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:

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3 thoughts on “Why Failing My Last Observation Made Me A Better Teacher

  1. One of the biggest sigh of relief in my career was when I started Delta and observations became much less about classroom management and much more about learning. I love how this post looks more at what learning is taking place in the mind of the students. I know classroom management is important but it is such a variable thing, how much control can a teacher really have?

    Excellent stuff 🙂

    Like

  2. Nice post. I’m just curious as to what, more specifically, the observer had to say about the lesson. Did the observer make any comments as to what you could have done differently in regards to the constant questions/falling behind? I’m really enjoying your blog at the moment. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nathan. Sorry for the late reply, as you might have guessed, things got a bit hectic during the course and I can finally breathe again!

      The main thing was just maintaining control of what was happening in the lesson. There’s a lot to do in those 60 minutes so you really don’t have a lot of time to waste with questions that aren’t really relevant. So the best thing to do would be to filter the questions and have the student save them for the end of class. Ideally, by the end of the lesson there shouldn’t be any questions. If a question was raised and can’t be answered in 30 seconds or less, try to weave in an explanation somewhere with whatever you’re doing. Otherwise just save time for questions at the end.

      Like

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