The vast majority of initial teacher training routes begin with time spent observing more experienced and ‘expert’ colleagues in the classroom. The role that this observation plays in providing a ‘frame of reference’ for beginning teacher’s subsequent or concurrent practice is well established (Hagger, Burn, Mutton & Brindley, 2008, p.169). However, for many beginning teachers it can feel like a boring distraction and an obstacle to getting on with the real business of teaching.
Of course, observation of experienced colleagues is not the only way that beginning teachers learn in their practice school. However, it is a critical element and, if we want them to get the most from it, they cannot just be expected to observe effectively without guidance. As beginning teachers start out, they generally don’t know what they should be looking for; many still inhabit their pupil-persona when in the classroom during these early days of practice and focus entirely upon the performative aspects. Often, they are obsessed with classroom management to exclusion of teaching and learning. They need support to ‘draw back the curtain’ and understand the many macro and micro decisions that go into the planning and enaction of a lesson.
So, what support do beginning teachers need to enable them to observe effectively in those early days?
Beginning teachers need to be helped to actively notice those things that would otherwise not seem significant to them in their novice state. They need a structure around which to pin their observations so as to direct their attention to the specific, rather then reaching general impressions of effectiveness (a judgement they are not yet equipped to make) based on surface features.
Support for observing takes a number of different forms. It might:
*Look like a whispered observation, where the mentor sits alongside their mentee whilst observing another colleague and ‘narrates’ what is happening and unpacks the teacher decision making taking place or the pupil learning that is being demonstrated.
*Be a simple proforma that forces the beginning teacher to select an observation focus (e.g. behaviour for learning, adaptive teaching, questioning, teacher instructions or explanations etc.) and attend to those features of the lesson.
*Involve considering the pitch and pace of lessons using an approach like a semantic waves observation, for an example see here.
*Take the form of a series of questions they are seeking to find answers to as they watch the lesson. These may be generic or very subject specific. Depending on the focus, questions might look something like this:
After the observation
Following the observation, the beginning teacher needs to be supported to understand what that observation means for them as beginning teachers. This may mean having a professional conversation where they ask questions about what they have just seen, or being asked questions by their mentor which helps them make connections with their own emerging practice. Additional activities, which can also help to move a beginning teacher on following an observation of a more experienced colleague, might involve joint planning a lesson, team-teaching a lesson, and the beginning teacher filming themselves teaching and then ‘observing’ their own practice using a similar proforma.
Keeping observation of others central to ongoing professional development
It is very common for observation of other colleagues to fall by the wayside in favour of extra time for planning and preparation. However, it is in these later stages of the ITT or ECT years that the most benefit might be derived from observing others. Observations at this point act like a mirror, incisively reflecting back core practises which the observer needs to give attention. They can also act like a window into different personas and approaches, expanding teaching horizons and unsticking increasingly entrenched classroom practices.
The privilege of observation
Observing colleagues is an enormous privilege. It can be an incredibly transformative experience for a beginning teacher’s practice if it is handled in the right way. Mentors of beginning teachers need to help their mentees value the experience so they make the most of it while they have the opportunity!
References/ further reading:
Gestsdottir, S.M., van Boxtel, C. and van Drie, J. (2018) Teaching historical thinking and reasoning: Construction of an observation instrument, British Educational Research Journal Vol. 44, No. 6, December 2018, pp. 960–981 DOI: 10.1002/berj.3471
Hagger, H., Burn, K., Mutton, T., & Brindley, S. (2008). Practice makes perfect? Learning to learn as a teacher. Oxford Review of Education, 34(2), 159–178. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054980701614978