From August I’ll be the Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz in Poland, and in preparation for this I’ve been reading and listening to blogs, books and podcasts about management. Observation will also be a key part of my role, as well as being relevant to my work as a CELTA tutor. I’ve therefore grouped the talks I saw at IATEFL on these topics into a single post.
Forum on peer observation
This was my first experience of an IATEFL forum, and I decided to go on the spur of the moment. I’m glad I did, as it gave me ideas for how to encourage teachers to take part in a peer observation programme, and showed me some of the potential problems with setting one up.
EFL Teachers and Peer Observation: beliefs, challenges and implications – Gihan Ismail
Gihan works at King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia. She decided to research how experienced EFL teachers (5-20 years) perceive peer observation, in contrast to most research which focuses on relatively inexperienced teachers.
Experienced teachers had multiple identities as teachers which came into conflict when considering peer observation, contrasting their personal identity and the value of the observation to them as individuals with their professional identity and observations as CPD (continuing professional development). Her findings showed that there was a relatively negative attitude towards peer observation, despite experienced teachers knowing that it can be beneficial. This encompassed the following factors:
- School culture.
- How the outcome of observations may influence their career.
- Psychological/emotional tensions, including a potential distrust in the peer doing the observation.
- Feeling threatened because there’s a risk that they might lose some of their reputation if the peer doesn’t understand what they are doing.
- A rejection of changes in their habits: comfort zones are difficult to leave.
- Doubt in the outcome of any changes they might make as a result of observations.
- The potential stress involved in participating in peer observations, and the fact that this can be avoided by doing other forms of CPD, like going to conferences.
Their beliefs were also shaped by past experience and ‘professional coursework’ (e.g. formalised training, books read).
Most studies focus on external factors influencing whether teachers are willing to participate in peer observation schemes, but Ismail found that actually internal factors were dominant. For example, issues like fear and/or a potential loss of face in front of a less experienced colleague were more likely to make teachers want to avoid peer observation than factors imposed by their employer. It wasn’t helped by the fact that in most cases there was no pre-observation meeting to set up what the observed teacher and the peer wanted to get out of the observation. Her research suggests that teacher needs should be examined more carefully in workplaces, where student needs tend to dominate and teachers’ needs are secondary.
Peer observation: introducing a system that actually works for everyone – Shirley Norton
Shirley described a successful peer observation scheme which was set up at the London School of English, where teachers have between five and thirty-five years of experience.
Before the scheme was set up, peer observation was:
- officially encouraged, but rarely happened unless there was an inspection.
- management-led, with teachers being told who they should see.
- contrasted with the atmosphere of collaboration in the staffroom: you can’t come into my classroom!
- mostly focussed on quality control, rather than developmental aims.
To be able to implement a peer observation scheme which would work, they started with a questionnaire to collect opinions about peer observation, and discovered many points which echoed Gihan’s findings in the previous presentation. Everyone agreed peer observation was a good thing, but nobody actually wanted to do it!
All the research Shirley did said that teachers need to be involved from the beginning when setting up schemes like this, so that’s what she did. They had a focus group discussing the possible benefits of peer observations and potential obstacles. All ideas were accepted, and they came up with over 100 obstacles! Previously, this is where they had stopped when thinking of such schemes, but this time they went through each obstacle and came up with potential solutions. This led to the creation of clear guidelines for the scheme, including the role of the observer and the teacher, how to give feedback, and how to focus on development rather than judgement. Throughout her talk Shirley emphasised the importance of these guidelines, and the fact that a peer observation scheme is unlikely to be effective without them. Guidelines on feedback are particularly important, as this is where observation systems often fall down. Here are some examples:
- Problem: Increased workload for teachers.
Solution: No formal paperwork required for management. Peer observation is supposed to be development, and there doesn’t need to be proof of this. It’s between the teachers involved.
- Problem: Lack of management buy-in.
Solution: Make it a sacred part of the timetable and find a way to ensure it is never dropped.
- Problem: There’s no chair for the observer.
Solution: The teacher doing the observation provides the chair.
Spending time on these ‘what ifs’ makes teachers more relaxed and more likely to want to participate. No matter how minor they may seem, these are genuine fears which may scupper your programme, so you need to take them seriously.
The scheme has gone through various incarnations, with Shirley trying to match teachers up with their observation wishlists (logistical nightmare), then telling them who to observe (teachers were unhappy), before finally settling on teachers deciding for themselves (success!)
Now each teacher has an allocated week in the school year which is their opportunity to peer observe. Within that week they are allowed to choose anybody to observe and they will be covered if necessary to enable them to do so. This happens regardless of anything else going on in the school (illness, inspections etc) as otherwise the programme would fall apart. Up to two teachers may have the same week allocated – more than that makes it difficult to cover everyone. Even generally disengaged teachers did peer observations willingly with this system. As for those being observed, you can only say no to somebody coming into your classroom if you’ve been observed within the previous four weeks. Observations are included on the school’s weekly planner and email reminder is sent out to those being observed. Management doesn’t tell them who or what to observe: that is entirely up to the teachers involved. The only requirements from management are that each observation has three steps: pre-observation meeting, observation, post-observation meeting (these can be as long or as short as the participants like). Everything above is codified in the guidelines for the scheme.
