When Trainees Observe Lessons

by Mark Dawes, December 2018

My colleague Cordelia wrote earlier in the term [ http://cambridgemathshub.org/observing-maths-lesson ] about what senior managers should look for when observing a mathematics lesson.  This blog explores some of the things trainee teachers could do during their observations in their training year.  This might also be of use to others: those who are considering teaching as a career, those returning to teaching after time away and those preparing to teach a different subject from their usual one.

Why do we observe lessons?

  • Lesson observations are often associated with monitoring and appraisal. Trainees and qualified teachers are observed by those who then make judgements about their teaching.  Ofsted carry out observations, schools have these as part of official and formal performance management systems and there may be other, smaller-scale, observations too, such as learning walks.  This is not relevant to the observations that trainees carry out.
  • In some schools teachers carry out peer observations as part of their development, or perhaps within a research or lesson-study framework.
  • Trainees can easily be inducted into the norms and culture of a school by observing what teachers and pupils do in the classroom. This might also help new members of the professions to become involved in a Community of Practice.
  • Trainees observe lessons to help them to pick up key things that are going on in the classroom, to notice things that crop up, to see how pupils behave, to see what the teacher does at different stages in the lesson and to see how the lesson plan might be translated into what actually happens during the lesson.
  • Trainees should be able to notice the ‘teachery’ things that just happen automatically (and which the teacher might do subconsciously and might not think to mention to the trainee).
  • This should be an opportunity for the observing trainee to use their critical faculties and to consider the approaches they might take in their own lessons.

There are a number of ways that trainees might organise and focus their observations in lessons throughout the year.  These have different benefits and will help the trainee to see new things and to develop in a particular way.  A balanced observation plan is likely to include some of each of these methods and will allow for each observed lesson to have an appropriate focus.

Different observation-types might include:

[This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, neither should it be treated as an order to work through, but rather as a menu to select from as appropriate to the needs to the trainee at any time.]

Observing the lesson This is particularly important at the start of the year and for those who are not used to being in the classroom.  The trainee can try to take in as much as they can about the approach to the lesson, about the teaching and the learning and about the structure of the lesson.

It can also help more experienced trainees to get used to a new school, a different teacher or an unfamiliar class.

Observing the teacher At an early stage of a placement, just seeing what the teacher does at different points in the lesson will be important.  How is the register taken, what about calling the class together, how is homework issued, etc.

Later the trainee might be able to put themselves in the teacher’s shoes:

  • Try to imagine what the teacher is thinking.
  • Try to predict what the teacher might do next, how they might respond to a question or an unexpected response, etc.
Observing the pupils Who is the teacher talking to?

What are the pupils doing while the teacher is presenting?

Who asks/answers questions?

How are the pupils answering questions?

What is behaviour like?

Are any of the pupils off-task?

What is the level of effort, engagement, etc?

When the pupils are working together, do they all participate?  Are there dominant pupils?  Those who sit back?

Observing a small group of pupils or an individual As above

(This might be a particularly useful focus at the start of the year and when the trainee really wants to drill down into how pupils respond to a lesson.)

Walking and participating in the lesson Generally getting to know the class: finding out names, learning a bit more about them, seeing how they interact with each other and with the trainee, learning what their mathematical strengths and weaknesses are, etc.

This will also allow the trainee to spot misconceptions and common errors.

Trouble-shooting problems Sitting with a group of pupils, seeing what they are doing and trouble-shooting problems, working with them, etc.
Acting as a TA Sitting with one or more pupils who benefit from working with a TA and acting in that role to support them.
Imaginary teacher Circulate during the ‘pupils working’ parts of the lesson and pretend to be the teacher.  Scan the room, look for pupils who are off-task and seek to help them, ask the pupils questions, monitor their progress, etc.

Occasionally pause and see what the teacher is doing.

Observing a Teaching Assistant Looking at what a TA does during a lesson.  Does the TA sit with one pupil?  Are they pro-active or reactive?
Observing with a focus The trainee could focus on one particular thing, such as behaviour management, assessment or gender.
Returning to observation After teaching a class during a placement, observe them being taught by the class teacher to see how the teacher re-establishes themselves with the group and to pick out things they might have missed while teaching the class.

Change in observation use throughout the year

As a trainee develops they will get different things out of the observation they do.  Some trainees wrongly see observation as ‘the thing you do before you are ready to teach’ and assume that as soon as they being to teach classes they will no longer get anything out of observing lessons.  It may happen that at the start of a training course more observation needs to be carried out while the trainee is informally inducted into the mathematics department’s community of practice and while they get used to being in a classroom, but later in the placement trainees will still learn a large amount from observing lessons.  By this point they will be able to see, pick out and focus on things that they were too inexperienced to see earlier in the course: their observation experience will be very different at that stage.

Who is observed?

It seems obvious that many observations will take place in the mathematics department of the school and that the trainees will observe the classes they will eventually teach and other lessons taught by their mentor.  Alongside this it is likely to be useful for them to observe other experienced mathematics teachers and to see as wide a range as possible of different teaching styles.

There is also value in a trainee observing lessons taught by an NQT, partly because they will themselves be in that position in a year’s time.

At various points in the year it may be helpful for trainees to observe lessons in other subjects.  This might involve exploring different teaching techniques from those they have seen in mathematics lessons, observing how certain groups of pupils that they have seen in maths lesson behave and respond in lessons in other subjects, or might help with their pastoral work.

It is a significant privilege to be able to observe lessons, and something that few full-time teachers are able to do as regularly or as frequently as they would like.  I would urge trainee teachers to make the most of this opportunity.