10 Tips for Lesson Observations
My previous post, 10 recommended books for the CELTA course, was somewhat well received and I have been thinking about a suitable follow-up for this post. Anyhow, after observing teachers during the week, I thought I would write up another post to support those teachers that have been successful for the CELTA course or those that have inspections or lesson observations due. In this post, I will recommend ten things to remember for any formal lesson observation.
1. What are your lesson aims?
You have planned your lesson, have a great idea for starting the lesson and also have cut-up all your material and you are ready to teach. However, look at your lesson plan and think very carefully what your aims and objectives are. I would really encourage any teacher to write their lesson plan by starting with this sentence: “By the end of the lesson, students will be able to …”. It is important to know what your students will achieve by the end of the lesson. Ask yourself “Why am I teaching this? How will I know that I have achieved my lesson aims?”.
Get some practice by writing up a list of quick lesson aims on the whiteboard for students to know what they are going to do during the lesson. If you are using a coursebook with your learners, it will help your lesson aims as most coursebooks, these days, have language aims and “Can Do” statements adjusted from the Common European Framework. Unsuitable aims or objectives in lesson plans could include the following:
- My students will learn vocabulary about …
- Students will have some speaking practice about …
- By the end of the lesson, students will have completed listening.
2. What’s in a name?
It really does show if teachers don’t remember the names of their students during observations. You cannot just wave your finger like a magic wand and say “You there! What is the answer to …?”. Not only does this illustrate that you do not know your learners’ names, it also suggests that you have not really thought about your learners when preparing a lesson. It is important to remember the names of your students and there are a few things you could do to help you out with this:
- Keep a floor-plan of those students and where they are sitting. Refer to this when you are stuck and test yourself when you have a chance.
- Get students to make a name card which can be made in the first lesson or with new students joining the class. Ask students to move around and then test yourself with students to remember their names.
If you can remember the names of your students, you are half-way there to generating rapport with students and learning more about them as individuals. Students will know if you don’t know their name. They will not be very happy if you cannot remember their name. How would you feel if you were in class and the teacher couldn’t even remember your name? You wouldn’t be happy.
3. Have a walkabout
When you are teaching a class, it is important to walk around a bit from time-to-time to monitor students. It doesn’t help if you are stationary during the lesson at the front of the class. It is important to walk around the classroom during lesson activities. Follow this basic advice and you will not go far wrong:
- Whole class instructions should be given at the front of the class
- Students are completing pair or small group activities and the teacher should try to walk around each small group or pair of students
- Students are doing a presentation and the teacher could sit in the corner of the class or among other students at the back of the classroom
If you are constantly present at the front of the classroom, it may appear top heavy with the teacher controlling the lesson and the students’ contribution. It is better to merge within the classroom and this will reflect well in your lesson observations.
4. The computer says “No!”
If you are using interactive whiteboard (IWB) or a computer as part of your lesson, make sure it works. It really is soul destroying to see all your hard work fall flat if the technology decides not to work and you are left rushing around to try to find a solution. It inevitably ends up getting the IT person involved to help with the situation. What is more annoying is if you boot up your computer with five minutes to spare and then it decides to update and you are left with a PC that is just sitting in the corner and you cannot do what you planned to do as the computer is now out of action. There are a few things to consider when preparing your lesson observation, if it includes any form of technology.
- Check that all equipment is working on the day and that you have a quick run through
- Make sure that the PC you are using has been booted up and it has updated itself
- Have a backup plan, should the unexpected happen, with a ten or fifteen minute activity to keep students occupied while you remedy any technological alarm
If you organise yourself well in advance and have a backup plan, you will be fully prepared for any situation or emergency. Teachers that are well organised are those that think about the unexpected happening.
5. Keep it short and sweet
You have nailed your lesson plan, you remember the names of all your students and, so far, the computer is not playing up. However, you have a task for students to do and you are about to give some instructions. You have not planned what to say but you know what the students have to do and so you commence this rather long commentary.
Okay everyone. We are going to do a speaking activity now so I want everyone to sit down. I am going to hand out this piece of paper. On this paper there is one word such as ‘Detective’ or ‘Nurse’ and you have to act out that particular character. Now, when you receive your piece of paper you must try and not show anyone else in the classroom but you must try to act like that person. The other person you are talking to must try to guess your job and write it down on this other piece of paper here. OK? Any questions?
When looking at the instructions above, it can seem rather daunting to begin with and how to improve instructions but with a bit of preparation and awareness of the activity, it is rather easy. Think how to say a sentence between 4-10 words in length and you will improve your instructions and students will not be fazed any longer. If you have a chance, demonstrate the activity if it is quite complicated. For example:
This paper has a job title. You must act like that job. What is my job? [You act like a bus driver and students guess the job]. Good! You write the job on this [show another piece of paper]. All students have a different job. Keep it secret [place the paper to your chest].
With some preparation, your instructions will improve and observers will recognise the effort you went through to ensure the setting up of an activity.
6. Heads or tails?
You are handing out the first worksheet but you have not even given instructions to the students just yet so you decide to give instructions once you have finished the act of handing out worksheets. You then decide to tell all students what to do just to ensure that they know what they are doing. However, when you talk to all the students on what they are about to do, all you see is the top of their heads. They are not listening to you but are staring at the newly received worksheet. This is an example of how not to stage a lesson for worksheets until learners have received some instructions. Here is some advice for you to consider the next time you are about to provide a worksheet:
- Tell students briefly what they are about to receive, what they are to do and a time limit.
