Unsatisfactory lesson observation – looking back with new eyes

As the weather let me down at the weekend, I decided to tackle some of the jobs that I’d successfully been putting off for a while, although they really needed doing.

One of these was sorting through the box of old files and paperwork that I’ve only ever added to over the years, a box that was straining at the seams and threatening to descend through the ceiling from its precarious perch in the loft. At first, during my early years of teaching, I kept everything. Every letter from SMT to staff, minutes of meetings, resources, worksheets, lesson plans…. In fact, everything I’d ever produced or had been given, in written form. I reasoned that because producing the materials had been such hard work in the first place, I may need them again in the future, and that I was saving myself further effort. Of course, both the curriculum and the year groups changed, so in reality I never took anything out of the box.

Opening the box, some of that came flooding back, and rather than just binning the lot, I decided to sort through it, in case there were any gems hiding which I would be able to use now. I found one drawing of a fox that I thought might be worth saving, but as I couldn’t remember what I’d done with it in the first place, and couldn’t imagine what I’d use it for now, I decided that too could go.

But one thing caught my eye – a lesson observation from eight years ago.

At that time, I was on long-term supply in a primary school. I was teaching in a troubled area, and a year group of which I had no experience. I explained this to the head when I first went there, but he said that they were desperate for staff, and would offer me lots of support.  It was also the first time I had ever seen Promethean whiteboards, and I was promised that I would be given full training in how to use them. I agreed to stay for one term.

In general, I would have to say that the school were very understanding and supportive. My memories of the time are happy, and it gave me the confidence to be open to new teaching experiences. But looking at that lesson observation, I wondered how I’d come away with that feeling. Perhaps knowing that it was only for a short time was one factor.

The observation was of an English lesson with Year 1. The observation form was quite detailed, in that it listed everything I had done, how the children had reacted, and what I should do next. There was also a grade and comments about the success (or otherwise) of the lesson. All of this was, apparently, done according to the school’s interpretation of Ofsted criteria.

Essentially, the form said, I told the children the learning objective for the lesson (and wrote this out) which was to write about a pet using key words, then read out a poem about a puppy (and put a copy up in the interactive whiteboard) and the children joined in with actions and sound effects on the second read through. They then gave suggestions of words to do with puppies, dogs, and pets in general, which I wrote up on a new page on the whiteboard. I modelled how to write a sentence using these words, and took further suggestions from the children how they could do it, and wrote their sentences on the board. The children then used this to write a sentence about a pet (with help, and using a wordbank) before drawing a picture of a pet. The work was differentiated, so the lower ability pupils had only two blanks to fill in on their sheet, whilst the higher ability pupils were encouraged to write more than one sentence. At the end of the lesson, the children all came back to the carpet and we shared their work together. It may not have been the best example of such a lesson, but at that point, I’d only been teaching that year group for 6 days.

The observation form noted that all the children joined in, they had been laughing when appropriate and had generally seemed very happy, that I’d made effective use of the help of the TA, that I’d encouraged all the children to do their best, and that all had produced on-topic work and had learnt something. It was even noted that the EAL children (who had no English at all) and the lower ability pupils were able to join in. One EAL boy kept repeating the word ‘dog’ and pointing at a picture of one on the wall, so the observer surmised he’d probably learnt a new word. I was praised for the good relationship I had with the class, and how well I communicated what they were to do. It was also noted that there were no behavioural issues in the class and that the children were quiet as soon as they were asked to be.

But my lesson was graded ‘unsatisfactory’.

The observation write-up went into some detail as to why:

“This lesson is unsatisfactory as it did not make full use of ICT. The children looked at the poem on the interactive whiteboard as you read it out. This did not further their learning. There was the potential for the less able and EAL children to become distracted. You should of put an animation of a puppy on the whiteboard so that it ran around the edge of the poem whilst you were reading it. You should of used hyperlinks to show them pictures and videos of puppies and dogs. You should of included sound effects and had ‘hot buttons’ so the children could make the puppy run around the screen.

