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.

My story: how I lost my mojo (and got it back) – a blog challenge with a human touch

This is my first blog post, hopefully the first of many. I couldn’t think of a better way to start than with a challenge. This challenge was proposed by the amazing Vicky Loras. In case you don’t know who Vicky is, she is an educator from Toronto, Canada and she is also an entrepreneur. She currently lives in Switzerland, where she founded, with her sister, Eugenia Loras, The Loras Network. Both Vicky and Eugenia blog and I strongly recommend that you follow them.

Vicky’s challenge got me thinking: what’s my story? I have many stories to tell, but there’s a bigger, unfinished story that I’m not ready to share yet, after all, I’m still here! So I decided to tell you the story of when I lost my mojo. What is mojo and how can that relate to education and to a blog that, in theory, is going to talk about English language teaching? According to the Cambridge dictionary, mojo is:

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 12.37.47(Taken from: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/mojo)

Basically, mojo is that sparkle of life, that special thing that makes you who you are. If you are feeling burned out, bored and depleted, whether it’s physically or emotionally, you may have lost your mojo. When you feel like that specially when going to work, red flag, your teaching mojo is at risk.

I lost my teaching mojo when I was observed in a group of pre-teens. There were about twenty students and I was having a hard time with those kids. I remember asking this person to observe that specific group because I was having issues regarding classroom management and my students were very difficult. That class was right after lunch and some students were surprisingly full of energy, which was odd because I knew some of them didn’t actually have the time to eat. Apparently hunger can give you tons of energy when you are ten.

Everything that could go wrong went wrong. If you look up ‘Murphy’s Law’, you’ll see a picture of my students, a bonfire, the observer and me helplessly trying to teach the present continuous. Okay, there was no bonfire, but just because the students didn’t have a match. They went wild, all of them, even the ones that (usually) behaved, and on top of that I was very nervous. You know when people almost die and have those out-of-body experiences? That’s how I felt. I remember looking at the observer and that face was not a happy one.

We would normally have a feedback session afterwards, my observer would write a report, the usual. I couldn’t help myself, I could not wait a week or two, I needed help. So, in the end of my Greek tragedy, I asked “What do you think?”. I knew it had sucked. I knew it would. That’s why I asked for help in the first place. I guess I’d never had so many kids that age before. I hadn’t had any pre-teen group in a while. The perfect recipe for disaster.

It’s funny to think that my first students ever were children and I did a pretty good job. What had changed? I certainly had. It seems that, some years later, children had changed too. What I couldn’t see at the time is that not only were those children totally different, but the setting was different as well. First, I didn’t have twenty; I had ten students in class, maybe fifteen when I started. Most kids groups I had were in the morning and, oh boy, what a difference it makes. The ‘angels’ I had before were not perfect either, they used to misbehave at times. What had changed then?

“It wasn’t good. You need to be tougher with them, they do whatever they want. What about that boy clicking that pen, Pedro, isn’t it? I looked at him and I said ‘stop it!’, ”, my observer said, “everything was wrong.”
“Okay, but what can I do then?”, I asked as we passed by the teachers’ room.
“You’ve got to be tougher with them.”
“But how can I do that?”
“This will come with time. First, you cannot let that boy click his pen all the time, it’s annoying! But don’t worry, it’s about experience, it’ll come with time. The kids are normal, not so out of control. Look, I’m not even going to write a report, I don’t want you to have a bad report in your records.” and those were my observer’s last words, as I rushed to my next class. To my great dismay, that was all I the feedback I got. I’d been teaching for about six or seven years at that time, how much more time would I need? One, two years, a lifetime?

I felt like a total failure.

One and a half years later, I started working at a place that I’d always dreamed about, a very prestigious language school in my city. I was hired to teach two groups: a conversation group and a, guess what? A kids group! Remember what I said about Murphy’s Law? Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. If going wrong is having a big kids group, things did go wrong. If going wrong is having a big, loud, wild group of ten year olds, welcome to my life, things went double wrong. At this school, I’d be observed twice by a mentor and once by a supervisor. The mentor was a sweet fellow teacher, she gave me useful advice. “They don’t expect things to be perfect, they just need to see that you’re trying and that you know what you’re doing”, she’d say.

The day finally came and I was observed. I sucked. Again. For the second time I had sucked. I mean, I’d sucked big time.

At the end of the class, I looked at her and asked, “How was it?”.
“I won’t give you any feedback now, but don’t worry. Gosh, those kids are brats, I’m sorry you have to teach them.”, and that’s all she said about that lesson on that day. That instantly made me feel better. She acknowledged that they were not easy students to control.

A few days later, she gave me some feedback about my lesson and I hadn’t sucked as much as I thought I had. There was room for improvement, specially concerning classroom management, but there were positive points too. This supervisor gave me tons of very practical suggestions of procedures and activities. I was eager to implement them. Some worked (for some time), others did not. At the end of that term that group was still far from what I’d like it to be, but the improvement was undeniable.

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(Taken from: http://sayingbook.com/austin-powers-quotes-4.html no copyright infringement intended)

And that was how I lost my mojo and I got my groove back. It sounds a bit like Cinderella, doesn’t it? There was no prince, but there was a cool trainer who gave me back my professional self-esteem (which would be the shoe). Maybe the shoe would be my lesson plan. Does that make my other boss a witch?

Hell no! I’m no Cinderella and neither are you. We don’t need to be saved. My boss at the time was a good person, although, as a trainer, I don’t agree with her choice to not write a report. As harsh as it would be, it would have been beneficial to me. I am sure the decision to observe me again in another group came from a loving and caring place.

I wonder how many teachers lose confidence in themselves every day because of negative feedback. We are teachers, but we are also human beings and as human beings we sometimes take things to heart and that takes us to dark places. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize that, yes, I am a good teacher and, yes, it’s okay to struggle with some groups and that does not necessarily imply there is something wrong. It breaks my heart to think that you or a fellow teacher close to you is feeling shattered and lost when they received negative feedback. I was lucky to meet a person that reminded me that I was worth it, what about those who are not as lucky? That’s why I have three tips for teachers to never lose their mojo or get it back if necessary be.

 

  1. If someone has an opinion, it’s their opinion.

Criticism is just another form of people’s opinions and there is no way you are going to please everyone. Even having a set of very specific criteria in mind, different trainers are going to give you different feedback. While they may agree on the overall strengths and areas of improvement of your lesson, you are never going to get the exact same feedback.

 

  1. Every problem is serving a greater purpose.

It may sound like fluff, but we are here on this earth to become better at everything we do. It’s like George Patton once said, ‘Pressure makes diamonds’. Often during hard times we turn our wounds and worries into wisdom. When times are tough, think about what you can learn and remember nothing happens by chance.

 

  1. You are responsible.

Nothing has meaning besides the meaning you give. It’s up to you to assign an empowering or disempowering meaning to your experiences. The outside world cannot dictate how you feel and others can’t validate you. Pave your own path, and remember it is not possible to live up to the expectations of others.

 

I would like to hear from you! Have you ever received harsh feedback that made you question your teaching skills? Have you ever lost your mojo? What did you do to get it back?

Thank you for reading!

T.