Guest blog from Josh Roy, Teacher at Ernest Bevin
Having trained in a challenging environment, being deprived of meaningful (in-school) feedback for about two years, and being bombarded with observations from all possible sides, I feel I should be better placed than any to take criticism. Don’t get me wrong, I recognise that lesson observation feedback is fundamental for my development as a teacher. But I still can’t help the very human reaction that I believe exists in many of us, where negative feedback, however it’s dressed up, doesn’t exactly inspire motivation and joy.
In fact, in my short career, it seems no individual is entirely impervious to the feeling of impending doom caused by the inexorable lesson observation. From the perspective of a recently qualified teacher who’s gone through just about as much feedback as a teacher does in their career, feedback should be reconceptualised from the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ model to a collaborative and cumulative conversation.
What is this feeling and why does it affect teaching?
The observation feeling can erode the teacher’s creativity and can be especially detrimental to less experienced teachers’ growth and development. Focus is placed on a brief moment in time within which you must either shoehorn all of your best tricks or recite, verbatim, your knowledge of your respective subject’s mark scheme. Feedback often slips into the natural ‘I would have done it like this’, which while well-intentioned, can only be a ‘quick-fix’ for a singular and isolated moment.
This discourages autonomy and steers teachers away from exploring what works best for them. This is particularly true when feedback is a solution that fits with the practice and style of the teacher giving the advice, not the teacher being observed; teaching is profoundly human and therefore individual. Providing lesson observation feedback in this way, in response to negatives, can efface an individual’s style and discourage critical and reflective practice. It can lead recipients of feedback to feel as if their wisdom is being challenged, and this can be taken personally because we work in one of the few professions where our personal values are so closely entwined with our professional ones.
When this has been acknowledged in how feedback is given, it has not only improved my practice but made me far more willing and confident in improving my practice. We all have something to bring, and observers too have the experience to help shape us into the best practitioners we can be. This can be better recognised through observation and feedback.
But how could this process go from critical to collaborative?
Teachers should not leave feedback thinking there is anything ‘inferior’ with their practice but should be energised by the prospect of developing. It should not be conceptualised as a performative measure, where one judges the other, but a supportive one, where one collaborates with the other.
The difference may seem pedantic, but for me, the difference in how this kind of effective feedback made me feel, and subsequently respond, has been huge. After cumulative and collaborative conversation, the focus shifted from ‘what should you keep doing and what you should stop doing’, to ‘how can you evolve your practice continually to adapt to the ever-changing, and challenging, educational landscape in which we work?’
The best observers have devised supportively phrased questions based on their observations. Open conversation starters and points for discussion made it a joint, evenly footed process. Two aspects in particular have helped inspire a more motivated response:
Directly involve the practitioner in creating the solution
- “What part of the activity could be altered to promote engagement?”
- “At which point in the lesson do you think incorporating *insert specific strategy* would be most effective? Why?”
- “How could this activity/lesson be slightly reframed to mesh more closely with the school’s ethos?”
Know the area you want to develop further based on, but not tied to, your own expertise
- “In the past, I’ve found X useful; how could you adapt this/ try it out in your own way?”
- “Research suggests that X is beneficial for *insert priority group*, how could you apply this to the way behaviour is managed in future?”
- “That idea is good but may be difficult to implement over time. I’ve found X works better over time – how can you adapt your idea as part of regular low-effort but high-impact practice?”
These examples are somewhat generalised and non-specific, but are exemplars of how the recipient, and what they bring to the profession, can be respected and uplifted as valuable.
Does this make lesson observations less ‘measurable’?
This method is simply a different framing of the process. It allows creative and critical reflection on all areas in which a teacher can develop – including allowing more space for maximising upon teacher’s individual strengths, rather than solely focusing on ‘fixing’ poor practice. In this way, observation and feedback is reconceptualised as something that recognises and rewards constant development in all areas of a teacher’s individual practice within the parameters of the observer’s expertise.
Teachers can be moulded by the observer’s expertise, rather than confined to strategies that may not fit their teaching style and are not co-created in a teacher-observer space.
Feedback can be a supportive reminder that we are part of a profession that demands constant and creative evolution, and so we should evolve collaboratively.