The Importance of Observation and Reflective Practice

Over the past couple of years there has been increased discussion between our staff and leadership about reflective practice – reflecting on our teaching with the purpose of continual improvement and professional learning. One particular strategy that has been mentioned repeatedly is that of peer observation – inviting a colleague or member of leadership into the classroom to observe your lesson and then engage in a professional dialogue about what is happening in your classes.

Considering that as teachers we are constantly observing and assessing our students and their progress, you would think we would be comfortable with this idea. But to me it seems that the evidence suggests otherwise. Teachers often talk about working in a profession that is extremely collaborative, and yet at the same time we spend a lot of time working in isolation. Sure, we meet with our colleagues and discuss curriculum, pedagogy, methodology, behaviour management strategies, etc. Yet once we step into the classroom, it is one of us with up to 30 kids. The thought of another teacher or member of leadership coming into the classroom to watch what we are doing can be a very scary one!

But when you think about it, we’ve all been there before! We were all pre-service teachers once, with a mentor and/or university supervisor giving us constant feedback and expecting improvement. Assessment and constructive (and I stress the importance of constructive) feedback was expected! On the other hand, I have learnt a lot about my students and myself as a teacher from observing pre-service teachers who I have mentored – a fact that surprised them when I told them, and that would not have occurred to me either if the situation was reversed.

Last week a colleague and I were fortunate enough to have four visitors from Sweden and two consultants from Catholic Education SA come into our respective classrooms and observe Reading to Learn lessons that we had prepared and were implementing – my colleague with a Year 8 English class, myself with a Year 8 Italian class. Whilst these people were not there to ‘assess’ us, but were there for their own professional learning experience, the discussion that followed between my colleague, our guests and myself revealed that having them observe our lesson was an equally important to our professional development as it was to them. Through answering their questions, we were able to reflect on our teaching and came up with a number of ideas about how we could improve or adapt the strategies we were using to suit different purposes.

So, I think as a profession there needs to be a psychological shift away from seeing observation as an assessment that we will lose our job over if things don’t go to plan. Instead, there needs to be a culture of trust in schools that ensures educators feel comfortable inviting other educators into their classrooms, with the knowledge that it will provide an opportunity to have a productive dialogue afterwards in which both participants can reflect on what they saw or what they did and learn from each other.

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