Observations – Meeting whose needs?
I write this as a middle manager with direct responsibility for curriculum, one that is still subject to being observed himself and who observes cross college.
My own experiences of being observed are very mixed including my very first obs being as part of an OFSTED Inspection of my college where I was a PT evening lecturer being asked to come in to cover a day class because of sickness. I was working in industry at the time and was given a sweet and surprising G1(A big part due to the design software and CBT I was using, so eat your heart out BH). One year I was given G2 but after pointing out to the observer (during feedback) that the student ‘sitting and just watching another student’ was in fact his support worker I was told (after a 24 hour thinking slot) the grade can’t be changed because (and I quote) “The LSA wasn’t on your lesson plan so I can’t give you a G1”. I just chuckled to myself. I have also had an “Ofsted trained” observer as part of the annual cycle, but as the person admitted previously that she gave up teaching because she wasn’t very good at it I shan’t even share her thoughts (more about mutual respect later). This term “Ofsted Trained” is bandied around as if it gives people absolute credibility. I treat all of these as I find, some are good, some very good, others… well, see my previous.
There are three primary observation types IMO.
It is well known the value of these in helping to improve teaching practice. Teachers may not be giving each other a ‘grade’ but they know if what they saw was good or not. Hopefully they know what they will be taking away with them to improve their own practice and things they would avoid. If used correctly by managers you can pair people up to improve specific areas of practice. It may be as simple as “go see what X is doing during the practical sessions around student note-taking”. Some teachers are used more often than others for class visits simply because they have better practices. (Thus are relatively better than other teachers). If you add these up (appropriately weighted of course) then you come out with a measurement. You can’t help it.
The problem I have with these is that the teachers who engage fully in them are more often than not the teachers that need them the least. Whether it be allowing others into their class or visiting other classes, those that don’t participate may see any visitor as a threat and/or find it difficult to accept/admit that they can learn from others, especially when there is an age/experience difference. It may just be a confidence issue and I hope that with the practice being encouraged more and more across FE the fears will be reduced. I like these, I guess I kind of used them in my first years as I was also studying for a degree at the same time as working PT evening. I used things I learnt from my university lecturers but more importantly (at least of more importance to me) I took ideas from college lecturers who had taught me – both the good and bad with me being the missing third of that trilogy…
I bet you thought I would leave this one ‘til last, as its the “biggy”. Well, this is probably easier to deal with because it comes round less frequently than the others and let’s be honest is the most simple to complete. All you have to do is deliver a good session for the short period they are in. You get notice that you may possibly be observed, the whole college is behind you willing you on to better grades, your line managers and CMT/SMT will be stroking and massaging you prior to get you in tip top condition, after all… they will also be judged by your performance. It may be the case where you will no longer be graded but you will know by the language used how you got on – and only you will know! So as for before, when you are asked “how did it go?” you can use a bit of poetic licence. In which case you can safely sleep that night even if you didn’t the 3 nights before. (We still don’t know who got the grade 4 in our last Ofsted and no amount of guessing will make us right).
Annual/Line Manager/Review Observation
These form part of the annual cycle of review for most colleges. When we declare to Ofsted our “grade profile” it is normally this process from where we extract that information. As far as is possible these follow the latest Ofsted thinking – and means of grading – in particular when referenced to the latest directive , fad or fashion (be they useful or not). For instance we have had ECM, E&M, eLearning, embedding, E&D plus many others and not all beginning with E). This actually resulted in one of our observation forms just a few years ago having 61 (yes, sixty one, it’s not a typo) boxes to tick – these were followed by 5 target areas for improvement. Please, tell me what use that was. Fortunately it only lasted a year.
The results of these observations are usually the ones that lead to training, CPD – including cross college CPD where common aspects arise – but can also lead to competency issues. These are probably the most contentious because of that very reason. I recently had quite a discussion around this on Twitter with someone who suggested that as I now teach very little, I had little use for anything I learnt (such as for peer obs) therefore this was a waste of my and the teachers time. There may be some truth in that, I do get fewer opportunities to practice what I learn (and I still learn) but I am able to share good practice with my team and use this to inform my peer observation schedule. However, that isn’t the reason I and others carry out these observations. They are there for me to know the standard of TLA that is happening in my classrooms (and for other managers for whom I carry out observations but more later).
In my college these are carried on an annual cycle or in response to concerns raised. We adopt a model of 48 hours notice of a 3-day window. This ensures staff have time to prepare but limits the build up period and hopefully the stress, it is also not dissimilar to what one would expect of an Ofsted visit. I certainly do not subscribe to too much notice and to be honest the old practice of allowing staff to choose which class on which day made sufficient mockery of the process as to make it worthless.
