Deborah Halifax has been teaching for fourteen years, nine of them as a Head of English. She has been involved in training and coaching teachers for most of that time. She is currently working as an English Teacher and tutor at Aldenham. Deborah uses her legal training to help inspire a passion for debate, ideas and thinking. She is also happy just to watch The West Wing and talk about cheese. Contact her here
My sealed plastic bag full of bicarbonate of soda and vinegar lay in an untidy little pile in the car park. Two disappointed boys and I stared at it glumly. It had appeared to swell and the experiment should have worked, but what we’d expected as a bang and a fun learning project failed in a fizzy flop.
We’ve all been there: the pupils won’t play the game, the star pupil has an off day, the tricky pupils have a super tricky day, the technology fails or, as above, the bicarb is too old. And it has a tendency to happen when you’re being observed or when you think through your performance for appraisal.
But observation, and indeed its cousin appraisal, don’t need to be the things that keep us up at night wondering whether someone is finally about to discover what a big fraud you are as a teacher. It is time to make observation and appraisal our friends; something to be welcomed rather than something to be feared. This is mainly impacted by the attitude we bring to them.
One reason for it is this; as teachers, we are all learning. If we’re not learning, then you may need to get someone checking your pulse because the outlook isn’t good. No-one gets it right all the time and no-one can be sure that the scenarios above won’t happen to them. Your observer/appraiser knows this because it happens to them too. If we can recover well from mistakes or difficulties, then we become more resilient learners. We model the kind of learners we want our pupils to be. A mistake is not a disaster, as Edison put it: ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ Whilst no-one is going to recommend that level of ‘experimentation’, it is important that as teachers, we look at a mistake as an opportunity to reflect and learn.
Most teachers when asked about their observed lessons will pull out the negatives without any difficulties. A skilful observer will help them to look at why what went well went well and what options they have with what went less well. It is less about judgement and more about coaching to a higher performance standard. To do this, you have to reflect on what happened. Appraisal should be about setting targets just above your current reach. To make the most of it, you have to know your strengths; we have to look through the lens of listening to ourselves and our reflections. This is why observation and appraisal are intricately linked, and why they will affect the learning in the classroom and enable us to, ultimately, become better teachers.