The Hostile Observation

August 29, 2010

Before the observation

“Andrew, we need to do a performance management observation as soon as possible in order to get it out of the way. I’ll just focus on progress. Which class would you like me to observe? I’d like it to be during one of my lessons so I can get cover, I don’t want to lose any of my frees. It can be any class.”

“Well, my top set year 8s are my best class. I have them Friday and Tuesday.”

“That’s fine. Is tomorrow okay? Or would you rather I wait until the lesson after.”

“I’d rather you waited, as I’m very busy tomorrow. Is there anything I need to do? Do you want a lesson plan?”

“I’ll need to have something.”

“Is there an official lesson pro forma?”

“There is but you won’t need it, just give me a rough list of what you are doing so that I can remember the details when I write up the observation.”


After the Observation

“That didn’t go very well. This was an important observation. All my paperwork goes to the headteacher. When you have an observation like this you should spend hours preparing it because it’s really, really important. It should have been an all-singing, all-dancing lesson. Overall the lesson was barely satisfactory. I was focussing on progress and I couldn’t tell that they progressed. When I say the focus is progress that means I expect to see progress at least every twenty minutes, so you should be getting them to do groupwork and holding up answers on mini-whiteboards. What you did might work normally, in fact your starter is something I will try and incorporate into my lessons, but it was very old-fashioned. They did a lot of work in silence, there were only three activities and you spent a lot of time explaining things to them.

Also this was a bad choice of class. It was a very small class and they were high ability so it is no wonder they worked well and behaved well and seemed really eager to work. You should have chosen a more challenging class. In that lesson you might have been able to see progress because you managed to see their work individually and ask them all questions about what they knew at the start and end of the lesson but that wouldn’t have been possible with a bigger class, so there should have been assessment for learning. Also you didn’t give out enough merits. You only gave them to half the class yet all the students were doing lots of work. They should have all had merits every time you saw them working well. If I was teaching them I’d have given them all about 5 merits each because they were working.

Your lesson plan was not detailed enough, I wanted it spelled out exactly where you were going with every single activity. I know I didn’t give you a pro-forma and I’ll take responsibility for that, but you need to plan properly for all these things. You are going to need to be observed again before the end of the week.”



  1. ‘Hostile’ observation?

    That sounds like a routine one to me.

  2. Being a coach of newcomers at my school I couldn’t help wondering what I would have done with the information obtained in this lesson. Blow me up with trenchant comment if needed. I might learn from it.

    After the observation

    Thank you for allowing me into your classroom. Your style is definitely old-school and I learned a lot from it. In particular your starter appealed to me. Would you mind if I copied that in my lessons?

    At no moment had I the impression that this lesson was different from your usual routine. Thanks for not putting up a show, I always find it embarrassing when a colleague tries to show off something I didn’t ask for. This was done nicely off the cuff based on a rich experience, I dare say.

    This class is a gifted lot. We know how restive they can be when addressed under their level. Apparently your content challenged them, they were focussed. You even had them working in silence for a prolonged period. Could I ask you to explain how you achieve that in the next meeting of our team? Especially the nice structure of your lesson, built up as a story out of three elements, may be instructive. Younger colleagues often work their tail off to cram their lessons with a lot of short fun activities. Clearly there is no need for that, it even might be counterproductive by exacerbating hyperactivity.

    Of course this lesson is only a slice of the cake. We can’t cover all of the students all of the time each lesson, can we? What were your criteria for selecting students you paid attention to, the ones you gave merits to and so on? Do you keep track of the others as well?

    You did a lot of talking in this lesson. The students paid attention, nevertheless, are you sure you are not spoon feeding them? Could they have grappled with this topic on their own? We must have them thinking to store the information in their long term memory, mustn’t we?

    This was an excellent lesson. You are a cunning old fox with a amazing amount of tricks. Albeit, if you feel you would like to expand your professional skills, I suggest you had a stab at group work. You know we have chosen as a team to practise co-operative learning, and we would appreciate if you joined the party and shared your experience.

    I am keen to observe how you adapt your style to a less able group. Could I have a look at that some time next week? Preferably during a free hour as I don’t want to interrupt progress in my lessons for the sake of teacher assessment. Lessons are our core business.

    • Or you could just assess the learning of the students and suggest nothing that wouldn’t increase it.

      • I probably should also add that you shouldn’t assume that, in the UK, if a lesson is criticised for a lack of group-work, and too much explanation, then there was no group-work and a lot of explanation.

        • Apparently I have made a mistake for which I have to apologise. I took your post to be a spoof in which you tweaked reality by using a hyperbolic style, aiming at shedding light puckishly on a smugness which traps the observer instead of the observed. I didn’t buy “I’d like it to be during one of my lessons so I can get cover, I don’t want to lose any of my frees.” I took that and other sentences to be clear give-aways of a pastiche.
          Subsequently my comment was an exercise in which I reiterated your message, using the same information with the same outcome, in a changed style. Remember, I didn’t observe the lesson your observer refers to, my text was just meant to imagine what could have happened if I had been the observer. The result was quite poignant, as I have to be the observer often and I indeed felt trapped. In fact I turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s skin!
          I learned something from that, and I challenged you to blow me up with a trenchant reply. Which you did and rightly so.
          However, your replies are quite serious, which gives me the impression that your post possibly was more realistic than I took it to be. If that’s the case, my comment was completely out of bounds. I guess you are allergic to any suggestion of mine by now, but you could delete my comment.