Overall, the aim of the scheme is to share best practice, with everyone learning from each other.
Peer observation: making it work for lasting CPD – Carole Robinson and Marie Heron
Maria and Carole work at NILE, where there is a relatively high turnover of teachers. These are the benefits of peer observation as they see them:
- New ideas.
- Learning ways of dealing with critical incidents in the classroom.
- Building peer-peer trust.
- Observing learners from a different perspective (when observing a class you also teach).
- Extended professional development.
They have tried a variety of different peer observation systems. An open-door policy was seen as being too radical, so they decided to have a sign-up sheet instead. Teachers have been issued with red cards which they can put outside their door if they feel it would be a bad time for an observer to come into their lesson. Although they have never been used, it makes them feel safer and more willing to accept observers.
Because of the problem of cover, many observations are only 10-minutes. These are particularly useful at the beginning of a class as teachers are more likely to be willing to relinquish their students to another teacher at this point while they go and observe. Once every two weeks, they also run workshop sessions for the students which require fewer teachers than traditional classes do, leaving teachers free to observe other classes.
Other possible observation systems are:
- Blind observations: The lesson is discussed before and after it happens, but there is no observer in the room during the class.
- Video observations: The lesson is discussed before, videoed on a mobile phone, then specific sections of the lesson are watched with the observer. This removed the fear of having another person in the room.
The pre-observation chat is very important, regardless of the manner of observation. This is when the focus of the observation is decided on as well as how feedback will be conducted.
To reduce paperwork, teachers only complete an observation log showing the time, date and focus of observations. No other paperwork is required by management. To maximise their potential, observations take place throughout the year, rather than only once or twice, and they vary in length to help teachers fit them in. Teachers are encouraged to keep a reflective journal of what they have learnt from the observations, both as observed and observer. They don’t have to show it to anyone, but can if they want to: What have I learnt? What questions does it pose?
Peer observations are also the subject of workshops the school holds, including discussion about how to develop the scheme further. These workshops take the form of debates and happen every 2-3 months, covering a whole variety of topics (not just peer observations). They sound like an interesting idea, and one I’d like to experiment with.
Better together: peer coaching for continuing professional development – Dita Phillips and Ela Wassell
Ela has been telling me about the peer coaching project she has been running with Dita over the past year since it started, so I had to go to this talk to find out how it all panned out in the end 🙂
Dita and Ela met at IATEFL Harrogate last year, and quickly realised that they had quite similar teaching profiles in terms of their experience and length of time in the classroom. They were also both based in Oxford.
Ela returned to the classroom at around the same time, having taught 121 for a long time. She asked Dita to observe her to check some of her classroom management techniques. Dita asked Ela to observe in return because she didn’t want to get stuck in a rut. They found the experience so useful that they decided they wanted to turn it into something more formal, and their peer coaching project was born.
Peer coaching is:
A confidential process through which two or more professional colleagues work together to reflect on current practices; expand, refine and build new skills; share ideas; teach one another; conduct classroom research; or solve problems in the workplace.
Robbins, P (1991) How to plan and implement a peer coaching programme Alexandria, VA; Association for Supervision Curriculum Development (may be a slight mistake in the reference – tweet not clear)
Or, as they said:
Reflecting together, learning from each other.
Their project involved:
- Listing their individual and professional goals before the project started.
- Meeting regularly to discuss their lessons, things they had read/watched and teaching in general, working together to solve problems and build their knowledge. Because they were working with an experienced peer, the discussions could go into a lot of depth. They supported each other as critical friends.
- Observing each other’s lessons for specific details. They originally taught at different schools, but Ela later moved to Dita’s school. They told their managers what they were doing, and received support with timetabling (among other things) to make their project possible.
- Audio and video recording lessons.
- Giving feedback to each other on lessons and suggesting small tweaks they could make to change them.
- Keeping a teaching diary, which formed the basis for future meetings and ideas for observations. Ela colour-coded hers: change, improve, important.
- Teaching each other’s classes: they could focus on their learners while the other teacher led the class. When students asked why this was happening, it evolved into a discussion about the nature of teaching and learning, and students were interested in how they were developing their teaching. As a result, Dita became more comfortable with asking her students for feedback on lessons.
- For Dita, the project encouraged her to leave her comfort zone, and she decided to work on a CELTA at a different centre, giving her more material for development and reflection.
These are the benefits of peer coaching according to Dita and Ela:
- Easy to incorporate into your work schedule (especially with the support of managers).
