Josette LeBlanc

The Observation Issue – Josette LeBlanc

A Safe Space for Post-observation Feedback –  Josette LeBlanc

Josette LeBlanc
It is safe to say that if you are an English language teacher someone is going to observe your class at one point in your career. In Korea, most English teachers are required to plan demonstration lessons at least once a year for supervisors, principals and fellow teachers, and maybe even twice a year for parents. Knowing this fate, when I ask teachers how they feel about being observed and receiving the feedback that follows, they often have two reactions:

  1. I don’t like being observed. It makes me nervous.
  2. I learn a lot from both being observed and getting feedback, and also from observing other teachers. It’s really valuable to my development.

The funny thing is that it’s usually the same teacher making both these statements. Why such extremes? I’d like to share my observation experience in the hopes of shedding some light on this paradox. Then, I’d like to look at some ways we could prevent a moment like mine from happening, and the implications these suggestions could have on how we not only give feedback to teachers, but also to students.

One experience with observation

The first time my colleagues (only two of them. We were in the same graduate program, and they were also my friends.) observed my teaching, I cried uncontrollably. It was embarrassing. I even had to leave the room because I couldn’t stop! Truthfully, I hadn’t even taught the lesson. I was pretty much just telling them about the speaking lesson I had planned a few nights before.

The crying began when one of my colleagues started asking what felt like were too many Why? questions.  During the questioning, I felt overwhelmed because I was having a very hard time answering clearly and confidently. And that’s when the waterworks started. I think we were all shocked. What had happened to create such an uncomfortable moment? Needless to say, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this experience to find out what triggered me.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that I didn’t feel safe. Even though I trusted my colleagues, I felt like I was being interrogated and judged. I was already feeling insecure about my lesson, and so I interpreted these questions as a confirmation of my inadequacy.

Puzzles can shed a positive light when shared in a safe space (puzzle from Centro Espiral Mana)

How to create a safe space for post-observation feedback

Knowing this was part of the reason I had my mini breakdown, when I started training teachers, it was very important that I try to create a safe observation space. I feel so grateful to be surrounded by educators/friends who could help me do just that. When I first started teacher training, Tana Ebaugh (SIT TESOL trainer and co-founder of the Pioneer Training and Education Consortium) was my guide. Most recently, I’ve had the privilege of training under SIT TESOL trainer, Mary Scholl, at her amazing school, Centro Espiral Mana in Costa Rica, and she has also given me invaluable guidance. The suggestions I offer below on how to begin the process of giving post-observation feedback are a combination of what I learned from them.

  1. Before anything, ask how the teacher/student feels about what just happened. If you are dealing with students, you may imagine a scenario where they just did a presentation or wrote an essay. By asking them how they feel, you give them a chance to vent, and most often, a chance to tell you what you were already thinking. If I put my experience next to this, if I had had the chance to share my feelings first, I may not have felt overwhelmed by the questions and suggestions I was receiving.
  2. Once they have shared their feelings, ask them if they are ready for feedback. The power of choice here is incredible. By giving the feedback receiver the choice, you give them a sense of security and control over a situation that doesn’t feel so secure. If I could have answered this question after the experience I shared above, I probably would have said no. I just wasn’t ready. Perhaps after a few minutes, I would have been ready to move on to the suggestion I offer below.
  3. If the teacher or student is ready or feedback, you can give them the choice to listen to positives (things that went well) or puzzles (things that didn’t go so well). Again, this choice gives the feedback receiver a bit of control. By being able to choose what they want to listen to, they are more prepared for what is coming, and as a result, they may feel less defensive.

Maybe I over-reacted. Maybe I’m too sensitive. But just maybe I represent students in your classroom or teachers you will observe someday. I hope these suggestions help you create a space where observation doesn’t have to be such an overwhelming experience.



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Josette LeBlanc

Josette LeBlanc is an English language teacher and teacher trainer who currently teaches in Daegu, South Korea. She's curious about reflective practice, compassionate communication, and teacher development done both online and offline. She believes learning, whether it happens in or out of the classroom, is a process of discovery and transformation.  Blog: Throwing Back Tokens  Twitter & Instagram: @JosetteLB

15 thoughts on “The Observation Issue – Josette LeBlanc”

  1. Josette,

    That’s such a beautiful touching story.

