observers have worked, and still do work, exceptionally hard for their role, and that in order to achieve that role, there has to be some significant experience of teaching at some point in their background, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. But that question of credibility is easily raised: who are you to judge me when you’re not actually doing the job?
I’d actually like to look at that question from the other side. Does an extensive current teaching load necessarily mean an individual has extensive knowledge and understanding of teaching? Can I trust your judgement more because you are teaching more? Does extensive experience automatically confer authority? Despite a gut reaction “faith in the profession” desire to say yes, the answer to this has to be no. There are plenty of people in “the Profession” who can’t find their pedagogical arse from their educational elbow: people who have been teaching for years, even decades, but who seem to lack an ability to think on their own practices, and develop as a result. They (still) usually scrape by with lucky escapes during observations and a tactical eye for exam passes. People who lack perception and a skill in critical reflection leading to change: being what we might, at risk of sounding like an education meme, call a permanently learning teacher. Credibility of judgement is not just the ability to say “I’m awesome” but to admit that sometimes you’re a bit shit, and, most importantly of all, to be able to say why and how you are awesome/shit (Since you ask, I’ve been both, sometimes in the same lesson…), and identify changes that need to be made. So, no, there isn’t a causal connection between a current teaching load and an ability to evaluate lessons. That ability can be absent in both teachers and managers, and when it is, the impact on students is terrible.
If there isn’t a link between current teaching and the ability to evaluate the teaching of others, then does it follow then that an observer who is not teaching can make valid judgements of the effectiveness of a given lesson?
Maybe. I’ve had some exceptionally perceptive comments from observers in the past where they have picked up on things I’ve not noticed, in both positive and a negative sense. The better comments, however, have come from those observers who are not only currently teaching, but also subject specialists, able to view ESOL lessons through lenses other than the necessarily cloudy genericism of most standard college observation critieria. You’re also quicker to have faith in their judgements because you know they are teaching themselves and have an immediate understanding of the stuff that teachers have to deal with on a day to day basis. I’m not saying becoming a manager is some easy ride compared to being a teacher (there’s a reason I haven’t applied for a management role in over ten years, after all) but the higher you climb up the managerial ladder, it seems that the greater the distance between you and the everyday act of teaching becomes. The conscious act of planning and delivering a lesson, and series of lessons, becomes something you used to do, and the pressure associated with that are easily forgotten, or at least diluted in the face of your own new pressures.
Ultimately, then, this is not a question of skill or knowledge. A good observer is a good observer, be they teacher or not. Just like teaching, I’m not entirely sure observing and giving feedback is something you can learn in a couple of hours, but rather through a long process of trial and error. Indeed, observing a teacher is a learning process, I think, and often a humbling one, where as an observer you get as much from the watching as you hope to impart from giving the feedback. This feedback is also a difficult job. I’ve been at it for years as a trainer and as an observer of working teachers, and I still think I could do far far better, particularly at those evaluative, high stakes observations, where the observee’s main focus is have they passed/still got a job. (For the record, in these cases, there is no “right” order to say whether or not the lesson is going to lead to punitive measures: if you say it at the start, the teacher is not listening because they’re just relieved/panicking, and if it’s at the end, then they’re just hanging on for that: “yes, yes, whatever, but am I safe?” The one and only way to avoid this is to ditch quality assurance observations altogether, which, I suspect, no institution would ever have the guts to do). Feedback is hard, and harder still when it’s high stakes, and the outcome isn’t going to be happy: some of the worst moments of my (professional) life have been having to break the news to a colleague that their lesson observation is going to lead to some sort of negative follow up: as a teacher, when it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, you still always hope you’ve just about pulled it together enough to get away with it, and it’s always horrible when you learn you haven’t.
And this is the point: I know that fear. I am a teacher, and as a result I know the fear that comes from knowing that this feedback could be the first step down a long, dark and stressful path. I get observed still, and I know what could happen to me: not just an emotionally and professionally challenging period of mentoring and reobservation, but also an immediate financial penalty because of my role where I work. So that gives a sense of sympathy, of understanding when you observe, and the further removed you are from that process, the less potentially sympathetic you become. Not unsympathetic, mind, but your observee is always aware that you, the observer, doesn’t have to go through this particular process or suffer the consequences. The ultimate in the cold distant observer is the consultant or inspector, of course, masquerading behind a facade of objectivity: they are far beyond ever suffering the direct consequences of their judgements.
I’m being distracted by rants: no, you don’t need to be teaching to be able to make judgements on the teaching of others, and neither do you need to be teaching to be sympathetic. But there’s a question of camaraderie, perhaps, that comes from an ability to say “well, what I do then is…” and “not only am I doing this, but in half an hour I have to go and do it myself”. It’s this solidarity, and equality, which adds more weight to what you say than just a contract and slightly elevated salary.