Regardless of how we all feel about grades that is ultimately what the staff want to know.
And so do I.
If I have staff underperforming I need to know and know quickly, often there have been short visit learning walks, although not graded, do give me a real sense of how things are progressing.
The question has to be, what is wrong with this process that so many are completely against it? After all isn’t it to expose and fix poor teaching practice and not just improving the already good, surely nobody would argue against that. Despite what some people say (I don’t know what they think), it still exists and still destroys or makes harder the work of the good teaching staff. This cannot be picked up by such things as looking at learner outcomes, we aren’t the same as primary school where they get one teacher, or secondary where they get one teacher per subject. Using the argument of “we had Y% success last year so we must be teaching well” doesn’t wash. Staff have for years had to pick up the gaps left by bad teaching – I know I have done it myself – so why should this be allowed to continue? Some of this poor practice and relying on others has been going on for years and unless you have some mechanism for measuring/checking individual’s practices you just go on relying on the good.
[I promise you now I will not use the Reductio ad Hitlerum argument; just because you disagree, doesn’t make you a bad teacher]
So how about non-graded observations
We aren’t planning to follow Ofsted just yet and move to non-graded observations (at least for the foreseeable future). I think we need to examine the Ofsted thoughts on this, although they may not be offering a grade to the teacher at the time of feedback they still need to ‘make a judgement’ on teaching overall. How can you do that without a measure? What else do we call it? Reduce to a simple Good or Bad (or Really Good, Good and Not Quite So Good for fear of upsetting someone’s feelings). That is still a judgement, a measure, and really doesn’t do the Outstanding teaching staff justice. So do I make an overall judgement for each of the teams and let poor practice be carried for another year? Unfortunately that goes completely against my grain, I just couldn’t do it.
Observers as people
Honestly, observers are people too. I previously mentioned that I don’t do as much teaching and some may say that I haven’t the requisite skills to carry out observations. Well, I have to disagree. The value of any observation has to be started with a base of mutual respect by both parties – if this isn’t in place then the process is a waste of time (see my previous about my own experiences). I have been observed by a member of our senior management team who had been out of teaching for at least 15 years, but I respected his ability, experience and judgement. I have also had the observation that I previously mentioned along with current practitioners, advanced practitioners and members of the quality team. Not all with the same level of trust in their judgements.
When an observation is carried out everything starting from the way you enter the room to the feedback given and judgements written up, the observer really should take care with what they do, say/write and how it comes across. Even poor teachers need to be given developmental guidance and the respect they deserve. I am sure that (in all but one case) I have seen it wasn’t deliberately poor and staff do react to support where they are able.
I think this is where colleges need to step up and be more selective on the choice of observers and to QA the whole process/people. The use of external Ofsted trained (there it goes again) or otherwise trained/specialist observers does not guarantee quality of decisions made. Neither does it assure mutual respect.
The same as for teachers, we (college observers) are observed observing and if we don’t make the grade we are taken off the list. I get a dual observation at least once a year (normally at the start of cycle), my reports are moderated and I have to take part in at least one other standardisation process during the year.
We have a limited number of observers so not all line managers carry them out (often as a result of the above QA practice) hence I am often observing in other areas, but as I stated on Twitter just the other night, I can sniff out a good teacher, good teachers are what they are… you can often tell just by looking at the students. Asked what they smell of? Well today it’s Old Spice but has been known to be the great smell of Brut (that will be lost on many I am sure)
Do I want to change or lose the process?
I have to be honest, until someone comes up with a better idea I am happy with them. I think we have the notice period about right, plenty of time to prepare but not too long to stress. Being able to choose my own slot during that 3-day ensures a level of freedom for me. I may not like the way I am told they should be done – but that’s more of the mutual respect thing so it gets my chip butty treatment, a pinch of salt. As for grading, again if you come up with a better idea I will take a look.
Whoops! The Paperwork…
Oh, I forgot, the paperwork… yes, of course, the paperwork. I do ask to see the paperwork as is required, sometimes it’s there, sometimes I have to wait. I do check attendance figures, that tells a story, I do check progress records. But I am a fervent “anti” detailed session plan – anyone who thinks their lesson is going to go the way they planned down to 5 minute slots is dreaming. That isn’t teaching that’s just lecturing and worse still, just lecturing at a group. Have your objectives, you know where you want to take them, just don’t think you can plan every step of the route, there is always some dog poo to step around or a nice view to see that will alter your route. Think of it as a Sat Nav with alternate routing but not the one that will always take you on the shortest route.