    It is safe to say that it is so easy to feel not safe. And when that feeling is there, it changes the whole view. I do feel unsafe quite often, apparently about things other than observations so far, and I know what you mean about crying. I find your suggestions so good. They represent the true, compassionate, humane way to do a job which involves people and their feelings. They are great to use with students.
    More than anything else I fell for the choice thing, and “puzzles” as a word opposite to positives!:)

    Thank you! I’m just so happy to be in this issue together with you. I feel safe.:)


    1. I love that you started that comment with that line, “t is safe to say that it is so easy to feel not safe.” I realized the playfulness of starting my post with, “It’s safe to say…” but I didn’t know how to keep it going. You read my mind and for this simple act, I thank you.

      But of course I thank you for so much more. First, for sharing this blog experience. Knowing you were part of the team was motivating in itself because I have always admired your blogs even though I haven’t always commented. I then want to thank you for sharing with me that you often feel unsafe. When I read this, I found courage to say, “You know what? Me too!” This world is a scary place, and we seem to make it so much scarier than it needs to be. Perhaps it is because we look at life as puzzle we should already understand, instead of a puzzle we all need to work to put together.

      Thank you for helping me put the puzzle together my dear.

      Love and light,

  2. Josette,

    I really like the idea you have emphasized of making post-observation feedback a safe place. I have had teachers before who would get so nervous both before and after the class, so making them feel at ease is really step number one. Like you, I always try to start with questions such as, how did you feel about the class, what did you think went well. For some teachers, I have found the question about what went well can take them back a little – because they haven’t focused on the good parts of the lesson at all. However, with just a little bit of digging they are usually able to identify the positive aspects.

    I’d like to share, if I may, how I have found giving feedback as a supervisor. When I first started observing teachers, I would always like to do the feedback two or three days after the class.This is because I think teachers have a tendency to ‘react’ to the class immediately after, instead of ‘reflect’. It also allowed me time to reflect on the class. I did my feedback like this for quite a while, but it was only when one teacher pointed out to me that he didn’t like to wait so long, and wanted immediate feedback that I had to think about my method more. I explained my rationale for doing it this way and he agreed and said that perhaps I could give some quick feedback before allowing the teacher to reflect and then discussing the class in more depth later. From then, whenever I observed a teacher, I would talk with them briefly after the class, and if I were giving feedback, I’d try to keep it on the positive things – to reassure them that there were no major problems. Then I would give the teacher some questions to take away and think about. Finally, I would ask the teacher to come back to me when THEY were ready to discuss the class – this could be one or two days, or even a week later.

    While this way might not be suitable for everyone, I have found the delayed feedback sessions last longer, and teachers spend more time talking about their experience of the class, than immediate feedback sessions.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas, and I welcome any comments/thoughts.

    1. Hello David,

      Thank you so much for reading and for adding your experience. As I read comments on the other blogs here, and continue following discussions about observation, I am struck by how personal a process it is for both the observer and observee. Your experience highlights this also.

      What I really appreciated about your experience is that you did what you thought was best to help the teachers feel safe. By giving them space between the time they taught and the time they had their feedback session, you gave them the chance to compose themselves. They had the time to think about what went well and not so well, and come to the feedback session with confident awareness and ability to articulate this. Even though afterwards you checked-in with teachers immediately after the class, safety was still your focus.

      What this brings up for me is the fact that safety may look different to different people. Last year I felt like I had created a safe enough space for teachers to receive feedback from fellow teacher-trainees and myself immediately after they were observed. The feedback I got from those feedback sessions was quite positive. However, this year, I knew I had to take a different route. Instead of immediate feedback from everyone, I spoke to the teachers alone, and a few days after, the teachers received a poster full of feedback from peers. The teacher then had the choice to ask more questions about the points that she wanted to know about. I chose this route because I saw that I had a few teachers in there who reminded me of the person I wrote about in this post. I have yet to get feedback as to whether or not this was effective.

      Again, thank you David. You have given me the space to think about this more. THe power of reflection never ceases to amaze me.


  3. It’s good you focused the discussion on the word “safety”. We often talk about first saying positive things before pointing out what needs to be improved, but rarely do I hear the observed teacher’s sense of safety being discussed. What a pity, indeed. If the teacher doesn’t feel safe, how can she/he take in any useful suggestions in such a state?
    Hang this up in schools!

    1. Hello Naomi,

      I love the idea of hanging this up in schools! Maybe we can start a movement. 🙂 Great idea!

      I think you ask a pivotal question here. How can a person listen to anything being said about their lesson if they feel defensive in any way? Some people react as I did, some get annoyed, and some get angry. Each of these situations creates a barrier of sorts, but not the protective kind.

