Why Failing My Last Observation Made Me A Better Teacher

Very few teachers enjoy being observed. No matter how many times it’s happened or how experienced you are, the same questions run through your mind:

“Will the students get it?”
“Is it challenging enough?”
“Is it TOO challenging?”
“What about the pacing? Have I left enough time for questions?”
“What if it goes pear shaped?!”

I was pretty confident in my lesson, I’ve done it before– a basic functions lesson on inviting people out for dinner, etc..  All the materials were prepared and we were set to go. It ended up being 1 student who I’ve had before. He’s quite focussed on learning and he always has pages and pages of notes he’s taken, along with lots of questions, which, in my opinion is always a good thing. He’s also an asshole. So it was just me, him, his 6 year old daughter, and the teacher-trainer from Riyadh for 55 minutes.

The lesson started fine enough. I went over his workbook, did some error correction and then invited some of his own questions. This may have been my first mistake. Like I said, he asks a lot of questions. Too many questions. Too many immaterial questions. From talking about prepositions of time, he went into why there was a difference between British and American English. Now, I find etymology extremely fascinating and I could talk ad nauseam about how beautifully rich and diverse the English language is. But now really isn’t the time. And besides, was he really interested or was he just testing me? I get that sense from him a lot. I gave a cautious glance to the teacher-trainer and said, with a wary smile, “We can talk about that later, outside of class.”  We continued. His little girl was squirming next to him and making funny faces at me. Five minutes later he asked me again, more determined this time. We were already behind, but I felt I needed to say something to humour him. He seemed satisfied with my 2 minute spiel on the history of English, so on we went. This time the daughter was sticking her tongue out, still squirming. In all, I think we managed to cover about 1/4 of the material for the day. It was very stop and go with all of his questions. But I feel he left happy with his curiosity sated–which is what all teachers want their students to feel after their class, right?

After he left, I got a light drubbing from my observer. I (obviously) hadn’t covered enough of the material. And I didn’t really have effective control of the class. Both of these things are uncategorically true. However, it was a personal victory in a lot of ways. Since my CELTA training many years ago, and experience preparing students for exams (both internal and external), I’ve been quite dogmatic (and not in the dogme sense of the word) when it comes to sticking to the plan and making sure I cover the material in an efficient way. But what about actually teaching? I had spent so much of my time in the classroom covering material, but I had never thought, until recently, that maybe, sticking to the plan wasn’t always in the students best interest. I won’t go as far as Thornbury and rail against textbooks, however If we think about how languages are learned, it’s tangential, it’s discrete. Language happens in unexpected ways and having too much control (i.e. overplanning) can be counter productive. Adding a bit of chaos into the mix and letting the student have a bit more agency turned out fine.  So even though I hadn’t covered all of the material, being able to say “that’s ok” at the end of it, was its own reward.

Indeed, a lot of the discourse in ELT at the moment (specifically Demand-High Teaching) is focused on lessons and materials that are open, flexible, and accessible to a wide range of learners, and allowing them to build on what they already know more organically. Essentially, less planning and more affordances for learning. But I’ll go into more detail on that next time.

Check out Adrian Underhill’s Presentation at IH DoS Conference 2 years ago here:


Who am I? What is this blog about?

My name is Jye Smallwood. I’m an English teacher in Saudi Arabia. I’ve been teaching for 8 years, in Europe, South America, and now the Middle East. This blog is really just my reflections on teaching. Not just pedagogy and methods and approaches, but also a few rants and raves. TEFL can be tough if you choose to make a career of it, so I’d like to have a space where I can share my experiences with other teachers as well as be a resource for all of those who have always wondered what this lifestyle is all about.

Name: Jye Smallwood
Nationality: American
Years Experience: 8 (as of 2015)
Alma Mater: Northumbria University (UK), Newcastle University (UK)
Qualifications: BA (Hons) English Literature, MA Applied Policy Research, Cambridge CELTA
Places Taught: United Kingdom, Germany, Macedonia, Colombia, Saudi Arabia
Interests: Critical Pedagogy, Linguistics (sociolinguistics & etymology), German, French, and Russian Languages and Culture, Cooking, Traveling (obviously!), Music (house/electro), Horseback Riding

You’ll get to know more about me over the coming months. I’m looking forward to your comments and perspectives. I’m especially looking forward to hearing from anyone who is planning on doing the DELTA this year.