Smile, you’re being watched – tips on how to survive being observed

My very first blog post was about how two experiences with lesson observation changed my life and shaped me into the teacher and the trainer I am today. What I did not tell you was how to get ready for lesson observation.

Being observed is a great way to improve our teaching practice, although lesson observation can be extremely nerve-racking. You may or may not know the observer, who often is, hierarchically speaking, in a higher position.

The best way to deliver an excellent lesson is to prepare it thoroughly. Here I answer 15 questions about strategies to enhance your confidence before having your lesson observed:

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1. What will learners be able to do at the end of that lesson?

This question will guide your preparation. Everything you do should be related to that goal (or goals). For instance, if you want to equip students to successfully talk about past experiences without specifying when they happened, practicing predictions about the future will not help.

I remember that when I started teaching I used to love working with songs. Rarely were they connected to the rest of the activities, though. That was, in the end, counterproductive. It took valuable class time and did not contribute to the focus of my lesson. Were students having fun? I am sure most of them were. However, having fun for the sake of fun may not be useful to learners. Besides, you can always think of ways to amuse students without losing sight of your lesson aims.

2. What materials are you going to use?

Thinking about materials will help you tailor your lesson. Make sure that everything you select is related to your aims.
When selecting materials, ask yourself: do I have to follow a course book? Do I intend to use realia? What about audio or video resources? How do those resources complement the existing materials?

3. Any changes?

If you are going to use a course book, it may be necessary to adapt some activities. Be careful. In good course books, activities are designed with a clear purpose and are logically put together. Therefore, if you decide to substitute a task, use another one with a common aim.

If the purpose of the exercise is not clear at first, have a look at the teacher’s book.

Changing or adapting materials has to come from a choice informed by your lesson aims and your learners. If an activity does not appeal to you, but you think it would to your learners and would also be a useful tool to achieve your lesson aims, don’t change it.

4. How much time do you have for the lesson and for each stage?

You know what people say about karma? Well, I’d say the same about time.
Your lesson may be beautifully prepared with clear aims and wonderful activities that support those aims, everything perfectly linked, a real recipe to success.

This is where it becomes tricky. Having the perfect recipe does not mean a perfect meal. The same goes for a good lesson.

Timing activities and stages may be hard, specially for beginner teachers. If you feel you need help, ask a colleague, preferably a senior teacher, their opinion about your estimates. If that is not an option, role-play. Imagine you are a student: how long would you take to finish that task? In order to have a good estimate, also consider giving and checking instructions, the activity itself and feedback.

5. How many learners are there? Do they always come to class? What about latecomers?

You need to have these numbers in mind for practical reasons, such as the number of photocopies you need to make, what size speakers you need for your classroom, etc.

This will also inform you about possible patterns of interaction. While there isn’t much you can do in that regard with only one student, if you have more you may have them work in pairs, in groups and individually. Changing interaction patterns throughout your lesson will make it more dynamic.

6. Should I write a lesson plan?

It depends. If the observer is expecting a written plan, yes, you have to write one. Not doing so is starting off the observation on the wrong foot.

If you are a beginner teacher, I would strongly advise you to write a lesson plan for personal reference. Devote more time to what you tend to struggle with. For instance, you have a problem with instructions. Plan and write those down. You don’t need to read them in class. The act of writing will give you some clarity whether the instructions are clear or not.

7. What can go wrong?

Have you ever heard of Murphy’s law? Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, my friend.

Anticipating problems makes setbacks less likely. If you have a pair work in mind but know it is possible to have an odd number of students, how can you adapt? Is your classroom too small to play a certain game? If so, where are you going to take students, what are your instructions going to be like?

8. Is there an evaluation grid? What exactly will the observer take into consideration?

If there are specific criteria used to evaluate you, you have the right to know them. If they are not given to you, show interest and ask about those criteria.
If the same person has observed you before, refer to the feedback given at that occasion. This will show that you listened to what the observed had to say and tried to improve.