- Ask students some instruction concept questions (ICQs) to ensure understanding.
- Hand out the worksheet to students and monitor.
If you follow the staging above with any worksheet, you will not have any problems with instructions, worksheets or student attentiveness.
7. Photocopy the day before
It is important to prepare as much as possible the day before your observation and this includes any photocopying you may have to do. Should you arrive in the staffroom the day of your observation with a plan to photocopy your worksheets and activities, you are bound to come across problems. Paper may be in short supply, it could be located in a different part of the building or there is a huge queue to the photocopier. No matter how tired you may feel, it is important to get all your photocopying and preparation done the day before. It will save any last minute issues and if there is an inspection, it will really stress staff if there is a battle to the photocopier.
8. Death by worksheets
All teachers, at some point in their career, have printed out worksheets to keep their students busy but this should not be considered a possibility during any observation. Worksheets are fine to consolidate and practice a language focus but you should not take a whole lesson with any form of worksheet. If you want to exploit a worksheet or a page from a vocabulary or grammar book, try to bring it off the page and personalise it for your students. Some ideas for exploiting material could include getting students to finish different parts and practising in context or creating their own worksheets for use in a future class. It is important to teach the learners rather than teach the material, as this will not go down well during any formal or informal observation. For example, if you want to teach a grammar lesson, refer to a grammar book, consider how you could present it, how the students could use the language in context and how it could be reinforced with language consolidation. Should you wish to teach a lesson using the Present Simple, you could do the following:
- Present the grammar point by showing daily routine: I wake up at …, I get up at …, etc.
- Show a time line and ask students to put the daily activities in order on a time line
- Ask students to now write about their own routine but using their own personal time line
- Get students to share their time line but to also think of questions as well as answers that could be considered about daily routine
- Review the grammar focus by consolidating the lesson with the use of some grammar exercises (gap fill, sentence prompts, etc.)
It is not difficult but you just need to think about trying to get the students using the language in context and reviewing the language focus as a class. Stick to this, and you will not go far wrong.
9. The whiteboard
The whiteboard is sometimes one of those pieces of equipment which is often overlooked while planning a lesson. It is always used during the lesson and something to write up vocabulary, functional language, etc. When being observed, it is important to use the whiteboard effectively during these lessons and show that you are a ‘whiteboard wizard’. There are some simple tricks to keep you on top of any whiteboard issue:
- I probably do not have to say it, but keep the whiteboard clean and free from smudges during observations.
- Use margins on the whiteboard to split up between lesson aims and objectives, vocabulary and the main area for brainstorming language/ideas.
- Try to use colours which are easily readable during the lesson. One pet hate is when teachers use a red pen on the board and then expect students to read it at a distance. Use black for main text and colours to highlight pronunciation, intonation or other lexical collocations.
- Get students to copy down language and things from the whiteboard before erasing everything. It seems simple but the number of times that I have seen a teacher erase the whiteboard while students have not been given a chance to copy from the whiteboard or half-way through their copying is more common than thought. Do not be a whiteboard demon, get students to copy things from the whiteboard.
- Write neatly and at a correct size for all to read. It seems such a basic idea but there are still teachers who write things on the board and both the observer and the students are unable to decode what has been written. If it is too small or too messy, both parties will have difficulty reading your board-work. It is best to write in non-cursive writing which is more reader friendly for language learners.
10. Relax and be yourself
Formal, as well as less formal, lesson observations can be a rather stressful time for teachers. With all the paperwork to prepare before the lesson observation, there is the prospect of a colleague, line manager or external observer coming into the lesson to see how things are going inside of the classroom. To make all our lives bearable, it is best to keep any negative comments to yourself and not to criticise those that are coming in to observe you. It is important to be as professional as possible and also relax a little. Take a deep breath and then just jump in with both feet. Essentially, lesson observations should not be a witch-hunt but they are not easy for everyone.
If the observation is part of professional development, then the feedback session will be a point of reflection for both the teacher and the observer. If you are observed, it is important not to defend every single thing that is pointed out in the reflection process but it is merely used to prompt a discussion to better understand why and how things were decided and staged during the lesson process. If the organisation is supporting those teachers that need assistance, there will be clear and attainable goals highlighted to consider and it is very important to follow these up and share your development with the person who observed you. Consider asking whether it would be possible to undertake peer-to-peer observations as these will be more beneficial and they will give you some more practical ideas which you could incorporate into future lessons.
Relax and be professional, as observations are there to help you.
There are some final tips for lesson observations and things which should be mentioned:
- Don’t be late and try to arrive 5-10 minutes early in your classroom so that you are able to arrange the class for your lesson.
- Don’t forget to print off your lesson plan the night before. It will not be a good idea to print the lesson plan on the day.
- Don’t stress your students about the lesson observation. They are still your students and keep things as natural as possible.
- Don’t change your entire lesson 5 minutes before you are due to be observed. It is a recipe for disaster.
Best of luck with your observations and I hope you enjoy them.