I currently work in a large public organisation with one of the biggest language learning sectors of the world. To give you an idea let me just tell you that we organise language courses for about 12.000 people yearly and we offer as well 3.000 eLearning licenses. We subcontract a small army of 180 teachers and we teach 28 different languages.
One of my tasks in this dream job for any language lover, is to follow the work of these teachers and make suggestions on the methodology used in the classroom. That poses the challenge that I often have to follow classes that teach a language I do not know. This is what I would like to write about today.
Class observation on its own is a very sensitive issue in teaching. I have experienced it from both sides and I would like to share my views. I know that many colleagues feel strongly about it, I have seen very negative reactions toward the observer and I think it is a great pity.
First of all, I hope that you will all agree that when an external observer sees a piece of our work they can have a more objective opinion about it. It could be a dish of pasta, or the cleaning of a room or a short story we have written, it could be whatever. When we are involved in making our judgement is blurred – we are nothing but emotional creatures, don’t forget that. I also personally have great issues when someone “criticizes” my work and if I have cleaned the house for 5 hours, you’d better not tell me that I have missed a spot on the umpteenth bookshelf! I wouldn’t be the Anna you know J. On the other hand I must admit that, I have indeed missed a spot. This is what the other person is telling me, they are not passing a judgement on me, they do not love me less because of it and most of all they do not say that I am a bad house cleaner because of the missed spot.
With time I have grown to see teaching in similar terms and every time I have had someone observe a class or teach a class with me, I have learned great things! I have had nasty experiences of observation too. In one of my first jobs, my boss used to monitor what we were saying via a loudspeaker installation and later she would comment on our pronunciation! Let’s say that this was a negative example of “observation”. But during the best examples of this practise I didn’t feel threatened at all, quite the contrary. Many of my fellow teachers back in Greece where quick to come with the argument: “I don’t want to be observed, why doesn’t the advisor give us a model lesson demonstration instead”. “Who is this person that is going to observe me? Do they think they are better than me?” I think that these are defensive arguments. The person feels threatened and reacts in a “fight or flight” way. That’s why the way the observer is going to proceed with the observation is of great importance.
This is what I have learned these two years I’ve been here and I have been visiting classes: go into the classroom with acceptance and respect for your colleague. Explain beforehand why you are visiting their class and what you want to achieve by this. And afterwards share what you have observed as honestly as you can. This last part may be the most difficult. It’s not easy to say to people that something has gone wrong or that something needs improvement. Going into a classroom with an open mind means that you leave behind your assumptions about what is right and what is wrong. Different personalities have different way of teaching and although we can agree there are some standards that cannot be negotiated, there is also a lot of margin for creativity and differentiation.
Time is also important. I remember the time I visited one French class as an observer and the first 15 minutes I was shocked by the attitude of the teacher. “What is this arrogant style I was thinking? Why does everyone seem so frozen in his class? Why does he correct mistakes as if the world has ended?” I could hardly hold myself but I persisted. The teacher relaxed. I could see him changing in front of my eyes. The class was relaxing with him as well. It was like a dance, a mirroring exercise. After half an hour more or less, I could see the real dynamics of the team. The leader had his own particular style, very different from mine, but still very effective and I must say very interesting. What I perceived as coldness in the beginning was only his nervousness because of the presence of an intruder. Because this is what an observer does: they “intrude” a system, a sensitive system and what they observe is never the “real” thing. They are bound therefore to disrupt unintentionally this system.
So these are my formal observations from classroom observations. I’d like to give you some informal ones too. A few days ago I went to a poetry reading organised by EUNIC (European network of institutions of culture) with 5 poets from different countries. We heard poems in three of the languages I speak and two more in unknown languages for me: Turkish and Esthonian. I was so moved by both of them! For the Turkish I also had the translation so you could say that it was the content that did this to me. But for the Esthonian I had no idea what she was talking about. I only knew that the title of the poem was Love. And still I could feel the emotions of this strong woman in my bones.
This is how I often feel when I observe a teacher whose language I don’t speak: I observe the teaching itself, the core pedagogy without being distracted by the content. I can see the movements of the teacher, I can observe the web of interactions that is being developed, I can see in real time what I have been reading about: teachers usually address people who are on their right side much more that the ones on their left. I can see if the teacher is tired, hungry or full of energy. I can see if the teacher feels passionate about his job, if they savour the words of their language. I can see if there is a balance of skills practised, if people cooperate, if they trust their leader. And let me tell you: sometimes it is pure poetry what those teachers are doing!
My friends are telling me: “But you know Anna, you have no idea what the teacher is saying to the students in Danish. Maybe she is talking nonsense and she has asked the students to not tell on her and participate by speaking nonsense too”. It is very possible, my friends, but if nothing else it makes a great language lesson!
(Extra: In #eltchat the topic was discussed extensively and this what teachers around the world think about it)
(Extra 2: The poem from the English-Turkish poet Alev Adil: Baggage )