          • No offence taken. I actually quite liked your comment and was possibly a bit too blunt (sorry) in my reply. I just wanted to point out:

            a) all attempts to monitor the methods (rather than the outcomes) of experienced teachers are unlikely to be welcome no matter how nicely expressed


            b) it just occurred to me that you may not have realised how insane the situation here is.

            As is often the case here this was my best effort to relate a true story (minus identifying details) but with the awareness that very similar things had happened to me before and to other teachers I know.

            It genuinely is the case that observed teachers feel obliged to do lots and lots of group-work (to the point where you can tell someone is having an observation because they move the tables into “islands”) and that even small amounts of teaching from the board are condemned (one manager told me that activities where I talk to the students, even interactive ones where they are doing more than listening, should not take up more than 12 minutes of an hour long lesson). It is also the case that the observations seems to pay virtually no attention to what has been learnt, with “assessment” being a buzzword for certain types of activity, rather than anything related to monitoring learning.

            • Thanks a lot for you reply. I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed and your answer restored my peace of mind. It triggered also an avalanche of thoughts all of which can’t be expressed here: the space on the screen is narrowing to the ultimate width of one word per line only which is not readable any more. I will post the results of my pondering in my blog a.s.a.p. The working title for now is “Why educational formats are doomed to falter.”

            • As promised I continued my train of thoughts in a blog to be found at http://dancingcrocodile.blogspot.com/2010/09/why-educational-formats-are-bound-to.html

  3. Are teachers in your district allowed to attach comments/rebuttal to their observations?

    It certainly is hostile and sounds like the administrator is covering his/her butt for waiting until the last minute to get this done.

    • There is a space for the observed person’s comments, but the consequences of kicking up a fuss are far worse than the consequences of a poor observation.

      • Aye. Sounds familiar.


        1) Don’t take it personally.
        2) They’re only doing it for attention.
        3) They probably have no quality of life at home.
        4) They have difficulty expressing their emotions properly.
        5) They may need several attempts to understand what you’re trying to say to them.


        1) Don’t take it personally.
        2) They’re only doing it for attention.
        3) They probably have no quality of life at home.
        4) They have difficulty expressing their emotions properly.
        5) They may need several attempts to understand what you’re trying to say to them.

        • This made me laugh out loud! Love it..

  4. I’m fortunate in that I’ve not (so far) encountered anything quite that hostile. But I’m still amazed at some of the stupid comments that are made, although I suppose that’s a given, considering that I’m rarely observed by anyone who knows very much about my subject (Music).

    Recently, for example I was asked in a feedback session if the pupils really needed to know about chords, because the concept appeared to be a problem for some of them. My lesson plan clearly stated that the lesson was designed to INTRODUCE the concept to the kids and I had given ample explanation and demonstration during the course of the lesson.

    And no, they don’t need to know about chords if I opt NOT to teach them the things that are prescribed by the National Curriculum.

    Sorry, went off at a bit of a tangent there. And welcome back!

  5. “during one of my lessons so I can get cover”

    So these “observations” are so important that the job he is supposed to be doing can be cast aside, but not so important that one of his free periods need be sacrificed.

  6. Observations really are a problem. I can see how they could be a truly useful tool for improvement, but in practice, they’re more often crammed in at the last minute, because everyone involved has so many other things to do that, frankly, feel more pressing. Then after they’re crammed in and dashed off, there is little or no follow-up. Your second observation of the year bears no relationship to the first, and so on. Yet another system that sounds wonderful in principle but is poorly realised in schools because we are trying to do too many different things at once.

  7. It’s the lack of any right of reply that hacks me off the most. As though the observer couldn’t possibly be wrong.

    It should have been an all-singing, all-dancing lesson. – No. Any benefit derived from singing and dancing becomes habit, expectation.

    I expect to see progress at least every twenty minutes, – Why 20? Why not 35? 60?

    They did a lot of work in silence, there were only three activities and you spent a lot of time explaining things to them. – Thank you, i was pleased with it too.

    If I was teaching them I’d have given them all about 5 merits each because they were working.
    – Working is the minimum expectation. Why reward it? Reward extraordinary effort, not any effort.

    Etc etc. It’s always interpreted as defensiveness.

  8. Isn’t the best answer to an observation like that to ask if you could observe the observer to see where you were going wrong. Most SMT run a mile from the thought of being observed themselves

    • Brilliant! Too bad none of our administrators teach any more. I’d love to try this.

  9. It’s not just that it is hostile. It’s encouraging you to be a rubbish teacher. You obviously already ‘engage’ the children and they show great ‘resilience’ by working in silence on their own. It does remind me of an observation I received when I was training, Lord forbid we should ask bright children to be able to concentrate for more than five minutes.

