Kevin Stein

The Observation Issue – Kevin Stein

Watch Me, Watch me  –  Kevin Stein

Kevin Stein
I’m not sure how most people feel about observation.  But I’m curious to find out, so if you have a minute, please take this short survey on how you would rank “lesson observations” in relation to things like “sleeping in on Sunday morning” and “going to the dentist.”

Even before the survey results come in, I’m guessing that lesson observations, even peer lesson observations, are not going to be super popular.  Which, when I think about my daughter, seems pretty odd.

You see, my daughter is 6 years old.  Her three favourite things in the world are running as fast as she can, practicing gymnastics, and playing piano.  If I or my wife are around, my daughter invariably calls out, “Watch this,” before she cartwheels across the living room, taps out a song on the piano, or sprints up the street.  When I compare my daughter’s boundless desire to be observed with my own feelings about classroom observation, I can’t help but feel that, as a teacher, I have misplaced something important, something joyful.

What is it about the way I watch my daughter as compared to how classroom observations are conducted, which has created this psychic gap?

When my daughter is running up and down the street, she will often ask me to use a stopwatch to time her.  I use the lap function to keep track of how long it takes her to run the first third, the middle third, and the last third of the distance.  Sometimes I ask her “when were you running fastest, at the beginning, the middle or the end?”  Sometimes she asks me.  But I rarely, if ever say things like, “That was a very interesting sprint,” or “I don’t think the pacing of your run was very even.”

In “Beyond Rashomon,” John Fanselow (1977, p.27-28) points out that the words teachers use when observing and commenting on each others lessons—words like ‘meaningful’ and ‘interesting’—often “have good and bad connotations…are in themselves judgmental as well as descriptive.  Judgment means someone’s ego is involved, and this can interfere with perception.”  Like keeping track of a runners time, collecting hard data during an observation and sharing that data during post-observation follow up can help keep the focus away from the kind of purely personal evaluations which so often land on our ears with the slap of disapproval.  In some of my favourite observations, my fellow teachers have: used a stop-watch to keep track of how long each activity lasted; categorised the types of teacher talk I used; counted the number of words each student said during a class; and even made a map of where I was standing in the room during each activity and what materials I used at each location.  In each an every case, I was given another piece of data to more fully see what was happening in my class without the sense that I was being inherently judged.

After my daughter’s piano lessons, the teacher will usually tell us one aspect of her playing that she would like us to focus on during the week.  Sometimes it is paying more attention to rhythm.  Sometimes is varying the intensity and duration of the notes played.  We all know just what and why we are going to pay attention to during piano practice over the course of the week.  In a similar vein, Jack Richards (1995) suggests that during peer observations, the observee give the observer a task which entails focusing on a particular aspect of the lesson and only collecting relevant data.  Tasks can include measuring time on task, notating types of student responses to questions, or identifying classroom management techniques used during a lesson.

In any classroom, so much is going on at any one time that, if we try to observe the class as a whole, there’s a very good chance we won’t notice very much of anything.  In addition, at least for me, knowing the focus of the observation ahead of time means I can let go of one specific worry while I teach, allowing me a little bit more psychological breathing room so that I can attend to things I might normally miss as I teach.

I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but my daughter can stand on her hands, fall into a back bend, and then scramble around the room like a crab.  Still, until last week, she couldn’t do a somersault.  Every time she tried, she would land with a thud on her back.  I took a few videos just before she started to tumble over.  It turned out that the moment before she fell forward, she kicked off and that extra burst of momentum propelled her over just fast enough that she had no time to curl her back.  Hence the thud.  After watching the video and talking with me about the other things she could already do, she bent down, slowly walked herself into a ball, curled herself over and rolled across the carpet.

