Stephen Louw

Classroom observations: what can be seen?

The difficult role of the observing teacher

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.

Observing lessons

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.

Post-lesson discussions

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 has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Great article, Steve.

I don't know if my comments are all that relative to Steve's article, but I'd like to share my observations of the teachers whom I'm tasked with observing.

Firstly, I don't employ teachers. I have nothing to do with the recruiting process (thank god) and I merely have to observe them when scheduled or when the teachers get complaints (it's happening a lot more now).

The standard of teaching has dramatically dropped at my school. Not just the teaching, but the quality of the teachers to come to work everyday, show up on time, not be doing something stupid at work, etc. My agency seems to be having great difficulty even employing the most basic teachers. They just seem to be employing anyone with a degree or anyone who can stay here longer than three months. And the results are getting my agency into hot water.

I've observed first hand how bad these teachers are. They should not be allowed to be anywhere near a classroom. We still have great teachers who've been at my school for years or who are new, it's just we are getting a lot more bad and throw-away teachers. It's painful watching some of these people teach and me having to observe them. Unless my feedback is good, my bosses don't wanna know. They just bury their heads in the sand or try to blame me. Again, I don't employ or supervise anyone. I've been given the task of doing observations simply because of how long I've been at my school and my experience.

I'm becoming fearful for where it's all going. I can't win. If I give them bad grades, I get told to to basically threaten them (not my job) and to 'guide' them. I'll help however I can, but the teachers have to want help. They have to want to better themselves. When they get a good grade, the agency pretends like there was never a problem until it comes back. There are complaints every single day.

Who'd wanna be entrusted with finding teachers now? It must be impossible. I don't want to observe anymore. I feel I'm being used as someone who can take away some of the blame from the agency. When I took the role, I specifically explained how I will give them feedback but the agency have to address that feedback. I just want to be the messenger. No good deed and all that.

By Dave, Bangkok (5th September 2017)

Your analogy about the rocks is misleading, as the quote below shows. You can see 14 of the 15 in one view and the 15th is down to you and your attitude, plus, all can be see from above - maybe take that stance on your next observation?
"The garden is meant to be viewed from a seated position on the veranda of the hōjō, the residence of the abbot of the monastery.[10]

The stones are placed so that the entire composition cannot be seen at once from the veranda. They are also arranged so that when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder."

By Steve C, Bankok (1st September 2017)

I used to hate observations as I felt I was trying to be someone else to appease others. I had so many of them in the end that I would just pretend I wasn't being watched. The kids acted normally when I did. That's when I received my best feedback.

As I've been teaching longer and longer, my feedback has been getting better and better. I always listen to any criticism and evaluate if they're good points or not. I've been teaching for a long time now. I had some DELTA instructors observe me once and they gave me some incredible advice and ideas.

One observation I had really stuck out in my mind. I was observed by 'bona fide' teacher from the west. She's the same lady who interviewed me three times and employed me. She observed me once and when we sat down to chat about it, she said, "Well, that's a lot better than I thought it would be". Another teacher in the room who was clearly pretending not to be listening lifted his head up and looked at me with an astonished face. That comment really stifled and confused me.

She then went on and critiqued a few things that I had done. I explained why I had done them and she just nodded along. All in all, it was a good class, but she wasn't giving any praise. Other than the backhanded compliment, she didn't say anything bad either. I remember speaking to the other teachers about the, 'It was better than I thought it would be' comment after which he just said, "Don't worry. She says the strangest things sometimes".

My worst observation was from the very same woman. There was only one slight nuance from my style I used the first time - I wasn't actually in the class. I had taken a day's holiday (I asked for it and they agreed) and she covered one of my classes. Normally another teacher would cover but she did instead. Yes, it struck me as weird, but I didn't think anymore of it.

Come the morning I arrived back at work she called me in for a meeting saying she had serious concerns. I was genuinely worried. What had a I done? I didn't do anything bad, but you begin to worry anyway. She told me she was worried about my teaching style based on 'her' covering my class. I wasn't there. She said she felt my teaching was too 'teacher orientated'. Huh? She said, and I quote, "I felt that when I was delivering instructions to your kids, they were too fixated on me. They looked at me too much for guidance". So many things were running through my mind. So many questions, but I bit my lip and carried on listening.

She then went onto to say that when she set them a speaking activity for the kids in pairs, they would only do it and speak English when she was in earshot. When she was away from them they'd stop and mess about. She felt as if me putting myself in the centre of class and being the main focus distracted them. I was gobsmacked. There were so many variables when a different teacher covers for one class. This was her first time ever teaching my kids.

I asked a few of the other teachers what they thought of it, but they couldn't make head nor tail. I told them that she's going to come and teach my class so I can watch and see how it's done. But she never actually did that. In fact, she never actually observed me ever again. We went from 'serious concerns' to absolutely nothing and all forgotten about. Was a surreal instance I've never experienced before.

Now when I have observations, I think of how I can explain what I'm doing for whenever they have something to critique. So when they ask why I did something, I can give a clear and honest answer for something I did with the best intentions. When they say I shouldn't have done something, I can explain why I did it, and they can explain why it doesn't work.

Most people don't like being observed. But if the person observing can explain why something you're doing is wrong or could be done better, you can really learn from that. It's actually a great feeling. You simply can't just say "I've been teaching x amount of years and if I say something is wrong then it's wrong". You have to explain why.

By Aaron, Beijing (1st September 2017)

If you are an enthusiastic and willing teacher there's almost no wrong way to do it. Everyone has their own approach to how they present themselves and their subjects. Evaluating teachers is like evaluating art.

Watching teachers do their thing has been a great help to me. I have learned just as many things of what NOT to do as well as things that I can do to make myself more effective.

Unless you know the teacher well AND all the students in the class, it's best to never question what they are doing or how they do it. Just cherry pick your way through the things they do and see if you can use them or avoid using them!

The best way to evaluate a teacher from a practical teaching standpoint is to make a video of the whole lesson and sit down later and watch it. It's amazing what you can pick up.

Finally... in Thailand it's important to be pragmatic and accept that how "good" you are is entirely determined by the person who pays your salary... and their opinions are decided by the parents and the students, and NOT by other teachers.

By Mark Newman, A. MUANG (1st September 2017)

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