‘Elly, problem!’. It was the middle of my first observation at a new teaching job, and one of my grade one students sidled up to me holding her freshly detached tooth. I’ve also had an adult student proclaim loudly mid-observation ‘I don’t understand anything!’ (in L1, during an advanced class). There was also the lesson when the cupboard door fell off, landing on one of my seated students. The list goes on.
As teachers, we have the dubious privilege of periodically having someone come and stand and watch over our shoulder, and then provide us with feedback on how well (or not) we are doing our job. If you’re in your first year of teaching, the whole process probably feels a bit like an additional CELTA teaching practice, although with the added terror factor that a ‘to standard’ lesson might be required in order to pass your probationary period. Even if you’ve been teaching for several years and know that you’re unlikely to be fired, it doesn’t necessarily make observations any more pleasant.
Benjamin Franklin said ‘By failing to prepare, you prepare to fail’, and at least in my experience, many new TEFL teachers who fail their observations do because of their planning.
Enough of preparing to fail: how can you prepare to pass your observation?
It should hopefully go without saying, but an observed lesson is not one where you should decide to just ‘wing it’. Your school should give you at least 24 hours notice of an observation, giving you plenty of time to plan and prepare.
Check the format required beforehand.
Some schools (my current place of work, as an example) require only the most basic lesson plan before an observation – simply a spoken outline of the lesson will do. For other schools (some branches of IH, for example) you will need to produce a full ‘CELTA-style’ lesson plan. Find out what your school’s policy is beforehand to save yourself either missing something you were meant to do, or doing a lot of unnecessary work! If you’re unfamiliar with the ‘CELTA format’ – for example if you were previously a mainstream school teacher but now find yourself teaching TEFL, check with colleagues who have done CELTA or Trinity to find out what is expected – it’s quite a different way of teaching. There’s also some great advice online, check out ELTplanning’s blog post on how to write a CELTA lesson plan.
Consider the problems you’re likely to have – both with the class and with whatever you’re teaching.
‘Potential Problems’ is often included as a section of lesson plan forms. However, it isn’t just a box on a form. Rather than simply encouraging you to be pessimistic and think of all the things that could possibly go wrong, the purpose of this activity is to help you pre-empt those problems, and then have a shot at solving them before they occur. For example, if you know that two particular YL students are often silly and disruptive when working together, you might plan to organise your pair/group work in a different way, so that those students are separated. If you are teaching something that you think your students are likely to find really difficult, you might plan ways to stage the activities more carefully and provide more support.
Check your aims.
Lesson aims/stage aims were something I found really hard to get my head around when I first started teaching. Why is ‘Students will practise reading for gist’ an acceptable stage aim, but ‘Students will read’ not?! What I have found helpful is rephrasing the idea of an ‘aim’ as ‘What will the students be able to do after this activity that they couldn’t do before?’ – and then answering that question. Again, lesson aims can seem like another pointless ‘box to fill’, but strong aims (‘Students will be able to understand and produce vocabulary to describe clothing’ as opposed to ‘Students will talk about clothes’) can be the difference between a well-structured lesson where the students have a real sense of achievement, and one where they don’t.
Don’t try something new.
I’m well aware that this might seem like strange advice – after all, you want to impress the observer with your new and exciting ideas! However, (unless this is a developmental observation with the intention of you experimenting) an observation really isn’t the best time to try something completely new and unpredictable. Don’t repeat something you’ve already done word-for-word – that’s unlikely to be beneficial for your students – but consider the activities and tasks you’re asking students to do, and choose tasks types that will be familiar rather than unknown. By choosing familiar activities it allows you to concentrate on your instructions, your classroom management, your explanations and the atmosphere in the classroom; and it means that you can better anticipate problems in advance.
Variety, variety, variety.
One huge advantage of writing a full lesson plan is that it allows you to see all of the activities you’re going to do in relation to each other. This can also highlight if you need to make some changes. Ideally, you’re aiming for a variety of different activities (so no gap-fill, followed by a gap-fill, followed by a gap-fill), and a variety of interaction patterns. This means that you need to alternate between individual work, pair work, and perhaps group work, so that the students are communicating in a variety of different ways and with different people.
Don’t forget the detail!
Even as an experienced teacher, it’s easy to fall foul of this one. If your school requires a full CELTA-style lesson plan, the ideal is that you should be able to give that plan to someone else and they will then be able to teach your lesson. Assume that it is someone who has absolutely no initiative whatsoever – they need to be told every little thing, otherwise they won’t do it. If you are going to ask the students to check their answers in pairs after an activity, write it on your plan, even if it feels like you are simply covering pages with ‘students check in pairs’ repeatedly. Don’t leave things out because they’re ‘obvious’.
Before submitting your plan (sometimes you’ll be required to hand/email it to your senior teacher/ADOS 24 hours in advance, sometimes it’ll be fine just to hand it to them before the lesson (again, check!) make sure you proofread it. Run it through spell-check, make sure there aren’t any glaring errors. It should be second-nature, but it’s also very easy to forget!
Far easier said than done, but before your observation try to make the time and the space to switch off and relax. Staying up late the night before worrying won’t make your teaching any better – if anything it’s more likely to have a negative effect. Constantly revising your plan isn’t likely to improve it, so set yourself a deadline for it. Remember, at the end of the day, it’s only one lesson, and you will survive it.