Peter Maingay (1988, p. 119-129) says, “Much of what a teacher does in a language-teaching classroom is ritual behaviour rather than principled behaviour.  The most important role of an observer in most, if not all, observations is that of making teachers think about what they do: of drawing their attentions to the principles behind the rituals, of leading them away from ritual behaviour towards principled behaviour.” So observation is not just about presenting data, it’s about creating a space where a teacher can revisit what they already know about teaching and compare that knowledge with what is happening in the classroom.

A few weeks ago, after observing my lesson one of my co-workers pointed out that a vast majority of the language students were using in class was memorised content from a worksheet.  That gave me a chance to think about the role of creative language in my classroom and the types of speaking activities I was using.  I realised that how I was teaching was disconnected from some of my deeply held beliefs about how languages are actually learned.  And in that moment, I could see the right way to naturally lean forward and tumble back into the kind of teaching I wanted to be doing.

John Fanselow (1988, p. 115) suggests that perhaps the goal of observation is not to, “help or evaluate,” but instead to provide teachers with a chance for self-exploration.  Which seems perfectly right to me.  I found out early on in this dad-thing, that when my daughter said, “Watch me,” it was sometimes (but not always) a request to help her find a way to figure things out for herself.  She was almost never happy to be told exactly what to do.  In the same way, I have rarely finished a post-observation feedback session where I was given an armful of prescriptive suggestions and felt like I was walking away with anything other than a whole lot of unnecessary baggage.

So whether it be peer or supervisory, I think keeping in mind some of the things that make a six year old happy when they are being watched, could go a long way to decreasing the anxiety and defusing the defensiveness that often colours our ideas of observation.

  • First and foremost, an observers job is to watch, not to judge.
  • Observer and observee need to talk things over and decide what to focus on during an observation before the observation takes place.
  • Observers should not limit themselves to a taking a few notes as they are observing.  They should collect as much data as possible, which is probably always a bit more than they have already managed to catch.
  • Observers need to provide real chances for a teacher to see how what they are doing in class, what they believe they are doing, and what they believe they should be doing might be different.
  • There should be enough room and time for the teacher to sort through the post-observation feedback and figure out for themselves what they are going to do next.

If observations, both peer and supervisory, followed these guidelines, I wonder if it would change how teachers feel about being observed in general.  In spite of the negative experiences we have all probably had with observations, there is still something inherently positive about being watched.  There is a kind of joy in knowing that what we do is important, that it’s worth observing.  But to create a community in which all teachers can continue to grow and flourish, we need to find the right light with which to observe, the kind of light in which teachers can truly shine.  Because in all of us, there’s still a child, waiting to cry out with a special kind of delight, “Watch me!  Watch me!”



Fanselow, J. F. (1977). Beyond Rashomon: conceptualizing and describing the teaching act. TESOL Quarterly 11(1), 17-39.

Fanselow, J. F. (1988). “Let’s See”: Contrasting Conversations About Teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 22(1), 113-130.

Maingay, P. (1988). Observation for training, development or assessment. In Explorations in teacher training: problems and issues, ed. by T. Duff, London: Longman Group UK LTD.

Richards, J. C. (1995). Towards reflective teaching. ENGLISH TEACHERS JOURNAL-ISRAEL-, 59-63.


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Kevin Stein

Kevin Stein is a teacher and a program manager. He works at Clark Memorial International High School. His areas of professional interest include how to use standardized tests to help students develop autonomous learning skills and the effective use of literature in language teaching. Kevin's Blog:The Other Things Matter Twitter: @kevchanwow

21 thoughts on “The Observation Issue – Kevin Stein”

  1. What’s great post Kevin, I love the comparison! I thought I’d share some of my observation experiences:
    Like many people I’ve had my fair share of stressful, not particularly helpful and generally demoralising observations! Despite this my attitude towards observation is still a very positive one and this is due to the following 3 reasons:
    1. Getting used to having another teacher in the classroom
    whilst working in South Korea for 2 years I had a Korean co-teacher in almost every class with me, at first this was very strange and I was very conscious of everything I did and said but over time I got used to it and it didn’t affect my teaching style. Now when someone observes me I’m much less conscious of their presence.

