Adam Simpson is back with another instalment of advice for newly qualified teachers…

Welcome to the fifth part of my series of posts looking at your early career as a language teacher and how to make the most of this time. I’ll continue where I left off in the first four posts by examining common problems for newly qualified language teachers.

In my previous posts, I’ve looked at dealing with time constraints, how to find professional development opportunities, how to approach lesson planning, and how to make sure your first teaching experience isn’t a bad one. Today, I’m moving on to lesson observations, with some advice on how to get through your first such experience.

One of the most traumatic events that you’ll experience early on in your teaching career is your first observation. Whatever I tell you today, I’m sure you’ll still feel nervous about someone coming into class and watching you teach for the first time. Nevertheless, observations should always be seen as a positive thing, as the purpose of any observation session should be to help you develop as a teacher. Of course, I realize that we live in the real world and that isn’t always the case, but there are several steps we can take to make sure that our first observations turn out well regardless of the particular situation or the person observing. With this in mind, here are my tips on getting through your first observed lesson.

1) Be clear what your aim is

What are your learners going to be able to do by the end of the class that they can’t do at the beginning? If you can’t say for sure where the lesson is going and why it is going there, it’s probably best not to do this lesson under observed conditions! Be as specific as possible, because this will help you when you come to writing your plan.

2) Don’t set out to teach the greatest lesson ever taught

Trust me, your observer isn’t expecting you to revolutionize the teaching profession in this lesson! What they want to see is that you are able to organize and plan a lesson that takes your learners a little bit further in their journey towards learning English. Whatever you do, don’t deliver and all singing all dancing spectacular; simply plan for a solid lesson with a clear and reachable objectives. Going over the top and trying to do too many things, or trying to be overly innovative will probably lead to disaster, so don’t!

3) Divide your lesson into short periods of time

This might seem obvious, but doing this will enable you to keep your class going at a nice steady pace. Try to be a little bit flexible, but don’t let any part of the lesson last longer than about 20 minutes. Make sure that you vary the patterns of interaction, such as teacher to learner and learner to learner. This will make sure that the class isn’t too repetitive and boring. Make a note of all this on your lesson plan. That leads me to…

Make your plan more detailed than it would normally be. ‘Students 16′ by @yearinthelifeof from #ELTPics

4) Write down a fairly detailed plan

As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, one aspect of your teaching that you will have to compromise on is the amount of time you spent planning. Nevertheless, this is no normal lesson, so put more time into planning this than you would into other lessons. This will not only help you to feel more confident, it would also show your server a number of important things. Firstly, it will show that you are organized and prepared. Secondly, it will enable the observer to give better feedback on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

5) Use teaching materials in a specific way that’s new to you

Perhaps you are not big on using real life objects in class, or maybe you don’t like drawing pictures on the board. I would still advise that you do something like this during an observed lesson. You may find that you are doing it better than you think you do; if not, then this is a good opportunity for the observer to give you advice on how to develop such skills.

Think carefully about how you can incorporate things such as photographs, objects, or drawing pictures on the board. This will show your observer that you have given extra thought to the lesson. Don’t worry if they don’t work wonderfully well; you are here to learn from this experience. If you do decide to do more board drawing than you would normally, for example, ask the observer to focus on this aspect of the lesson and give specific feedback.

6) Video yourself doing a trial run

You’ll probably feel a bit weird going through the motions of the lesson on your own with a video camera running, but doing so might really help you when you do the real lesson. There are several things you can look out for when watching the video of yourself:

  • How fast is your teacher talk?
  • Are your examples obvious enough to get your point across?
  • Could you use visuals to help you get a learner’s to understand?
  • How can you use body language to help you learn as understand?

Two common errors that new teachers make when they’re first observed is to minimize silence in the class bike over talking, and by sticking to the lesson plan so strictly that they didn’t give the learners the chance to understand the material. Recording yourself will give you a good idea of whether or not you are likely to commit these errors.

7) Plan for error correction

Consider your plan for the lesson and try to predict what you learn is unlikely to have problems with. When these problems happen, how will you react? Practice giving responses to such problems. What kind of body language would you use to indicate the errors? To what extent would you further lee correct mistakes? It’s a very good idea to give some thought to this before the lesson.

8) Be proactive and meet the observer before the lesson

Any truly great observer will arrange a pre-observation discussion with you in which you explain how do you imagine the lesson will go ahead. If the observer doesn’t arrange such a meeting, it doesn’t necessarily mean there are bad observer, but you might want to go ahead and ask for a short meeting anyway.

Regard this meeting as an important part of the process and as an opportunity to show that you are a conscientious teacher who values this opportunity to develop. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how you are approaching the lesson, but also be ready to say that you want to try to ensure own way even if alternatives are suggested.

9) Meet again after the lesson

Approach the observer and ask if they are prepared to share their notes with you. As with what I’ve suggested above, really good observers will do this naturally as part of the observation cycle, but if this isn’t suggested, go ahead and ask! The whole ethos of lesson observation should always be two facilitate development in the observed teacher, so if you are not privy to the notes of the observer, the observation hasn’t really served its true purpose.

10) What should you do if the observation is unannounced?

I have a fairly low opinion of institutions that have a policy of conducting surprise observations. To me, it suggests that they automatically assume their teachers are unprepared and are unprofessional in the way they approach teaching. Nevertheless, I know that this approach is used in many places, so it’s probably good for me to suggest something for those of you who may be faced with an impromptu observation.

So, what should you do? My advice is to play them at their own game. How can you do this? Well, have one lesson meticulously planned that you keep tucked away until that moment when the observer arrives unannounced in your classroom. When that happens, pull out your materials and plan and act as if that was the lesson you were going to do all along. Please don’t think of this as cheating: the school or the observer is at least in part trying to catch you out; all you are doing is showing that you have a carefully planned lesson ready for them to see. If you want a nice, easily adaptable example of such a lesson, I recommend the one that I have written about here.

Anything to add?

I accept this isn’t an exhaustive list, but this post is starting to get quite long and I’ve already given you plenty to think about, so it seems like a good place to stop! If you have anything you’d like to add, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.