Lesson observations are an integral part of most teacher education courses for good reason; we can learn an enormous amount by stepping back from what we do and seeing teaching and learning in action, warts and all. The effects of the minute-to-minute teaching choices made in a lesson are more easily seen by an outside observer than by the teacher who is in the middle of the flow of their delivery. Putting other teachers’ practice into the context of our own work can reveal interesting trends and give rise to new ideas, but how deeply does a new teacher really reflect on their own practice as a result?
Feedback drawn from peer observations tends to focus mostly on the observed teacher’s practice, and only indirectly applies to the observer’s work. The only way for a teacher to examine what really happens in their own classroom is to see themselves teach. Self-observation videos are rarely, if ever, included in teacher education courses, despite being a very achievable developmental resource.
An achievable tool for self-development
With the range of handheld technology that is packed into the average smartphone, all the necessary resources are available for teachers to produce a useful, high-quality observation resource without assistance. A phone set to record, stuck to the back of the classroom with sticky tack is a low-impact, high-yield piece of self-evaluation equipment which any teacher can employ to research what they do.
A low-impact solution for self-evaluation
The benefits of self-observation are many: firstly, without an external influence in the room, you are more likely to perform authentically. You don’t have to think about the person tapping away at a computer, or studying your every move quizzically. The effects on students is also reduced; to all intents and purposes, the classroom environment is the same as always, and the small device stuck to the wall quickly fades into the background of the classroom once the lesson is underway, further lessening the ‘observer’s paradox’ that comes with an alien observer sitting behind them.
There are several ways that you can make the self-observation process more productive:
Set clear observation goals
Before you even start planning the lesson, define some criteria for your self-observation. What aspects of your teaching (or the students’ learning) will you focus on in this evaluation? Define two to three areas of your teaching which occur throughout the lesson, for example use of questioning strategies, feedback to student ideas or how students demonstrate their understanding. In a first observation, a broad focus is often useful. In future observations, specify more detailed areas of teaching, or focus on specific lesson stages for your evaluation, and you will pick up on more details to think about.
Set yourself questions
Once you have set a focus area for your observation, think of some questions to ask yourself about this area of your teaching. Some good reflective question frames are: ‘what are the effects on student language when I…?’ , ‘Do students perform any better when I…?’ or ‘what would happen if I…?’ Be honest with your questions - every teacher has doubts about whether they are doing the right thing at times, or catches themselves going against their usual principles; what are the effects of these actions? You are the best person to pose these questions, and also the best person to answer them.
Be an objective observer
When you watch the lesson you taught, be prepared for the typical inner groan as you see yourself as others see you - the voice that sounds nothing like you, the movements and expressions you never knew you pulled… the negative feeling of seeing and hearing yourself on camera can actually be a good thing for your evaluation; it can serve to distance you from your teacher persona, and helps you to take a more objective view of what is happening as you watch. Embrace the distance between the ‘teacher you’ and the ‘observer you’, and recogniser that these are in fact two very different roles which must be performed with different parts of your teacher brain.
Be an active observer
While you observe yourself critically, it is useful to use an observation resource, an observer notesheet or template to focus your evaluation (the same questions you would ask when observing another teacher’s lesson can just as well be asked about your own).Take notes as you watch yourself teach, especially focusing on the language you use at points in the lesson that you want to focus on, and the language used by students in the same stages. This can be good evidence of the effects of your teaching choices, and will highlight the strength of student achievement in terms of your stated lesson outcomes.
If you want further feedback about the lesson you recorded, or to get a second opinion, you can always show it to someone else, accompanied by some observation questions (perhaps the same ones you set yourself before starting the process). This can give a second perspective to the lesson and your evaluation of it.
Follow up on your focus points
Finally, after thinking critically about the lesson, focusing on the areas you highlighted for evaluation, make an action plan to follow up on weaknesses, and to affirm the positive aspects you noted. A list of simple dos and don’ts can work well, or a search for some related articles or development resources can give you further tools for improvement.
Observing yourself teach isn’t weird or awkward, for you or your students. It is a very valid way of gathering information about what goes on in your classroom. This is something every teacher who is interested in their own practice should want. Your reflective observations about your own work may provide valuable insights into areas where you can develop, or ways you can keep improving what you do. All you need is a phone and a wall to stick it to, and you can start a self-development project any time you want.
Tom Garside is author of TESOL: A Gateway Guide, available as a downloadable e-resource here for just US$9.99