  10. it always amazes me how quiet concentrated work is the ‘enemy’ of good education.

    obviously continuous lessons of continuous silence would be awful but it seems to me regular bouts of guiet focussed work is essential for genuine progress.

    its also galls me to see ofsted still use their pontless checklist

    apart from the fact it keeps changing (thereby presumably discrediting the previous versions) its so silly.

    heres my own anti checklist:
    1. do not start every lesson with objectives- kids think its naff and it doenst help them
    2. dont use lots of worksheets- its bad for the evironment and makes kids lazy
    3. dont use too mny powerpoints- itdeskills the teacher and makes kids too passive
    4. dont be too effusive with praise- it makes you look silly and undermines genuine praise
    5. only ever give merits for fantastic homework- any other effort should be normal
    6. do not differentiate sanctions according to type or history of student. Other students bitterly resent this (quite rightly) and is highly unjust.

    • At primary school and lower secondary I actually loved tests and exams because I could work without constant interruptions. My daughter also likes the chance to concentrate without having toblockout lots of noise but of course when catering for all the individuals and teaching lessons which are child initiated and the rest of the buzz words and phrases the children who like a quiet ordered learning environment just do not. Figure into all the ‘ good practice’
      I only ever praise good work and effort otherwise. My praise is worthless. How do the children know when they can believe me if everything is great.

      • Oops getting used to touch screen so typing not quite right…….could do better, no merit this time!

        • i wouldnt dream of correcting you Emti, one wouldnt wish to damage your self esteem or worse still, take away your right to adopt an alternative punctuation system. have a lolly.

  11. They cut the man’s arms and legs off and then they told him: ‘Now, walk.’

    That was a great post.

    Greetings from London.

  12. Can I ask something from the exchange you had with Joep, about the 12 minutes in one hour claim?

    It obviously depends on the subject (you teach history, right?), but the 12 minute idea sounds about right to me. I’m not a qualified teacher, just done EFL work in China, so I’m not claiming any significant level of knowledge here. But for teaching a language I was definitely always trying to minimize teacher talking time – ooh, I remember that as a phrase in some training materials I was once given, now I come to think of it. Frankly, the amount of actual material to be learned in any given lesson was very small. The greatest benefit was gained by getting the students using the new material in some way.

    Of course, there’s also the point that unless you’re an engaging speaker with an engaged class, talking often sends people to sleep. I remember I was never good at listening to lectures even through university, let alone at school.

    Do you think that teacher talking is generally an effective method of conveying material? I don’t think I ever found how to do it well.

    • I think the key point here is that the 12 minutes included interactive whole class teaching, not just lecturing. It is a bad idea to just talk at classes and hope they are listening, but questioning in a way that all students can be involved in, and answering questions from students is one of the most useful part of teaching.

      I might add that the teaching effectiveness research confirms the importance of direct instruction.

  13. i think its about variety AND routine.
    if you spend hours lecturing after a while no one will listen.
    but if you ONLY do group disscusion and poster work the students make little progress and never become effective learners.
    if you are teaching history a 10 minute lecture on Saxons, followed by group work/written work and then a short video clip and then ANOTHER 10 minute mini lecture on say, Saxon culture, that would seem appropraite for any key stage. But say, a 30 min lecture? thats gonna turn off most kids.
    the trick is making sure you lecture frquently enough and early enough so kids CAN sit down for 10 mins, and listen to someone, without figdeting, or hitting or interrupting.

    sure there will be some lessons with almost nill instruction/information delivery. if a student is midway through a meaningful project then thats fine.

    and some lessons, ie a biology dissection will will need heavy insstruction and coaching. obviously the higher the key stage the ratio of lecturing tends to increase a bit.

    kids should be expected to do both. but to get them to have those skills means regular exposure.

    the other key issue is Q&A skills. A great teacher can enthrall a class for 50 mins if they are skillful at asking and answering the right questions on a particular topic. for example using a student’s question and following if down a particular road or linking it with a recent news story or injecting humour or linking it to an event in a students (or even your own) life.

  14. What is teacher observation supposed to achieve?
    Teaching has become “behaviour management”. Therefore, teacher observation will inevitably become behaviour management of teachers.
    The most effective way to improve one’s teaching, in my opinion, is to video yourself.

  15. i completley agree. video feedback should be compulsory for nqts and be encouraged for experienced teachers. when i did it for myself i realised i sometimes talked into the board and sometimes appeared bored when doing q and a (i wasnt- its just my face). but it was easily cured. i simply acted a bit more. small changes in behaviour can make a big diffeence in engagment. a public speaker gets training like this after all.

    i do think peer observation is good. as an nqt i picked up 100s of tips off great teachers. it can also teach you what not to do.

  16. Thank you. Having had good and outstanding observations as NQT and for two years afterwards, I argued back at an unfair one held by a new deputy head (ex PE teacher aged under 30) in November, and have been a marked woman ever since. Reading this keeps me sane and on the lookout for a new job.

  17. […] The Hostile Observation My 2010 description of a recent observation experience. […]

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