Observation Training for School Leaders


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the ‘most followed educators’on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the ‘500 Most Influential People in Britain’ by The Sunday Times as a result of…
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Is your school leader using the most reliable and effective observation process possible? 

The quality of observation training for school leaders is hit-and-miss across the teaching profession …

What observation training have you had?

Thousands of school leaders do what they’ve always known and copycat what they were shown, using observational methods with little or no formal training. As a result, observational feedback is too loose, and as a result, some teachers don’t receive the developmental feedback they need to improve.

If school leaders are left to replicate what they once received, during the process, they continue to make mistakes along t, supporting or hindering the development of other teachers under their care.

Just take a moment to think of one teacher you know who left teaching due to a single lesson observation outcome …

Over the last decade, conversations about classroom observation have shifted significantly, and there are many ways, reasons, and processes used to observe other teachers, from interview processes – which I believe are largely redundant – to informal and formal observations to appraisal and inspection.

There are a wide raft of scenarios and contextual factors.

The quality of conducting observations can vary greatly and depends on the quality of the process, and the skill and experience of the observer. Generally, the more knowledgeable and experienced the observer, the better the quality of the observation, but is this enough

The better the observer is at the process, the better the quality of the observation. No two observers will ever have the same experience or skill level, so the quality of observations will always vary.

How can the teaching profession improve classroom observation?

With careful planning and training, the quality of observations can be significantly improved. This can be achieved through providing quality training and support for observers, introducing more rigorous processes for observation, and having clear expectations of the observation process.

In my leadership career, I spent 22 years of my 25 years in the classroom, observing other teachers for formal and informal purposes. In the first decade, this was an experimental process, copycatting other leaders around me to become more efficient at observing, making reliable (graded) judgements to determine what feedback to deliver. This ranged from capability procedures, interviews and day-to-day observations.

Occasionally, high-stakes scenarios were presented. This is when one had to judge a teacher and grade them in front of other school leaders or Ofsted inspectors, and in those not-so-favourable scenarios, you have to work hard at delivering purposeful feedback for performance – not so much for the individual on the receiving end.

Are you measuring or developing?

In my 10th year of teaching (thereabouts), I discovered the power of lesson observation by video, playing around with in-ear coaching, remote observation, audio observation and using this technology in other scenarios. For example, recording student conversations and/or assemblies.

Lesson study was emerging across the sector, and in 2014, alongside a few others, we kept badgering Ofsted to abolish grading lessons/teachers. Despite almost a decade of hard work and clear research on this, some schools still choose to grade their teachers in lesson observations. I strongly believe that this type of system is outdated and that there needs to be a shift in thinking regarding observations (to determine quality teaching).

To help us all move away from outdated ‘grading’ ideology, I tell every teacher I work with to teach in a school where you are developed in observation, not graded.

Quality observations should focus on providing teachers with developmental feedback, not grading or judging them. Equally, the quality of conducting observations can be improved by providing quality training and support for observers, introducing more rigorous processes for observation, and having clear expectations for the observation process.

In my opinion, this is something we must do better as a profession.

Behind the scenes, I am having conversations with universities and academics to kickstart a new case study/research project in state schools to develop a robust and pragmatic model to equip (busy) school teachers and leaders with an effective process for lesson observation.

Observational reassurance

I was reassured by John Hattie when I read his interview with the TES; about his refined vision for expert teaching. We’ve seen a slight shift towards instructional coaching here in England.

Taking this one step further, Hattie reminded me of the process used for in-ear coaching to record and intervene with the teacher, live in the lesson, removing the observational parts – think ‘Unseen observations‘ by Dr Matt O’Leary,

The process requires the observer to take part in the planning and evaluative aspects of the lesson only. For some, this will be quite radical!

Not observing the teacher ‘in the moment’ with their students.

What would be the positive and negative effects of this delivery? Think of a situation where the observer would take part in co-planning the lesson, and then only hear the audio recording of the lesson, alongside teacher commentary…

I‘ve written before about why we need a national platform where teachers upload observational records for their professional practice, tagging other schools and teachers in their observations to have a national database of observations and discourse. A platform that is secure, full of wisdom, and a place to share teaching ideas.

We are a few years away from this happening, but examples such as Oak Academy (despite its current legal issues) show us how quickly something like this can be achieved. I hope one day we can see this come to fruition in England.

Think of developing skills and observation training, not promoting more surveillance.

Technological advances in recording and observing lessons can provide an additional layer of quality assurance, as well as allowing for remote observation and/or in-ear coaching with teachers across the country, not in one school.

Imagine the potential?