Peer observation can be a great way to develop your teaching practice. Many schools arrange for new employees to do this in their induction week, although they can be beneficial throughout your teaching career. In this guide we look at the benefits of peer observation and how to take most value from it.
The term ‘peer observation’ is often used to describe three different scenarios:
- You observing another teacher’s class;
- Another teacher observing your class (but not a line manager);
- A reciprocal agreement with another teacher to observe each others’ classes.
All three of these (if done properly) can help to improve your teaching practice.
Depending on what you agree with the other teacher, you may share feedback on your observations.
Why do Peer Observation?
As with any professional development, the goal of peer observation is to help teachers deliver more effective lessons. Peer observation achieves this goal by enabling you to see other (usually more experienced) teachers’ practice.
By watching another teachers’ lesson, you are likely to see aspects that you would like to emulate in your own practice. This might be an activity, some treatment of the course material or a classroom management strategy. This is probably the most obvious, though also the most superficial, benefit of peer observation.
Through the completion of observation tasks, reflection on the lesson, discussion and subsequent experimentation with new ideas, you will become more aware as a teacher. This leads to a greater understanding of not only the aspects of your teaching that need development, but also your strengths. Knowing your weaknesses allows you to fine-tune your professional development mix, while knowing your strengths leads to greater confidence as a teacher, allowing you to take greater pride in your work and derive more enjoyment from it.
Where you are being observed, you may get feedback from your colleague. While this may not sound pleasant, peer observation is a lower stakes activity than formal observation (i.e. observations done by line management as part of a performance review). In this type of observation, you are not being evaluated for a contract renewal so your job is not on the line. With peer observation, you also have some choice as to who observes your lesson so you can pick a teacher who will not judge you too harshly.
If you are looking to progress up the ranks, peer observation is also a useful experience to put on your CV and discuss in interviews. Not only does it show that you are willing to put time in and use your initiative to develop as a teacher, but giving constructive feedback is a necessary skill for academic managers and teacher trainers.
How to Set Up a Peer Observation
The first step is to decide what you really want to get from a peer observation. It may be the case that there is a teacher in your school that you heard good things about. However, you shouldn’t assume that just by watching their lesson you will get some ‘silver bullet’ that will make all your lessons excellent. Devise a question that you want to know the answer to (e.g. How can I better control very young learners?).
Once you have your goal or question, you should think about which teachers seem to have experience and confidence in this area. If you aren’t sure, this is a good chance to tell your line manager about your plans. They will surely know which teachers will be beneficial to watch, but also they may be able to support you by covering a class to free you up. However, in case that isn’t possible, it’s best to have a few teachers in mind.
Once you have decided which teachers you want to observe, you can approach them. Your line manager may offer to do this for you, though the more desirable outcome is probably for you to approach them yourself. Some teachers will be only too happy too help, and will relish the opportunity to have some feedback from you about their lesson. Even if you are inexperienced, some teachers (often more experienced ones) may be glad to hear your thoughts as they recognise that you can see things they may not be aware of.
On the other hand, some teachers will not be so accommodating. In this case, it’s best not to make a big deal of it. Thank them for listening to your request.
When you have a teacher who agrees, it is just a matter of setting a time and date. Note that you don’t have to stay for a whole lesson – an hour is typical.
Getting the Most From the Observation
When observing, you could simply go to your colleagues lesson and watch. This can be beneficial, although there are certainly ways to take more from the observation.
Before the observation, ask the teacher to meet and discuss what they will do in the lesson. If they don’t have time, do thank them for considering it. In either case, make sure you ask which pages or worksheets they will use, and make your own copy to take the lesson.
In some cases the teacher may give you a copy of their lesson plan. If they don’t, it would probably not be welcomed to ask for one. However, if they are observing you too, the best way to get a lesson plan from them is to have them observe you first and you give them your plan. By going first to be observed, you get to set the expectations for when you observe them.
If you are following this guide, you should have set a question before even asking a teacher to observe them. It can be useful to use an observation task to focus your attention on this aspect of teaching. You can find some tasks in the back of Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener. Alternatively, you can search the web or design your own, especially after you have been teaching for a while.
If you don’t use an observation task, you should still take notes. This helps you to remember what happened in the lesson.
Giving and Receiving Feedback
Giving feedback can be very challenging. When we are honest, we can potentially upset the other person. However, when we are not, the other person may see through false praise.
One thing that can help is to ensure that any feedback you give is balanced. If all you have is negative feedback, the other teacher may well get defensive. On the other hand if all of the feedback is positive, the teacher is likely to distrust your comments. Generally, it helps to start and end with positive comments as this opens up the person to hearing more about their practice and leaves them with a positive feeling about the observation process.
Another useful hint is to separate negative practice from the person. Teachers often bring their personalities to the classroom (which is definitely encouraged) and this can mean criticism is construed as being directed at them. The simplest way to prevent this is to ensure anything negative is not stated as an accusatory sentence e.g. “You didn’t use pair work.” This can easily be changed to “the students didn’t work in pairs.”
Hopefully, following the lesson you have some questions. These can also be worded to sound more like genuine curiousity rather than an interrogation. “Why did you…”, for example, is likely to be seen as interrogating. This can easily be negated by adding a statement starting “I noticed that…” before it. It can also be less threatening to ask questions if you give alternatives e.g. “Did you think about doing that activity in pairs instead?” or “Have you tried that game with bigger teams?”
Where there are negatives, don’t just criticise but also provide some solutions as to how to improve. Again this can be done effectively by asking questions, especially of the “have you tried…” type. A lot of successful teaching comes about because teachers experiment to find what works for different students, different groups and for them as a teacher.
Perhaps the best rule of thumb for giving feedback is to think about the feedback you would like to receive. Probably you don’t want to hear all of your faults at once – maybe the two biggest. And of course, we all like hearing positives about our lessons, but you probably only want these if they are genuine.
When receiving feedback, remember that the other teacher might not have read this guide (although please do share it with them). They may at times say something that you don’t completely agree with. In this case, rather than getting defensive, you can ask them how they would have approached the same scenario. Remember that it can be hard to give criticism to colleagues, and it is unlikely that they would make stuff up to irritate you. If you don’t agree, that is your prerogative – you can always agree to disagree!
- Set a question which you would like to find out the answer to.
- Think about which of your colleagues will best be able to help you.
- Ask your colleagues nicely.
- Tell your line manager what you are doing (this shows initiative).
- Ask your colleague what they will cover in their lesson and make a copy of coursebook pages or worksheets.
- Be on time for the lesson.
- Give your full attention to their lesson (writing notes is okay).
- Leave the lesson quietly.
- Thank your colleague.
- Give constructive feedback if it is agreed you will. Provide a mix of positive and negative and suggest ways to improve the negative.
- Respect your colleague’s wishes if they don’t want feedback.
- Just go to a teacher’s class because you heard they are good.
- Demand that your colleagues must help you.
- Pick a really busy time of the year.
- Ask for a full lesson plan.
- Be late for the lesson.
- Play with your phone through the lesson.
- Interrupt or disrupt the lesson.
- Leave the lesson unless it is the end of the agreed observation time.
- Start discussing the lesson immediately after it finished (while students are still around).
- Be overly critical of the lesson.
- Force your ideas on the other teacher.
What to do Next
After the peer observation and feedback there are many other professional development activities you might want to do, including:
- Repeating the process with another peer observation of the same or a different teacher;
- Reading about areas for development;
- Watching webinars on your areas for development;
- Running a teacher training workshop on one of your strengths – perhaps a solution that your peer found useful;
- Starting a reflective journal to pay closer attention to the areas of development.