Standing Apart: the importance of detachment in observing teaching

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Dr Emma Kennedy on why it's always best to stay detached while observing another's teaching.

Teaching observations are always slightly strange for both the observer and the observed. Standard (and entirely correct) advice is: “don’t try to put on a ‘special’ performance for your observer” but behave as you would – feedback is only useful if it relates to what you actually do on a day to day basis. There’s little point receiving feedback on something you haven’t done before and don’t intend to do in the future. However, the very presence of the observer marks out the session as ‘special’. Those being observed may respond to this by becoming nervous or flustered – or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, displaying overconfidence and trying to ‘show off’. It’s hard to behave ‘normally’ when you’re under observation, especially when – as many academics have – you’ve spent most of your academic life moving between high-stakes assessments.

Despite being under less pressure, those doing the observing also sometimes struggle to stay detached. This is especially true if the subject of the session is one on which the observer has expertise and/or a strong opinion. One such incident was actually what inspired me to write this post. In the middle of a teaching session (which incidentally was by all accounts a good one) an observer stood up, took over the floor and started to discourse at length on the flaws that she perceived in the lesson plan. Things like this don’t help the issue of teachers’ nervousness under observation, especially once they take a couple of turns around the rumour mill.

So why was the observer’s intervention such a bad idea? First and foremost, it ruins it for the students. Even if you, as an observer, think that they deserve better teaching than they’re getting, interrupting a session takes the focus away from them and their learning and puts it squarely on the conflict between you and the person teaching. You may have a fantastic idea for a session, but arguing its importance in the middle of another session is not the same thing as implementing it.

Second, it’s intensely unsettling, if not embarrassing, for the person teaching. At best, you’ve broken the flow of their teaching and disrupted their session. At worst, you’ve questioned their ability in front of their students, leaving them feeling humiliated when they should be in a position of authority. This is obviously a nasty and uncollegial thing to do in and of itself. It also means that any feedback you give on the session is no longer useful, as it’s not representative of the teacher’s usual teaching practice.

You may have a fantastic idea for a session, but arguing its importance in the middle of another session is not the same thing as implementing it.

This situation means that the person you are observing now sees you as an opponent rather than a colleague. As the Good Practice Guide states “observation is not an opportunity for either party to try to persuade the other that their approach is the ‘right’ one to teaching”, but should facilitate a two-way conversation between equals. In a situation where the observer has questioned in public the expertise of the teacher s/he is observing, this is impossible. The teacher who has been observed will naturally feel the need to defend himself/herself, while the observer will react to this in a similarly antagonistic manner. Neither will learn anything from the other, and the experience will only entrench both participants in their own views.

But what do I do if I see some truly awful teaching? Shouldn’t I stop them?

Not unless you think students or staff are in serious danger. A good rule of thumb is: if you think the danger is sufficient that it would justify stopping the session entirely and abandoning the observation, then that might be a moment to intervene. However, it’s not your job as observer to protect the students or to exert ‘quality control’ at least not in the moment. Moreover, if something serious is going on that you think will justify disciplinary action against either the students or even the teacher, any disciplinary process will require evidence and testimony – which will require the serious thing to have actually happened, unpalatable though it may seem. You may still, despite all this, want to stop the session – and obviously, no amount of evidence-gathering justifies keeping students in danger.  However, it’s good to keep these things in mind – so that you know just what you’re getting into if you do decide to intervene as an observation.

Preparing to observe someone or to be observed? The best place to go from here is Dr Matthew Williamson’s Good Practice Guide on Observation of Teaching. This guide places observations within the context of improving practice in higher education, and explains in more detail some of the processes to which I’ve alluded here. It will help you to see the many benefits of the observation process, and show you what you can do to make sure those benefits are achieved.

Emma Kennedy, February 2016