When you wrote the key words on the board you removed the poem. This could of meant that some children forgot what they were doing. You should of bought (sic) in a portable whiteboard from the storeroom so the children could see the poem at the same time. You should also have a soft toy puppy to show them the concept.

You used some kinasthetic learning teachniqes (sic) when you got the children to do arm movements but you should of developed this further by making up a dance about a puppy and then teach this to the children. You could of linked this to a song about a puppy which you could teach the children and the children could of done some drama pretending to be puppies and moved about the class room not just the carpet area.

You need to include full cross-curricular links in your planning and you did not show how this could be linked to numeracy ie using puppy counters or pictures in number bonds to ten.”

Now I’ll be the first to agree that my lesson may not have been the best example of its type, but, as I’ve already stated, it was only the sixth day I’d ever taught that age group. I had no access to earlier plans for that class, and was essentially muddling through as best as I could. Any suggestions as to how I could have improved by subject knowledge, age-appropriate activities, manner of teaching or lesson content would have been both welcomed and valid. But the evaluation focused solely on presentation, and how I could entertain the class.

It suggested that there were times when the children may have had the opportunity to be distracted, but the minute-by-minute write-up clearly stated that this hadn’t happened. I was being criticised for something that may have occurred, rather than for something that did.

The fact that the evaluation effectively failed me simply because I hadn’t used the whiteboard in the way the observer would have liked, bothers me. The suggestion that I included an animation continually running around the poem, is laughable for the simple reason that at that time it was not possible to do this with Promethean boards. Each element had to be added separately, and moving objects had to be ‘clicked’ on in order to make them move – there was no method of getting this happen automatically. I would also have needed to specify a ‘path’ for the moving object, and I believe, there was a maximum time these could run for.

The person observing me would have known this if they had used the whiteboard themselves, however they were on the SMT with no teaching commitment, and so no experience of exactly what could be done with a whiteboard.

There was no mention of whether the children had achieved the learning objective. In fact, the evaluation part of the observation had no mention of the learning objective at all. Instead, the focus on dancing and singing (or lack of) took priority. Would it be possible to have a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ lesson without achieving the objective? According to the criteria used to assess my lesson, presumably so. All a teacher needs to do is to entertain. And use a lot of ICT.

A good lesson is one where the children learn something, where they achieve the set objective. Maybe the lesson isn’t exciting, maybe not much fun, but if it gives pupils some skill or understanding that they didn’t have before, then it has gone some way to enhancing their education. If it achieves what it set out to, then this must, at least be ‘satisfactory’, even if that category no longer exists. Many topics are not ‘fun’ to learn, do we really need to make ‘fun’ our main objective?

If I had taught the class a dance and a song, wouldn’t that have meant the lesson was focused on either PE or music criteria? How would this help them to write a sentence? It’s the type of misinformed activity focus that Daniel Willingham writes about in Why don’t students like school?

Out of all the things in that box, this lesson observation was the first to go through the shredder. I took particular delight in laughing at all the grammatical mistakes in the observation first though – should of and could of – which one of us was really  unsatisfactory?

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3 Responses to Unsatisfactory lesson observation – looking back with new eyes

  1. chrishildrew says:

    Although this post left me smiling, at the same time it’s left me horrified. You have exactly the right attitude in response – straight in the shredder. But the impact an observation like this could have on many less resilient professionals doesn’t bear thinking about…
    Thanks for sharing!

    • In fairness to the school, I had two other observations whilst there, both of which were helpful and constructive.

      I am happy to listen to constructive criticism, and to apply suggested techniques – I certainly don’t know everything, and a fresh perspective can be enormously helpful.

      But I do take issue with the way in which this one was done.

  2. Ray Trench says:

    ‘Could of meant’!!!!!!! Used twice by the observer in the critique. Perhaps they could HAVE done with some English lessons, too!

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