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Classroom Observations

The purpose of this posting is to reflect on the numerous occasions in which I have been observed by my supervisors and peers to illustrate what has worked and has not worked in helping me become a better educator. As I plan to be a teacher educator in the near future, conducting classroom observations is a skill that usually isn't acquired before becoming a supervisor or administrator.

I have been formally observed in two different jobs, my first full-time teaching job in Japan and my first teacher training job in South Korea. I have also been formally observed as a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa. Although these classes had very little to do with ESL or EFL, they were teacher education classes on technology in the classroom.

First Teaching Job
The most stressful experience of being observed was at my first job, of course, because I was a new teacher. My first three days on the job consisted of orientation, which included of training sessions and closely observed teaching. After I completed orientation, I was observed after 2 weeks, after 1 month, after 2 months, after 6 months, and then once a year until I left the job. My orientation supervisor only observed me for the purpose of orientation. After that, I was observed by the trainer or assistant trainer of my school.

Although I was only formally observed during the times I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I felt like I was constantly observed informally as all the classrooms in the school were divided by glass walls. All teachers could be observed by the trainer, assistant trainer, director, staff, other teachers, and prospective students at any time. This arrangement was also meant to be helpful as the new teachers could observe the more experienced teachers for instructional ideas. During the two-month probationary period for new instructors of this institution, the trainer usually kept one eye on them while he was teaching his own class. (I'm using the male pronoun in this case because both of my trainers were male.) I found this to be unnerving most of the time as I would sometimes catch the trainer observing me with a serious look on his face.

For the first year's worth of observations, new teachers are told that they are assessed on their ability to follow the school's method. I recall this meant going through all (10?) of the steps in the correct order and for the correct duration. Each step was allotted a certain amount of time. I recall timing being very important during the probationary period. After the probationary period, we were given options to interpret some of the steps in creative ways depending on the needs of the students. The 6-month and the 12-month observation seemed to concentrate on this factor. After the first year, teachers were not so tightly restricted to the order and timing of the steps, although all of the steps had to be included. Trainers were often looking for creative and effective use of the school's method after the first year.

I remember that I was given some notice before I was formally observed for each time. As I taught an average of 6-7 classes with an average of 3 students in each class per day, the trainer or assistant trainer usually selected the class with the most amiable students. I mean that the students had a good rapport with most or all of the instructors and would not be deterred by being observed. Because the classrooms could only fit 4 people inside, the observer would sit either in an adjacent empty room or just outside the door. The observer usually made sure that he would sit in a place where I wouldn't make eye contact. While I was teaching, the observer seemed to be constantly taking notes and keeping the time.

Usually the class period following the observation was reserved for a debriefing in which the trainer or assistant trainer would discuss my strengths and weaknesses. This debriefing often started with a self-evaluation, where I was asked to reflect on "how it went." Because my first year seemed to have more weaknesses than strengths according to these debriefings, I have been conditioned to be highly self-critical. These observations had resurrected the perfectionist personality that I nearly subdued in college. Even now I rarely reflect upon a class and think that it went very well. "I can always do better."

I'm sure I was far from being a good teacher at the beginning as I had little training and experience, but I remember that some criticisms I received were not exactly about teaching. Some of my colleagues had the same impressions. Some of us were critiqued about our clothing. For example, a patterned shirt is not appropriate; instead wear a solid color shirt. Also some critiques were about nervous habits like the tapping of a pencil. Although I received some silly criticisms such as these, I also learned how important it was to be reflective about my teaching, and that there is always room for growth. That is probably the biggest lesson I took away from classroom observations at my first job.

Special Visits to Korea
Although the first job's observations were stressful in that I was a new teacher, observations were frequent, and some criticisms were unpredictable, they did prepare me for equally stressful observations at my first teacher training job in Korea. It was stressful because we were observed by American university professors. The program was accredited in the United States, so our students could finish up their MA in TESOL or related fields in certain American universities. It was also stressful because these professors were also my academic advisors. I did not want to let them down.

The classroom observations took place once every term, which is a little longer than a typical semester at an American university. Either one or two professors from the program's sister university in the United States would fly in to assess the instructional methods of each teacher trainer. Both curriculum and teaching method was designed by these professors and all trainers were not allowed to stray too far from them.