9. What will your learners have problems with?

Anticipating learners’ problems is also an important part of your lesson preparation. By doing so, you can also anticipate solutions to those problems.

10. Do you have a multilingual or a monolingual group?

This will make a difference specially when you anticipate your learners’ difficulties. Students from different linguistic backgrounds are likely to have different problems.

As teachers, it is good to study other languages, not only the one (or ones) we teach. While it is virtually impossible to speak all the languages in the world, the book Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference, by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith may shed some light on possible problems.

11. What are your personal difficulties?

It is the same rationale behind predicting your learner’s problems.

I used to struggle with my talking time when I started teaching. My TTT was always high. I was only able to reduce it the moment I started to plan in detail what I was going to say, how I would explain the grammar or the vocabulary from that lesson. The same goes for other areas that you need to improve. For example, if you have problems with pace, what can you do to prevent activities from taking too long? Perhaps you want to make sure instructions are clear or even time some activities.

12. How do the stages fit in the overall aim of that lesson?

Look at each stage of your lesson and check whether they contribute to the lesson aims and if the level of difficulty of the sequence makes sense.

13. How are the activities linked?

It is important that they are linked not also in terms of language but content as well. By way of illustration, imagine you are teaching how to make predictions in the context of travelling. Don’t go change the context abruptly to environment. It doesn’t mean that you have to stick to the same context until the end of the lesson, just that you need to find ways to link them.

14. What is your plan B? Do you have a plan C?

We should have alternative activities when things don’t go according to how we planned, but let’s be honest, it’s not always feasible. When being observed, it is better to plan for more than you need. Improvising is not the wisest choice while being observed.

15. How can I engage students on a personal level?

If you provide students with appealing contents, they are going to be more relaxed. Many people take this for granted and here’s a major reason why you should not: students learn better when they are in low anxiety situations.

Now I would love to know what your tips to great lesson observations are. What would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments.

Advice to young teachers: what I wish I had been told

#youngerteacherself

Yesterday I saw at Joanna Malefaki’s blog the #youngerteacherself challenge. It is about, as you may suspect, advice to your younger you. I love these challenges. In fact, my very first blog post was a challenge by Vicky Loras that you can read here. Although Joanna didn’t tag me, it’s one of those cool things you have to do!

So here it goes:

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(Photo taken from: http://on.fb.me/1wRicQ0 by Carmen Arias Blazquéz used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,http://bit.ly/1evKm84)

Dear T.,

You’ve just started university, congratulations! I know you’re not super excited about it, as you were not accepted to the university you wanted. I understand you wanted a BA in English and Literature, but a BA in Portuguese and English will do you good. Besides, you will make amazing friends and meet professors that will inspire and challenge you.

You’ll party hard. You’ll party so hard during your first semester that you’ll focus more on your studies and work afterwards, which is good, I guess.

Don’t work too much. I know you’re a dreamer and a quite ambitious one, but take some time to enjoy university! Time will fly and you’ll regret not having dedicated more to some courses. By the way, wait for the 5th term, when you study Phonetics & Phonology. It’ll blow your mind. Phonetic transcription is sickening; you’re going to love it.

Your body is your temple, treat it with respect. This is supposed to be about more professional advice, I know. Something I learned is that if you’re not feeling 100%, you won’t be able to be at the top of your game. Your personal life and the way you see yourself are inextricably intertwined with your ability to do your job.

You don’t need to lose or gain weight, as long as you stay healthy. Take it easy at the gym! I know you love lifting, be careful. Your knees will thank you in the future. Take care of your vocal cords too. You should definitely see a speech therapist. They will give you the best advice to make sure you don’t have problems in the future.

Don’t obsess (only) about the English language. You’re a teacher, try to learn as much as possible about teaching techniques, approaches and methods too! Of course it is important to know your subject matter and the CPE will do wonders for your self-esteem and CV. Take the CELTA, the time is now! I know you’ve been working for some time now, but let’s face it: you need the fundamentals of teaching practice. I know what you’re going to say, ‘I can’t afford it!’. Take out a loan, be in debt! Do the CELTA in London, you only live once! Just do it. If you don’t do it now, you’ll eventually learn, you’ll be trained by great people, but the path will be rough. And when, years later, you say to people that you’re thinking about doing the DELTA, they’re going to think that you’re cocky (not that you’ll care, but I thought I should let you know).