    2. Self Observation 
    I recorded by video and voice recorder several of my lessons and analysed different areas of my teaching, this got me used to critically analysing and reflecting on my own pedagogy. Therefore, when other people did this after observations I was much more open to their comments. 

    3. Positive Feedback 
    I just completed the Trinity Diploma course and during the 2 week practical block I was observed 6 times! The tutors were amazing and delivered exactly the kind of post-observation feedback that all teachers should receive- positive, constructive and most importantly it was conducted with you not at you. The observations did wonders for my confidence as well as giving me detailed areas of my teaching to work on- exactly what observations should do! 


    1. Hi Gemma,

      IThank you so much for your comment. And I love your list of why you still dig observations in spite of negative experiences.

      The idea that observation is something we need to get used to, and in getting used to it can become better observees is something I think that needs to be talked about more often. Being observed is NOT a passive activity. Having eyes on us impacts how we feel and act. So getting used to being observed will make the whole process more positive and more effective. Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing this up!

      And the fact that analytical self-observation and reflection can lead to a better oberservation experience is also spot on. So I think it’s a great idea to pull out those voice recorders and video cameras and start capturing and analysing what’s happening in our classes, before we invite other teachers into our classrooms.

      I’m also happy to hear you had a positive experience on observation/feedback with your Trinity Diploma. In a few months I will be going through my own face-to-face and I hope I can have a similar experience. But to make sure I improve the chances of that happening, I’ll be recording my classes and inviting teachers into my classroom as often as possible.

      Thanks for helping widen and continue the dialogue,


  2. Love your analogies!
    Its such a tricky line, giving useful but not judgemental feedback.
    I’m never sure whether teachers I observe find me writing during the observation better or worse (that just watching and jotting down notes later), stress wise that is. Focusing on an agreed parameter in advance sounds like something I should try.
    Thanks for yet another great post!

    1. Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for the comment and I know what you mean about useful but non-judgmental being difficult. In the end, I think almost any feedback we give is going to be coloured by our own take on what this whole teaching thing is all about. So I guess there’s no way to make it 100% nonjudgmental. One thing we do in our program to give observations a bit more structure is just focus on 1 activity within an observed lesson. Usually there is more than enough information in that one activity (~7 minutes) to have an hour long (sometimes longer) post observation feedback session. It also gets rid of one of the annoying little voices in my head when getting feedback. Maybe you’ve heard it? It says, “But out of all the things that happened in my lesson, why is he/she focusing on this!!!????” In this kind of situation, copious notes are a must because we will be discussing the activity in such detail. Personally, after doing observation in this very controlled way, with very concrete, agreed upon parameters, I would have a lot of difficulty going back to the general, have a whole lesson watched, give general comments and compare with best-practices kind of thing.

      I’m really curious to know how your observation program works. Is it peer based? Do you do it as part of a teachers overall work evaluation? Sometimes the safety and usefulness of an observation isn’t even primarily up to the observing teacher, but is dictated by the institution. And I would love to hear someone with a bit more experience touch on this.


      1. Kevin,
        I observe lessons several times a year, as part of my job as counselor for English teachers teaching English to deaf students. At thehigh-school, which is my main job, teachers get observed once during their first year (by a coordinator or inspector) and then one is never observed again!
        When I observe I usually try to focus on suggesting additional ways to achieve the same goal, so that the teachers will have more options for planning their lessons. Often new teachers stick with one way they have found that works. Sometimes the kids keep looking at me to see what I’m doing. That’s why I am indecisive about writng. In any case, when the kids begin individual work I walk around the classroom and talk to the children.
        Sometimes there is a real problem with one of the kids, so we’ll talk about that.
        Thanks for bringing this up!

