This is part of the Advising and Supporting Teachers series. In this series, I complete the tasks set out in Mark Randall’s and Barbara Thornton’s Advising and Supporting Teachers.
Task 1.1 An Inspector Calls
In this task, trainers (or potential trainers) are asked to write an essay on the first time they were watched either as a trainee or teacher. From here, trainers are asked to link and relate the points raised in the essay to training and advising contexts. I have tried to do both within the essay!
Being observed the first time
The first time I was observed teaching was on my Trinity CertTESOL in 2014 – I imagine that this is very similar to many teachers who move into ELT. The experience of the CertTESOL was quire rewarding at the time, but I do remember that certain parts of the observed teaching practice were stressful and ‘daunting’. I will aim to delve a little deeper into how I felt at that time, even though it was some time ago and my memories of the course certainly are not as fresh as I would like them to be.
I have always been confident in front of people, having been an Elvis fan from a young age and always looking for times to sing and dance for an audience. On my CertTESOL I did feel confident moving into a classroom of new teachers although the one thing that made this type of ‘performance’ very difficult (and different to my Elvis days) was technical and linguistic knowledge. I was in my third week of the course, having only learnt about English verb tenses over the previous two weeks, and I was there looking to teach a group of learners what the present continuous was. To say that I felt out of my element is an understatement. The lesson itself went relatively well, all things considered, and I passed. A future lesson, however, did not go so well when I had learners correcting me on the past participle forms of irregular verbs, things that you would expect a supposed ‘expert’ in the language to know. This was both an eye-opening and humbling experience.
This issue of technical and linguistic knowledge is certainly something that most teachers encounter even years after their initial pre-service course. In many formal observations in which teachers are asked to provide a detailed plan, which may include language analysis and anticipated problems and solutions sections, teachers struggle to show this level of technical knowledge. This is a factor that can causes quite a lot of stress. However, it is how we deal with this issue as trainers that is important. Mike, my CertTESOL trainer, took quite a lot of time to provide information and ideas on where to find information that was relevant to teaching. In-service training should be no different.
Another element of being observed that I find interesting to think about now is how I felt looking at the observer. I remember feeling a small amount of anxiety seeing Mike writing notes in the class. ‘What is he writing?‘, I would ask myself. But, perhaps more importantly, I found myself wanting the lesson to go in a way that would please him. I wanted to use all of the tips that he had given me in the class so that he could see that I was teaching the way he wanted me to. In this sense, I was teaching for the observer and not the learners. I suppose this is to be expected on pre-service courses, however it is something that perhaps stays with many teachers perhaps all the way throughout their career when it comes to observations.
As with in-service observations, the observations on the CertTESOL were followed by a feedback session. To be honest, this was the most stressful part of the whole CertTESOL. Having spent a number of years in the military, I was used to receiving and having to act on feedback to improve, yet I was still feeling a little stressed. I was still feeling unsure of myself. I remember that my palms were sweaty (excuse the Eminem quote), I was fidgeting and I kept thinking that I might not pass. The trainers on the course were experienced professionals, however, and the feedback they gave was excellent. They gave the feedback sandwich, used exploratory talk, and made me explain my thoughts, beliefs, opinions to them, which they then began to slowly ‘change’ through very specific questions and thinking activities. Little did I know that I would look back on these sessions as a trainer, looking for good examples of trainer behaviour and talk.
The CertTESOL was a whirlwind of emotions, full of ups and downs, especially regarding the observation process. Moving on from the course, however, made me aware that observations are vital in teaching, even if I was not that ‘keen’ to be the one observed. I believe that this feeling rests with most teachers throughout their career. I do not get the same amount of stress being observed now (especially after completing all the Delta observations), however I do see these same emotions in many teachers that I talk with, observe and provide feedback to. This in my mind means that we as trainers need to be fully ‘tuned in’ to the emotions and signals given off by our teachers so that we can ensure that the training and observation is as beneficial as possible. What occurs in teachers’ first years of teaching really sets in their mind their attitudes towards observations, and I believe that the onus is on academies and educational institutions to support teachers in their development, not use observations solely as an administrative tool to check up on teachers, and ensure that teachers’ emotions, doubts, beliefs, etc. are taken into account throughout the entire observation process. All of these need to be considered so as not to stigmatise observation, something which I feel has happened to many a teacher.