- Two heads are better than one!
- You build a closer relationship with a colleague.
- Hands on.
- In depth.
- Mutual motivation because you don’t want to let your peer down.
- Can see continuity and progress throughout the year.
Here are their tips if you’d like to set up a similar project:
- Choose the right person.
- Set up ground rules, including confidentiality and how you will give feedback.
- Decide what forms of coaching you will include (see ideas above for inspiration).
- Set goals before you start and review them regularly.
- Create a schedule and stick to it.
- Decide what you hope to achieve with the project as a whole.
- Inform management and gain school support if possible.
- Be open and honest about what you are doing.
- Evaluate the project when you have finished.
- Share the results.
Because there was no requirement to grade or assess the lessons, they both found it very liberating and learnt a lot.
I’m here to improve and to learn.
Their students also benefitted. They both gained confidence in their own practice and abilities as teachers, as well as the courage to experiment more with their teaching.
Here’s Olga Sergeeva’s summary of the talk.
Lesson jamming: planning lessons in groups – Tom Heaven
I was interested in this session because IH Bydgoszcz has a system of lesson planning in groups, and I wanted to see how someone else uses the same technique.
Tom is a member of a group called Berlin Language Worker Grassroots Association (or Berlin LW GAS for short), which was set up for a whole range of reasons, one of which was to help reduce the feeling of isolation among the many freelance teachers working in Berlin.
Lesson jams were designed as a fun way to get together for a few hours with other teachers and be inspired by each other and a random prompt (you might find some inspiration on my other blog!) to come up with a lesson plan. There is a step-by-step process for this, culminating in each group sharing their plan with everyone there. The aim of the jam is to be creative and to learn from each other. They also share the final plans on their website, and they’re currently looking for more ideas on how to work with the finished products after the lesson jam. So far, they’ve had two very successful jams and will continue to hold them in the future.
If you’d like to set up your own lesson jam, there is a downloadable guide including all of the stages on the Berlin LW GAS site.
Aspiring to inspire: how to become a great LTO* manager – Fiona Thomas
(*Language Teaching Organisation)
What is the difference between an inspiring manager and a mediocre one? How does an inspiring manager make you feel?
Why is it so hard to be inspiring? It requires time to connect with people at an emotional level, and if there’s one thing managers are short of, it’s time. Our stress levels build up because we’re constantly ‘on’ and this leads to us ignoring the warning signs of stress until it’s too late, much like boiling a frog. This leads to us becoming uninspirational micro managers.
To combat this we need to stake a step back and analyse what we are doing with our time. Fiona suggested creating a pie chart and using this to decide whether you are spending appropriate amounts of time on each area. These are the categories she suggested:
- Operations management;
- Strategic management;
- Being an academic expert/mentor;
- Emotional intelligence.
Fiona decided she was spending too much time on operations management and looked for ways to delegate some of the more administrative parts of her job. Technology could also help you to make some of these areas more efficient. This frees time to focus on developing ‘distinguishing competencies’, thus making managers more inspirational. These differ from ‘threshold competencies’, which are the minimum skills required to do your job. For a DoS, this would be areas like timetabling and conducting observations. ‘Distinguishing competencies’ include:
- Social intelligence: understanding relationships.
- Emotional intelligence: being aware of your own emotions.
- Cognitive intelligence: interpreting what is happening in the world around you.
Research shows that outstanding managers create resonant relationships with the people they manage. This reminds me of the idea of one on ones from the Manager Tools podcast I have been listening to, which seems like a very effective way of building up these relationships. So what is a resonant relationship? It’s one which:
- Communicates hope: the belief that the future will be good and things are possible;
- Reminds people of the purpose of the organisation and encourages a shared vision (If you have a mission statement, refer to it!);
- Demonstrates compassion (showing that you care and that people feel you care) – following the recipient’s agenda: what motivates them?
- Shows mindfulness (you are ‘with’ the people you manage, not thinking about other things) and attention. Be fully aware of where you are and what you’re doing. If you know it’s not a good time and you can’t give your full attention, act accordingly: postpone the meeting, ask to speak to them at a specified later time, etc.
- Has participants who appear to be authentic, genuine and transparent and act with integrity;
- Includes quality time spent with the people you manage, in which you learn about their aspirations and motivation – it’s easy to make assumptions about people if you don’t get to know them properly;
- Spreads positive emotions: the more powerful your position is, the more likely your emotions are to affect other people.
Fiona was put this talk together as a result of a free 8-week Coursera course she followed called Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence, which she highly recommends. Her blog contains many more insights into managing LTOs.
These talks have given me many ideas for how to implement observations when I become a DoS, the most important of which is to make sure that any peer observation scheme comes primarily from the teachers themselves. I am also more and more sure that I want to include one on ones in my timetable for next year to get to know the people that I am working with as quickly as possible. Lots to think about 🙂