        1. Naomi,

          Thank you so much for expanding on your comment. It seems like the observed-one-time observtaion program is much more common than I had thought. From what I’ve read on FB and Twitter in reply to these posts, there are a whole lot of programs where observation is done just to make sure that there are no huge problems in the classroom and then there is no ongoing follow-up and support. In this kind of situation, teachers instituting their own system of reflection and working together to develop a peer-observation program seems even more important to me than when I first wrote this post. But if institutional policies don’t encourage observation, it also seems very unlikely that teachers will have the time or feel the need to put a peer-observation program in place. What a catch-22.

          I love the idea of observing a lesson with the main aim of providing alternative strategies to a teacher. This seems to me an extremely safe and useful way to provide feedback and something I really appreciate myself when I’m observed. I had an observation of a drama lesson once and the teacher just gave me a bunch of different ways to set-up the room for each activity I ran during the lesson. Each and every one of those ideas went right into my teaching toolkit. Thanks for reminding me how important it is to provide concrete alternatives.

          And I’m really intrigued by the idea of walking around and checking in with students during an observed lesson. I’ve never done this, but during the next observation I do, I’m going to put it forward as a possibility and see if the observed teacher wants to give it a try.

          Thanks Naomi. You’ve really helped me clarify and expand my ideas around observation.

          In gratitude,

  3. Great post!
    I will walk away with good ideas I would like to put in practise next time I’ll be observing or will be observed.
    I especially like the idea of guiding the teacher in SELF exploration rather than read out lists of good points / bad points. Lesson observation should lead towards growth, improvement, discoveries – all that can best take place if the person concerned finds the answers himself/ herself.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad the post has some useful ideas and especially happy that the idea of guided self exploration as opposed to a check list of good/bad rang some bells with you.

      I’ve always been an anti-best-practices guy. One of my co-workers and friends always starts a post-observation feedback session by asking me questions like, “Was that a fluency focused activity?” or “Was that a reading lesson or a grammar lesson?” Once I’ve answered these questions, then the data about things such as who was speaking and how much they were speaking comes into clearer focus and takes on a deeper meaning. These basic questions, grounded in what happened in the classroom are, at least for me, the most important first step in turning an observation into something that can help me transform my own teaching.

      Most of the teachers I know are genuinely striving to become better teachers, all the time. And many of them, already have the knowledge they need to do it themselves. All they are missing is the right kind of observer to help them to figure out how to use what they already know. And being measured against some mythical yardstick of perfection has no place in that process.

  4. Dear Kevin,

    Such an enjoyable read, full of insights drawn and woven together from your experience both as a father and a teacher. Lovely analogies, as Naomi put it!

    Thought I might share an experience of mine. I recently had a chance to be observed, something I initially welcomed open-heartedly only to eventually regret every moment of it. Why, you may ask? It was because I felt that the observer’s main intention was to put me down, only highlight all mistakes that I’ve made (despite it being my first time experience as a certified speaking examiner), interrogate me and make me believe that I just wasn’t good enough to hold that particular role. The whole situation led me into getting defensive and speaking my mind out – one she clearly wasn’t delighted about.

    On reading your piece above and reflecting on the particular experience above, I also think that the belief an observer holds about his/her role in an observation makes an impact on the observation itself. Is her intention to help and walk hand in hand, or to “look down the nose” from high up there? What kind of experience do they have of being observed? How “high” do they regards themselves in terms of their experience?
    The answers to the questions above definitely play a role in the practice of observation. Or I may just be wrong.

    Can I then, blame the child in me for wanting a bit of a cotton candy in the form of at least 1 positive feedback? For I think, as much as we don’t admit it, we all expect at least some positive feedback on our classroom practices. Because that can be a factor of motivation that fuels us forward. What say you, Kevin?

    p/s: you might just be watching a budding little yoga instructor at home! 🙂

    Warm regards,

    1. Hello Ratna,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. When I’ve had observation feedbacks which were highly critical, I always always feel hurt. What I do in the classroom is, in essence, taking myself and sharing it with the students. To have that piece of myself held up for ridicule never results in teh kind of growth and reflection that observation can lead to.

