Karen Capel, an Academic Coordinator and teacher trainer, returns with another post for Coordinators and Directors of Study, sharing her tips for observing teachers in class.
Observing teachers on your staff on a regular basis is one of the essential tools to ensure the quality of the service you offer to students. As a result, it is of paramount importance to utilise class observation in a sensible yet effective way in order to achieve not only the expected results, but also the professional and personal growth of the members of your team. It helps them feel valued and creates athe sense of belonging necessary for each individual to work to the utmost of their abilities.
When one starts observing lessons, the focus tends to be on the technicalities that we believe are the key elements of a good lesson: having a clear objective; giving instructions and checking understanding; eliciting responses from students; classroom management strategies; use of materials; TTT and STT (Teacher Talking Time and Student Talking Time) to mention just a few. However, my experience proves that there are some other underlying elements which can mean the difference between a lesson being a success or a complete failure. For example, the rapport the teacher establishes with the students, which can result in better engagement with the planned activities, with students participating actively and therefore acquiring the target language easily.
Other aspects of equal importance include whether the contexts and activities chosen are appropriate for both the level and age of the students, and the balance of activities and interaction patterns used. These will enable the teacher to deliver a lesson which caters for all learning styles, gives all students the opportunity to express their ideas and clarify any issues which may arise, as well as practise and reflect on the target language.
What tends to be overlooked is being flexible enough to recognise opportunities to share knowledge with students. Often students come up with questions, raise doubts or even point out mistakes – which gives rise to opportunities to explain things more clearly, to share your knowledge – but often these opportunities are ignored by teachers due to a desire to focus on set objectives for the lesson. In these situations, taking the time to explain things further leads to further learning and students leave the classroom with the feeling of having had an enjoyable time while learning about the language in a memorable way.
The pace of the lesson is also crucial. Too fast and some students may not be able to follow. Too slow and the stronger students quickly get bored. Striking a balance between allowing enough time for students to understand and actually incorporate new language items and keeping a dynamic pace which prevents dullness is the key to a successful lesson. Furthermore, activities should be linked with one another so that students see them as meaningful – we as teachers set objectives according to what we want students to learn, but we need to create contexts and link tasks in such a way that students feel there is a purpose to them and they provide a natural progression of learning.
Time management is vital as well. I have seen lessons where teachers had clear objectives and were just about able to meet them through the use of appropriate teaching techniques – eliciting when necessary, giving precise instructions, etc. – but by the end of the lesson students had learnt very little. Why? Because the teacher did not make the most of the time available. And this is imperative, since most EFL students are in contact with the target language only during their lessons, this being their only chance to listen to and practise it.
The same happens with the balance of activities and skills dealt with, as every student needs to have the chance to practise their speaking skills in every single class, considering this may be the only time they do so during the week. How can one learn a language if not given possibilities to use it? That is why STT should also be maximised.
Needless to say, all of the aforementioned points are intertwined and, one way or another, related to the role of the teacher. The teacher must be the facilitator of the lesson, always showing interest in the students’ learning and therefore closely monitoring and following what each student is doing and the difficulties they may be facing . Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that this should not be taken as spoon-feeding them, but as providing them with the necessary tools so as to gain autonomy and control over their own learning process.
It is achieving this seemless integration of facilitation and organisation which leads to a successful lesson, rather than merely applying solid teaching techniques.