Because our observers had to fly in to Seoul, we usually had at least a one month notice before they arrived. Once they arrived, we had a meeting with our observers and the Korean administrators. Here we would be briefed on what they would look for, which was basically the same each semester, correct implementation of the program's teaching method, which is similar to the reciprocal teaching approach to reading.

Unlike my first job, all teachers knew specifically what our observers were looking for as we were given a rubric. This rubric was similar to the one I used to evaluate my teacher trainees when they performed their microteaching lessons. To summarize the most important element, the observers were looking for individual students speaking as much as possible with correct modeling of the language provided by the instructor, a direct approach to building oral proficiency skills. This was similar to my first job in that reducing teacher talking time (TTT) was a top priority. Both of these jobs taught me to limit my talking time in order to provide students with more time to practice theirs with corrective feedback.

At first, the standards for this method seemed to be set very very high, almost unobtainable. This confirmed my neurotic belief that there was always room to grow. Many new teachers in this program were told that had a lot of room to grow. To be fair, the assessment was transparent as the observers would share their notes with us after the lesson. I was able to see how often and how long I spoke. I also got to see how many students participated and how often each one was called on. During my best observation I was told, "That was good, but do more (of these techniques). You can never have enough."

Informal Observations
I have been informally observed as a Senior English Language Fellow in Russia and as ESL instructor at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse.

My Russian counterpart occasionally watched me teach and would provide feedback. What I gathered from her feedback is that we were two very different types of teachers. She came from the school of neuro-linguistic programming or desuggestopedia, which one of my graduate professors had very little respect for, so I was very much aware of the weaknesses of this type of teaching approach. She probably had the same critique of the approach I was using. Although I enjoyed working with her, I believe she would not have hired me if she were on a hiring committee.

At La Crosse, each new teacher needed to be observed by the program director during his or her first semester. Because of my previous jobs, I was ready for the worst. Things were looking up when I got to choose the class and time for the observation. After she observed my class, she gave me glowing feedback. In my mind, I had prepared a lengthy list of areas for improvement. She heard a few of the items off the list, and perhaps I convinced her that I was a very self-critical and reflective teacher, so she didn't have to worry about me. I've heard from some of my colleagues that I was more reflective than other teachers they have encountered, and I took that as a compliment.

As Teaching Assistant
At the University of Iowa, I have been humbled by taking a teaching assistant position after a decade of teaching students and teachers. The scariest thing about this job was the content. I was teaching technology and not ESL. Many of my second language teaching approaches would seem funny if implemented in this context. Also, almost all of my students were American, a culture I wasn't used to teaching.

Observations for this job occur once a semester and operate very much like my previous ones, although feedback is sometimes delayed to a week afterwards. Because I was used to immediate and critical feedback, I was a bit uneasy when I got neither during the first semester. When I found out a week later that everything was fine, I relaxed.

When I had some difficulties during my second semester, I did receive critical and relatively immediate feedback. However, I was again surprised that the observer trusted that I would make immediate improvements. If this were one of my first two jobs, my observer would not take my word for making improvements and would insist in seeing them in a follow-up observation or requesting a follow-up report from either me or a student. Because the observer trusted that I would remedy the situation, I felt a bit more respect as a teacher. I've only felt this respect from my observers during the past few years, but I'm not ready to correlate that with experience. I could easily relate it to universities in the Midwest. Or I was luck enough to have had two understanding and respectful supervisors recently.

What have I learned? How would I conduct a classroom observation?
Do:
  • Encourage self-evaluation and self-reflection
  • Treat the teacher respectfully
  • Speak calmly to the instructor
  • Let the teacher know ahead of time what you are looking for
  • Share the assessment tools, if possible, with the teacher
  • Balance strengths with areas for growth
  • Provide feedback as soon as possible
  • Provide details
  • Make sure the teacher clearly understands your criticism
  • Understand the teacher's disposition and how his or her personality affects instruction
Don't:
  • Interrupt the class (unless the teacher's behavior is erratic)
  • Nitpick/Look for weaknesses just to balance them with strengths
  • Panic (unless it is absolutely warranted--the teacher lit a student on fire)
  • Steal the show from the teacher before or after observation
  • Treat the observation like it is a waste of time
  • Treat the feedback session like it is a waste of time
  • Be a perfectionist/Expect the lesson to be perfect
  • Expect the teacher to be or teach like you


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