      So do I think that teachers need to get positive feedback? That’s a bit of a tough question. I enjoy getting positive feedback and hope to receive it. But in my program, lately we focus almost exclusively on asking questions and generating alternatives. And this is so much fun that I’ve hardly noticed that we rarely give each other the kind of positive feedback that is often part of observation feedback. But it took about 2 years to get to this point, where we all trust and feel comfortable with each other. So I think you have identified the main point in your comment. It all depends on the person who is giving the feedback and what they are trying to do. If it’s clear that they are working with me to explore and help me develop my teaching, I guess I can do without the positive feedback. But that so rarely happens. And getting to the point where it can happen takes a lot of time and trust.

      And funny you should mention yoga. When my daughter is showing off her flexibility, I occasionally do join her and do a little yoga. Something I used to do regularly before she was born. Maybe it’s time for me to get back into regular practice.

      Thanks again for sharing and taking the time to comment.


  5. Dear Kevin,

    I just wanted to stop in and say that I have read your post three times, and each time I find a smile curling up on my lips. You have brought magic to a topic that often brings discomfort. I am grateful to be part of this journey with you.

    I have also immensely enjoyed the discussion in the comments as well. It’s amazing how unique our observation experiences can be.

    Keep on watching,

    1. Hi Josette,

      Thank you. Thank you for being a part of the original discussion that led to this issue of the iTDi blog, helping to keep us on track, and filling the process with positive energy, and for reading my post THREE times! Three times! I kind of feel like dancing…wait…OK, I did. I just did a little Josette-read-my-post-3-times-happy-dance. It was awesome.

      I’m also very much digging the conversations that are going on in the comments. And I’m excited to take this conversation on to a different space and see where that might lead us as well.

      And if anyone is reading this comment and is thinking, “different space?” I promise there will be some more information coming soon. And if anyone is wondering what a Josette-read-my-post-3-times-happy-dance looks like, I can send you a picture and if I get enough requests, I will upload a video on YouTube.


  6. Kevin,

    Like Josette, I’ve read the post several times. As well as the comments in the thread. Here’s what I can now say about it:

    1) my three personal favorite tag words of your post would be Focus, Behaviour and Psychic gap. With the stories you attached to them.

    2) my three personal favorite ideas from your post that I’d write out and remember to think about from time to time would be ego being involved in judgement, giving room to figure out for yourself what to do next, and rituals governing classroom space.

    3) I’m taking out practical suggestions for future observation sessions, and it’s amazing. I cannot imagine the refashion of my observing colleague when I ask him/ her to map where I will be standing during the lesson! I love all ideas.

    4) In some of your comments somewhere you said “most of the teachers I know are genuinely striving to become better teachers”. That is something I don’t see happening around me. And that is the crucial part for any kind of progress, including tiny progress.

    5) Killing a cockroach, seeing a cockroach, being anywhere near a cockroach, or messing around with a cockroach in any other way is disgusting. Your love for surveymonkey is slowly getting over to me! I should use it with my students, I don’t know why I still haven’t done it.

    Thank you, such a good read. Your observation skills are inspiring!
    Happy to have been working on this issue together. Very, very happy.


    1. Hi Anna,

      Do I need to even say that I did Anna-read-my-post-several-times-happy-dance? Almost identical to the Josette-read-my-post-3-times-happy-dance but without the arm flaps and with a moon walk as opposed to the triple lutz at the end.

      3) very glad that the cool ways teachers have observed me have you wanting to try out observing teachers in similar cool ways. If you come up with any more ideas, let me know. I did have a friend who kept track of all the positive feedback a teacher gave and what form it took. That was pretty interesting.

      4) You know, I think it would be super tough to be in an environment where teachers didn’t seem to be trying to improve. I’m not sure how any kind of real dialogue would take place. Then again, maybe teachers are just afraid to look like they don’t know what they are doing (a common fear amongst teachers) so they don’t ask for help or search out answers. Which is another great reason to get a peer-observation system up and running, so everyone can just relax and realise that basically no one has the answers.

