5 Key Questions to ask before an Observed Lesson

You’re going to be observed. How do you react?

At some point this year, you are likely to be observed. If you’re lucky, you are one of those EFL teachers who are happy to let somebody from outside (probably your line manager) enter your class and watch you strut your stuff.

If you are not so lucky, the thought of being observed by your Director of Studies raises your anxiety levels. Your symptoms may range from a slight sense of unease to butterflies in your stomach to, in extreme cases, an overwhelming desire to burst into tears and call your mother!

Take a deep breath and get a grip of yourself. The stakes can be high when you are being observed but that may not be the case. Which is why it is important for you to get as much information as you can about the observation so you can make appropriate preparations.

When I worked as a DoS, I was always surprised by how my teachers reacted to being told them were going to be observed. Some of them were not phased at all (“Yeah, no problem. Pop in whenever you want. Oh, do you want a lesson plan?”) whereas others went deathly pale and lost the ability to speak. They would invariably produce a 5-page lesson plan and spend hours on creating beautifully-designed materials for the class.

In hindsight, I didn’t really think about the purpose of these observations. I just wanted to see my teachers in action and find out if they needed any help or not. This meant that some teachers gave me a set of bullet points on a scrap of paper ripped from a notebook and others wrote complex procedural documents written over several days.

My response to both types of lesson plans was the same; I just saw them as a brief guide to refer to while I was watching the class. Reflecting upon this approach many years later, I feel slightly ashamed that I didn’t provide clearer guidance about what was required of the observation.

Which brings me to the central idea of this post. Teachers often suffer a lot of emotional stress before, during and after observations because they are not aware of the observation requirements or even the assessment criteria.

So, next time you are told that you are being observed, I would suggest that you ask your observer a few questions so you understand what you are required to do in order to prepare and deliver the lesson. It goes without saying that you should find out about who you will be teaching if you are not being observed teaching your own class.

Of course, a professional/reflective/experienced Director of Studies should provide this information beforehand….

Question 1: Why are you being observed?

There are a number of reasons why observations take place:

  • It’s part of the interviewing process for a teaching post.
  • It’s part of your training as a new teacher (probation).
  • The school has regular observation schedule (e.g. every 3 months).
  • The DoS finally has time to observe teachers.
  • Complaints have been made and the DoS is concerned about your teaching.
  • The DoS is thinking of adopting a new teaching approach and wants to collect information about what is happening in the classes.
  • The school is planning to ‘downsize’ and wants to reduce the number of teachers.
  • Observations are seen as an integral part of CPD (continuous professional development).
  • The DoS is looking to promote a teacher within the organisation.

The important thing is for you to know why you are being observed. If you are the only teacher being observed, you might think you are in danger of losing your job when, in fact, you are being considered for a promotion.

If your DoS is unable to tell you why you are being observed, you might want to ask why…..

Question 2: What are you being assessed on?

This is a very important question because you need to be aware of the observation criteria.

Does your DoS want you to give the type of lesson you gave on your initial training course?

How will you be assessed?

  • on meeting your learning aims
  • on following your plan
  • on successfully teaching a grammar point
  • on developing your learners’ speaking skills
  • on demonstrating specific teaching skills such as CCQs, presenting new language, or correction strategies

You may have a Director of Studies who has a set of criteria (perhaps left over from their TEFL course) which they could show you so you can make sure you meet them.

You could even suggest that the evaluation criteria should be distributed to all teachers so they have a clear idea of what skills and practices they are expected to demonstrate in their lessons.

Question 3: What type of lesson plan are you expected to provide?

As I mentioned earlier, lesson plans vary among teachers. On most TEFL courses, a lesson plan template is used to ensure standardization.

More experienced teachers, however, will have their own planning preferences, ranging from detailed procedural documents to mind maps to bullet points and even perhaps a couple of learning aims stored in their head.

I have worked in schools in which experienced teachers were required to produce detailed lesson plans (resembling those used in training courses) for observed classes and this produced an overwhelming sense of frustration.

Asking experienced teachers to write formatted lesson plans solely for observations is likely to be viewed as a needless bureaucratic exercise. Any DoS who decides to enforce this duty should be prepared for an insurrection.

Using lesson plan templates may be an effective way of ensuring high teaching standards in a school. However, it should be reflected in the pedagogical strategy rather than ticking boxes.

Question 4: Do you want a ‘showcase’ or a ‘run-of-the-mill’ lesson?

Confessions of a Young TEFLer…

When I knew in advance that I was going to be observed, I generally made a special effort to create a great lesson. I’d spend ages on my lesson plan, design wonderful materials aimed at making sure my learning aims were achieved and prepped my students so they would appear to be some of the most competent, courteous and conscientious learners at the school.

Then, one day, my DoS said he didn’t want me to over-prepare for my next observation. He said that he wanted to see how I usually taught, without all of the bells and whistles common in observed classes.

He wanted to see what I normally did in class and not what I had the potential to do when I had time to create an ‘awesome’ lesson.

The class went really well and my DoS praised the organic nature of the lesson, highlighting the importance of providing a balance between keeping a lesson on track and responding to the immediate and often unanticipated needs of the learners.

Observing classes should be about observing a learning experience not just about observing the teacher. Some teachers perform really well in observed classes because; a) they know exactly what they observer is looking for; or b) because they have a few tricks up their sleeve which can dazzle the observer.

Giving a showcase class does not mean that a teacher is ready, willing or even able to consistently deliver effective classes on a consistent basis.

Question 5: What materials and resources should you use?

Many schools and academies expect teachers to follow course books. A good test of teaching skills is to ask a teacher to use a lesson from a course book to see how it can form the basis of an engaging and effective lesson. Good teachers can work with average materials and create an excellent learning experience.

If your observer has told you that they want to see a typical class and teachers typically follow course books, then it would make sense to use a course book for your observed lesson.

To sum up, when you are told that you are being observed, find out as much as you can about the nature of the observation before you go into panic mode and / or start creating the greatest lesson plan ever written in the history of English language teaching!

Here are some more posts about observations in ELT

Peer observation in TEFL

Observing EFL teachers

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