We all know how exhausting teaching can sometimes be and how even more exhausting it is when you have colleagues or the management observing your class.
We worry that things will not go as we want them to, we worry that under stress we might give the wrong impression as an educator or that one of the kids will crack a joke and the class will fail. Hence, we try to find solutions to overcome this situation as successfully as possible. Unfortunately, not all the solutions are successful.
I have been in both places; a teacher having a class observation for 9 years, and an observer of classes of co-teachers for the last 6 years. There are several mistakes that we, as teachers make when we have a class observation. Let’s look at them and see if we can find us there in some stage of our teaching experience.
1. We choose easy material
The easier the material is, the more likely it is that the students will understand it faster, use it better and make no mistakes. We safeguard us with topics that we have covered previously or choose not challenging material in general. We also choose strong students as targets and address most of the questions to them to make sure everything goes as planned.
This might seem like the right solution, and we all have been there. However, an experienced observer will easily see that the material is not challenging enough, that the students are too well-prepared and that everything is way too smooth. We tend to forget that observers mostly, are/have been teachers as well, and they know where we are coming from.
Some other solution is that we try to conduct a discussion/debate class. It’s easy, requires less preparation, and the teacher is more a facilitator. This is, of course, nice especially when teaching languages, however, we forget the fact that the observers are there not just to see the progress of the learners, but also to assess the skills of the teacher.
2. We prepare more than we can cover
There are lots of resources, ready-made Lesson Plans with great activities that leave no room for the teacher’s creativity. Trying to impress the observers, we might choose a perfect lesson plan, or write one where everything is perfectly timed, the activities follow one another very smoothly, there are many coloured papers with matching exercises, several handouts, answer keys, posters, markers, visuals, etc. During my CELTA course, one of my lecturers would refer to this situation as “death by handouts”.
These sorts of things actually distract learners from the key information. I am not saying colored papers and posters are useless. They just need to be used moderately. One thing at a time. Otherwise, there is a lot of mess and the outcome of the class is intangible.
In my experience, these types of classes are very fun, both to participate in and to watch, but when you want to summarize the outcomes of the class in the end, you just come up with a list of activities.
3. We completely change the setting
One of the classroom management techniques all of us are using is probably arranging the sitting, where we have students with different learning abilities and progress. Ideally, we should make sure the sitting varies every now and then giving all students an equal amount of challenge so that we do not have all the weak students working together or the strong ones together.
However, sometimes both us and the students get quite comfortable with the sitting arrangement and we do not notice that we have created patterns of sitting; same students sitting together. Sometimes, we even ignore it, as they are used to working together, the class goes smoother and we keep the importance of differentiation on the theoretical level (though we might have a group of weak students struggling in the background).
The fun begins when we decide to actually apply the differentiation technique during the observed class. What follows is this: we constantly change pairs as that is what we have learned on teacher training courses, we result in pairing up students who had never worked together before and are completely different on their progress level, we move students around and pull up some creative pairing up techniques the students had not experienced before and things look chaotic. It is stressful for the students and double stressful for the teacher. In the end, neither we as teachers are happy, nor the observer, plus the students are confused.
4. We keep the observer in check
As long as most of the observed classes are followed by a feedback session, we naturally try to get the best positive feedback possible. Having this in mind, we instinctively keep the observer as the centre of attention by looking at them here and there, trying to read their face to understand what they think of the staged activity or the class in general.
This is one of the ‘unforgivable’ mistakes to me. This results in shaking the confidence of you as a teacher/trainer/instructor, the students might start to doubt your professional skills no matter what age group you are teaching. After this, it can be quite hard to reestablish the same relations with the students as they might start to challenge you unfairly after having seen you vulnerable.
5. We try new techniques / games / methods
Some teachers want to impress the observer and try out new games, methods and techniques they have never used in their classes before. Actually, it’s not the right time for experiments as in most cases, students might be not prepared, get confused and just keep silent not participating in your “fantastic” new activity. What is more, it’s difficult to predict what their reaction to this “new” will be.
6. We act it out
I hope you will agree with me, that teaching is also acting. You need to have great “stage presence”, interest the learners, motivate them, act as an example and so on. However, sometimes we take it too far. We may start to behave differently during observed classes, smile more or keep complete distance. Sometimes we do it for good feedback rather than the lesson outcome.
This is probably the worst mistake from my experience, as both the students and the observer can identify that we are not being genuine. This can be a problem especially with young learners and result in trust issues towards the teacher.
Observed and open classes can indeed be quite stressful, however, if we want to preserve the good relations with the students and stay loyal to our professional skills and hunch, we should act natural and the class should be holistic whether it is observed or not.