The Observation Issue – Anna Loseva

A Brave Potential Observee Thinks About Observation – Anna Loseva

Ann Loseva
I’ve been observed several times in my life. First, when I was going through obligatory school teaching practice still as a university student. At one of the two schools this observation was really thorough and included a detailed examination of my lesson plans as well as comments on the classroom procedures, cohesion of lesson chunks and overall logics of conducted lessons. That was the finest example of classroom observation I have had. That was 7 years ago. Since then I have been observed only twice at my current workplace: once by our department chair when I had just taken my position, and once again when a young new teacher was going to join us and was sent to sit in some of the lessons.

As you can guess, there’s no regulated practice of compulsory teacher observation in my context. Nor are most of the teachers interested in setting it up. So long as I don’t have observation of my classes, I am liberated from the judgment of people who would observe me and I’m left to openly speak from my heart in this blog post.

Observation is risky

Just the other week teachers at the department were having a heated discussion about the dangers caused by open student forums. In such forums, university students leave their comments about teachers and lessons. These comments include factual information such as the requirements for credits and exams and descriptions of how classes are held.  But you can also find more personal comments about teachers, both favorable and unfavorable. Surprisingly to me, many of the staff members expressed a strong position of opposition to these forums. They argued that whatever we do in the class should stay in the class. It’s true that the student remarks were incredibly subjective, and sometimes even rude, but basically the whole idea behind these forums, at least to me, seems like an attempt to leave useful information for the generations of faculty and students to come.

When I started to search for the reasons why teachers were reacting to the forums like this, I made a clear connection with lesson observation. People in general fear being exposed. We don’t like open doors or windows, so we buy safe locks and cover windows with curtains. In the same way, we feel safe in the classroom when the door is closed. And it’s difficult to come to terms with the idea that an intrusion into our class can take place without judgmental undertone.

If you walk along the dark grim corridors of my university, you will find that many doors have signs carrying variations of this one message:



It shouts out “Hazard!” It is a powerful and illustrative image. These rooms are forever closed to unwanted visitors. It is dangerous to enter them. Which led me to a question: What is so precious about your lesson that you are guarding it so fiercely?

Observation is about attitude

While I was trying, and at first failing, to answer this question, I asked myself two more:

Do I wish to be observed? A sure but shy “yes” because I recognise observation as a way to start improving my teaching.  Do I wish to observe others? An unsure and loud “yes”, again, because being present in a class of another teacher might open up a whole view of this class’s learning, which will give me more data upon which to build my own future development.

The fear of being observed for quality, correctness and efficiency in regards to how you’re doing your job is explicable and very human. Who wants to be judged like that?! My personal answer for now, like so many other things in life, is change your perspective. It seems to me that it all comes down to what message you send, both as an observing teacher and as an observed one. The observation process involves two sides and it’s not about the opposition of those sides, not about the conflict that happens between them, but rather a mutual readiness to learn more, analyze, talk and make change. In this readiness the right attitude seems to be a precondition.  Some of my ideas about observation derive Harrison Owen’s guide to open space technology. While the two at first may seem disconnected, lately somehow everything seems to relate in my understanding. Thus …

  1. When being observed, don’t think that another person knows your situation better than you do, don’t pre-assume you’re on the defensive. Welcome another perspective.
  2. When observing, don’t suppose you know the situation better than the person you are observing. Be gentle, too J
  3. My ideal path towards accepting observation would start with a sharing of lesson  plans with colleagues. First, I would naturally want to share one that I felt happy with, confident about, maybe even a touch proud. We would compare our lesson plans, see how it goes, and try it again. Couldn’t it be a painless first step?

My expectations and beliefs about observations

I’ve been opening up to challenges more and more lately. What I once used to think of as a tough scenario, something that sent shivers down my spine, now seems to be an exciting venture to plunge into. I keep stretching my elastic comfort zone, not just stepping out of it for a moment to then get back right back into it. So here, as an inexperienced but brave potential observe, I will loudly pronounce my expectations and beliefs about observation:

  1. I realize that I don’t want to be reassured that my lessons are good in all aspects. I am intelligent enough to know that’s not possible.
  2. I am not ready to simply take comments at face value, dialogue (not argument, though) must be a part of the process.
  3. I like to think that observation will spark conversations resulting in reflection and small good changes  — and even if there is no change, at least I will have the chance to take part in a good conversation.
  4. I don’t think of observation as a clue to deal with my professional faults.
  5. I like to hope that observation won’t aim at telling me, and teachers in general, how to teach “right”.
  6. I’m ready to learn, but at the same time I want my view of teaching, my attitude as I have it now, to stay undimmed.
  7. It doesn’t really matter what you think of yourself. Others might be able to see you better. This is an idea that several iTDi friends shared with me a month ago. They weren’t using it in reference to observation, but can’t it be true for the topic of this post in a certain way, too? Still, the idea that others might be able to see you better than yourself, stands in contradiction with some of what I have written above. Life is a complicated matter!

The funniest thing is that even now, after I have written this post and tried to sound convincing, I’m still scared out of my wits when I think of myself being observed. I fear observation. I expect it to lay bare and then thrust in my face my most vulnerable professional spots. But by pronouncing my fears out loud, I’m facing them. And only by going through that uncomfortable first experience will I be able to put up with those fears and eventually crush them.

Now that I have that out of my system, I suggest we all take a small but real step. Let’s take a sheet of paper and a pen. Let’s talk to ourselves, honestly and with an open heart. Let’s jot down several simple sentences which could describe one of our recent lessons. Then read over those sentences and end our note to ourselves with one of two statements, the one that we think fits better:

I don’t need observation.

I need observation.

You might end up with something along these lines:

I never have enough time. I need observation. – Anna Loseva

I always have too much time. I need observation. – Kevin Stein

In the end, whatever you think is right for you at the moment is the only right way to be for this exact moment. I believe there are many thruths. However, it’s good if your assumptions can be shattered every now and then, or even just cracked open a little bit. By doing that a new truth might find its way to shine through.


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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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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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The Observation Issue

Having our classes observed or observing other teachers’ classes is often seen as something to fear. Well, fear not because in The Observation Issue of the iTDi Blog, kevin Stein, Anna Loseva, and Josette Leblanc offer reflection, sanctuary and joyful advice on observation.

Ann Loseva
Anna Loseva
Josette LeBlanc
Josette LeBlanc
Kevin Stein
Kevin Stein

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