      5) I agree. Cockroaches are disgusting. SurveyMoney is good.

      Looking forward to carrying on this conversation for at least a little while longer. See you over there.


    2. Inspiring indeed. Anna just nudged me as well as your post to have a little bit of more faith and actually as Josette wrote to me on Twitter… “Small steps dear”. That resonates well with small changes doesn’t it. I think I can get past my fears even if the right condition to get started with peer observation is not there.

      Taking into consideration what the three of you had shared with us and helped me reflect and fight it and come up with a new view on the subject.

      Anna has been really inspiring and courageous to get something started. I think I can do it too. It is beneficial and I might be missing out something great if I never give it a try. (as you can see totally changing my mind at this point, why? Because I care too otherwise I would not go through the painful process of voicing my mixed-feelings towards it.)

      I’m taking into consideration the affective side of the whole thing as Josette shared with us her own story. At this point it is me who will have to develop a thick skin to deal with it. It might not even be as hard as I think if someone accepts my invitation. Keep your fingers crossed. Fortunally I’ll be able to pick up the peer observation idea from where I left it in the beginning of the year. So, beginning of next year I shall try.

      I’ll be taking your suggestions and experience on this Kevin to help me out. 1) Invite someone to watch it and collect data. As school policies do not allow video recording – having someone would be awesome to see something I am not able to as well; 2) discuss beforehand an aspect of the lesson/teaching I would love he/she to watch and I would also explain how I feel about it and what I would be trying to achieve during the lesson or part of the lesson; 3) also audio record specific moments of the lesson linked to what had been discussed and learned in BR course and 4) use both my colleague data and the audio record to help explore and generate alternatives if my colleague has the time to give a bit more of him/her to the analysing stage it would be even more awesome.

      Does it sound like a good and promising plan?

      1. Hi Rose,

        I think you’ve touched on something so important. If peer observation is going to start, it might have to start in less than optimal conditions. Perhaps teachers don’t want people observing them. Maybe they don’t feel like it can be a positive way to learn. But I’m pretty sure that if you use the the ideas you’ve synthesised from these posts (and you’ve got a bunch of great ones in your comment), as well as your own teaching sense, the effort will be worthwhile.

        You’ve got a great plan. Keep me updated on how you put it into action. I can’t wait to hear all about it.


  7. Hi Kevin,

    I just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading this and seeing in the thread of comments issues around the fact that observation isn’t neutral, which I think is one of the biggest struggles in researching classrooms- whether we approach education as a science or as an art. I don’t believe that observation needs to be neutral, I think we’re all socially constructed beings in ine the ultimate socially constructed environments which is a classroom and I agree completely that its essential role is to foster growth and be kind to teachers.

    What pains me about a lot of teacher development is the level of box-ticking detail involved in observation, and where the light you so beautifully describe at the end of your piece can be very dim.

    Best wishes


    1. Divya,

      Thank you so much for your comment. And I think you actually have hit on another rich vein of discussion. In a socially (and oftentimes artificially) constructed environment like a classroom, not only is neutral observation impossible, is it even something we want people to be aiming for?

      I am in agreement with you, observation should afford teachers with a chance to grow and feel supported. And the whole idea of holding teachers up to “best practices” and checking off boxed has vey little to do with the often messy and very much human experiences that drive and build a sense of community in our classrooms.

      I have the sense, especially here at iTDi and amongst many of my friends who are teachers, that there is something big happening, some kind of change in which many of us are truly looking to explore and experiment in our classrooms. And I know that observation, especially peer-observation is helping to move us towards the light.

      Thanks again for your beautiful comment.


  8. You have just said all I had wanted to say about it. Thank YOU. I would cry out for sure. 😀 Meanwhile… I’m grateful for what I have had all this year long. #Feelinghopeful

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