The Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto is famous for its rock garden. The rocks are viewed while seated on a raised platform (the hōjō) that runs alongside the garden.
Conforming to principles of zen Buddhism, the garden is minimalist, and is composed of 15 rocks of different sizes and shapes. What's interesting, however, is that there is no place from which all 15 rocks can be seen: at any point on the hōjō, only part of the entire composition is visible. There are two pertinent points here: only a part is visible to an observer at any point, and two observers on the viewing platform will experience a different arrangement.
I quite frequently find myself sitting at the back of classrooms watching teachers teach. This is often in the guise of an evaluation, and I'm seen as having to pass some sort of judgement on the teacher, or because there is a problem which I'm tasked with 'fixing'.
I have a problem with this view of my role as an observer. Observed lessons are never representative of a teacher's practice. The teacher and students are unnerved by my presence, and things feel stilted. Even when the lesson does go well, I know I'm seeing only part of the whole.
If I watch the teacher, I'm missing out on the students' reactions. If I keep an eye on the students and how they are responding to the lesson, I neglect aspects of the teacher's method. I might try to watch both, but I still can't see the processes behind the teacher's thinking, how and why the lesson is deviating from the teacher's initial plan, which students are falling behind, or the kinds of conversations the students are having in their pairs or groups. I can't see what came before the lesson or what will come next.
Like the Ryona-ji rock garden, the lesson cannot be viewed in its entirety: I can only see part of the whole. In addition, what I see is often determined by my own interest and beliefs. I sit and watch the teacher run an activity and I can't help but compare it to how I would do it. I think "But the key vocabulary hasn't been pre-taught" only to later realize that the language has been presented to them in a previous lesson. I see a student isolated during tasks and condemn this, only to find out later the student is in a temporary limbo because of an infraction in some previous lesson.
To capture the entirety of the lesson, I need to ask questions after the lesson: "Why did you decide not to pre-teach that vocabulary?" "What were those students doing that made you so upset?" "Was that student in the corner excluded from the lesson for a reason?" "How come you taught the grammar deductively?" "Do you always allow the students play on their phones during the lesson?"
And this is where the problem starts. Teachers are afraid. They think the observer sees everything and knows better, and can make sweeping and inherently valid judgments. Observers (myself included) fall into the trap of thinking this too. But the reality is that an observer can't see everything, and doesn't always know better.
If an observer doesn't know better, then what's the point of the observation?
Well, we all need a coach: someone to watch what we are doing and identify ways in which it can be even better. All successful professionals understand the value of this. Just as the observer can't see everything that is happening in the classroom, so too with the teacher: while you are busy up at the front of the classroom, lots of things are happening that might slip past.
Teaching, by nature, is lonely - you are with people all day, but in many ways you are alone with your decisions and have to face the consequences of those decisions from one day to another without anyone to give useful guidance or suggestions (unless you wish to take it from your students, I guess). For these reasons, having an observer in your classroom is highly beneficial, as long as the observer is understanding, unbiased, and a professional.
Post-lesson feedback with Bob
So, an observation should be viewed as an opportunity to discuss the lesson with an experienced and interested colleague. Let's take an example. Imagine I've just watched Bob's class. After the lesson, I say:
So Bob, you only had 10 students. Why didn't you put them in a horseshoe?
Now if Bob is terrified that his job is on the line and confused about why I'm in his class, the question sounds like an aggressive attack, the beginning of a long series of insults about his teaching.
Bob must now be tempted to launch a counter-attack, or take a defensive stance. Or perhaps Bob might be devastated that I haven't smiled and complimented his lesson given the incredible effort he has made to impress me with all his best teaching tricks.
Or perhaps Bob, sensing disaster, promises me he will never again make this transgression and pleads for forgiveness. With all this power, I slice off Bob's head and stroke my ego with an eagle's feather.
If Bob has been to the Ryoan-ji temple, he realizes that despite my impressive status and intimidatingly chiseled features, I'm only a visitor in his classroom offering a potentially new and objective (though perhaps flawed) viewpoint which gives him a fresh perspective on his teaching.
My question isn't an indictment, it's a question. He may not have thought that seating is important, and this opens a new avenue for developing his lessons. Or he might tell me he'd love to, but his Thai teacher gets very upset when he moves the furniture around. Or he may inform me that the class becomes incredibly boisterous when the seats are moved - and this might lead to a discussion on managing difficult groups: a problem that didn't emerge in the observed lesson, but is an area worthy of professional exploration.
After consideration, Bob decides he thinks horseshoes are overrated for this class, and sticks to his convictions.
As an observer, I have to accept that - it is Bob's lesson, not mine, and if he has considered his options and their consequences carefully, he must surely be entitled to his pedagogical decision. If I feel Bob is wrong, I can try to impose my opinion, but doing so moves the observation away from coaching and into the battlefield.
A teacher recently told me that the value he got from my observations was the opportunity to consider and justify his decisions when they didn't agree with mine. This made him more confident about the way he does things. Brilliant.
At the Ryona-ji temple, failure to see all 15 rocks is not a result of poor vision or stupidity, it's the nature of the experience, and from it is supposed to come existential insights. That a teacher and observer have different perspectives on something as complex as a classroom full of students has to be expected: it's part of the experience, and from it, hopefully, comes the opportunity for professional insights.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.