      Have you ever been given the chance to back out of feedback? I also wonder how this will influence you when you have to give feedback in the future.

      Thank you so much for adding to the conversation!

  4. Dear Josette,
    What a beautiful and wise story. You took your own pain and turned it into general healing. I admire that!
    I agree with all of your suggestions. And I absolutely second your idea on asking for permission to start a feedback session. The power of choice! So true.
    I started my own modest teacher training career only last week, but I feel blessed already. i can learn from you guys, what can be better!?

    1. Dear Sirja,

      Welcome to the wonderful world of teacher training! There is so much to learn isn’t there? Whoever has you as a trainer is incredibly lucky. It’s an honour to know that I can be part of your journey.

      I know that last week a teacher a sat in on one of your classes. At that time I was wondering if you felt safe having her there. How did it turn out?


  5. Dear Sirja,

    Welcome to the wonderful world of teacher training! There is so much to learn isn’t there? Whoever has you as a trainer is incredibly lucky. It’s an honour to know that I can be part of your journey.

    I know that last week a teacher a sat in on one of your classes. At that time I was wondering if you felt safe having her there. How did it turn out?


    1. Dear Josette,
      I find teacher training a chance that offers incredible opportunities for growth. I started only two weeks ago, but already the first encounters have been totally mind blowing! Okay, I am the one conducting the training and sort of coaching the other teacher, BUT I feel I myself am growing and changing and questioning and finding answers – just like in anything, once you explain something to someone else, it’d stick. So is with teacher training, going through the analyzing and observing and trying to ask the right questions from the other person to guide her in her own development, makes me see my own practise and inquire into it. I didn’t expect that to happen … so I’m really grateful.

      1. Dear Sirja,

        I love that you pointed this out, “am the one conducting the training and sort of coaching the other teacher, BUT I feel I myself am growing and changing and questioning and finding answers”. YES! There is not nothing like teaching to spur on learning. And teaching teachers seems to double the effect. You have an incredible opportunity to go into great depths and blow away any assumptions you had. And by “you”, I of course mean me and we. This is the magic of teaching.

        I share your gratitude my dear. Thank you for continuing your story here where everyone can enjoy and learn.


  6. First of all thank you for being brave enough to share your experience.

    I am lucky that one of the companies I work for give an extra sheet for the observation – this is called the hot-feedback sheet. The idea is that the teachers write their feelings and comments about the lesson immediately after it has finished – when they are presumably still full of stress. They then use this while they are reflecting on their performance later with the observer – normally the following day – to help them respond to feedback.

    Always my observers have started with the things they liked and then moved on to areas where they believe improvements can be made. Fortunately this seems to be part of standard observer training these days as it does no doubt lower the stress levels quite quickly in the observee.

    1. Hello Bob,

      I appreciate your supportive words. It’s easier to share when I know that someone out there is getting comfort or understanding.

      Thank you for sharing your experience with “hot feedback” sheets. It’s fun to learn about someone else doing this. I didn’t mention it in my post, but that is my first course of action. I usually give them 15 minutes, and then sit with them immediately afterwards, following the steps I wrote about in the post. I like the idea of starting the day after as you do. Unfortunately my schedule never permits for that. I can see a great emotional benefit in doing that. I’m curious to know what you put on your sheets. I start with, “how are you feeling?” The “Positives” and “Puzzles”.

      You seem to have a very safe observation procedure. Where are you training? And do you have a blog where you share your experiences as an observer? I’d love to stay connected with you in relation to this topic and our common field of interest.

      Happy to meet you, Bob!


  7. Although you are miles away Josette you ALWAYS … I ran out of words. What I am trying to say, I think, but can’t quite express it, is that your words are always comforting and I always take something from it.

    I’ll add to my 2014 diary what you offer in your post. I have never observed anyone to give them any feedback but If I ever do, I’ll do exactly as you said here. + You have just shed some light to something I had never thought before and I should ponder on. Thank YOU. 🙂

    1. Rose, knowing that my words bring you comfort gives me the courage to continue on my way. For so many years I thought I had to hold back my feelings, or at least not show my “weak” side. Now, after a lot of soul-searching — and also reading a lot of Brené Brown I know the risk is worth it.

      Thank YOU Rose, for giving me the courage to share something else in the future. I am so happy that this has connected to your way of looking at observation, and I look forward to hearing more about how it affects your 2014.

      Thank you for all that you do and that you are. 🙂

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