Listen to your students. From a technical point of view, your teacher talking time should be low. Even though this is very important, it is not what I want to highlight. Your students are human beings. I promise you will learn something wonderful and unique about each one of them.

However, not all of them will like you. It’s not personal. Well, maybe it is. Even when you notice a student does not like you, make an effort to find something you admire in that person. Believe me, you will always find something. That is the most fascinating part of your job. You’ll listen to their stories, be a little part of their lives and, hopefully, be able to make a difference.

Don’t be a jerk, going to conferences is a great way to learn new things. After your first term at university, you’ll be very excited about conferences, congresses, and symposia. You won’t be able to wait for the next one! Then you’ll be a jerk about it and think they’re all the same and people only talk about the same things over and over again. That doesn’t mean that you should stop going to conferences, just that you’ve been to the wrong ones lately, genius.

I know right now your access to it may be limited, but this thing called Internet is a great resource and you’ll learn a lot. I am not talking only about preparing your lessons, although this will save much time. That site called YouTube is not only for you to keep up with lonelygirl15 (she is not even real, it’s freaking fabricated)! Seriously, YouTube will be a revolution not only in people’s leisure activities but also in your lessons. No more spending money to rent videos for a 3-minute snippet in class! Maybe one day you can even start your own web show. Will it be successful? I don’t know. You might want to give it a try.

The Internet will give you the chance to take online courses, teach online and connect with great educators from all over the world.

Be stubborn, be curious. Did you try something new in class and it didn’t work? Try again! Just because something was not successful with a group, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Remember each student, each group is unique. They will react differently and it is okay. You don’t have to follow the exact same procedures, even if you are teaching the same level, grammar topic or the same lesson. Try to be sensitive to your students and remember your lesson plan is there to help you, not to be a straitjacket.

Peer observation is great, don’t be lazy. You will be very lucky and work with amazing teachers, who also happen to be amazing people. They are generous! Observe their lessons, invite them to your classroom, there is no need to be shy. I dare say that you will learn more from your colleagues than in any course you take.

Don’t stress about lesson observation. It can be intimidating, not going to lie. This is also a great way for you to improve and reflect upon your teaching practice. Receiving feedback can be hard sometimes, but worth it. Some observers are not going to be tactful. Don’t take it personally because it isn’t, I assure you. It is not easy to observe a teacher, give feedback, and write a report. Believe me, you will know.

Above all, remember to have fun. You were lucky to have chosen one of the most interesting and diverse industries to work, make it count.

With love, 

The older you

I hope this made you think about your young self, I certainly did. If you’re willing to take up the challenge, pay a visit to Joanna’s blog and let her know. Now I’d like to know if you could give only one advice to the young you, what would it be? Leave it in the comments.

How to define your next career goals

The English Language Teaching industry is full of possibilities. You may teach kids, teens, adults, Business English, English for Specific Purposes. You may teach groups, one to one, train teachers, write course books, design activities… Oh, boy! There is so much one can do I’d say possibilities are endless and the sky is the limit if you’re a dreamer like me.

The industry is really diverse and we’ve got to be ready for future opportunities, which means we have to be qualified for them. Then there are certificates, diplomas, and before you realize, you’re feeling overwhelmed with all there is. Trust me, I’ve felt the same way.

For instance, a very popular teaching qualification, if not the most popular, is the Cambridge CELTA. If you’ve heard of this certificate, I bet you’ve considered doing it at some point in your teaching career.

If you are insecure about your career path, I have a simple exercise that will help you find clarity regardless of what you do or would like to do in the ELT world.

Thank you for reading, watching and, hopefully, sharing with your friends. Join the discussion in the comments! I can’t wait to hear about your next goals.

T.