Observing a Real Lesson

There has been plenty of debate in English Language Teaching about the value of observations. Some of the key questions that have come out of the discussion so far have been:correcting-1351629_1280

  • Is the purpose of an observation to develop teachers or check standards?
  • Does a good observer need a plan to understand what is going on in the lesson?
  • Why do schools require written formal plans when this doesn’t happen on a day-to-day basis?

In this episode of The TEFL Show Marek Kiczkowiak and myself got into an extended debate on the subject of preparation, planning and formal observations. In the show, I emphasised how I had always had observations which were focussed entirely on Professional Development and resulted in professional development goals. I also pointed out that I saw the value of formal written lesson plans mainly because this gave the observer a greater deal of insight into the planned intentions of the teacher, which can later be compared with what actually happened during the lesson.

However, this week I had the opportunity to be observed by the Assistant Programme Manager who was quite happy to see a real lesson i.e. no formal written plan, no pre-meeting going over the stages, aims and intended outcomes, just simply watch and observe the lesson.

It has been quite an experience and has made me question how observations are currently executed. Keep reading to find out more…


Before coming into the classroom, most observers will usually want three things from the teacher:

  1. Aims of the lesson and any Professional Development goals
  2. Lesson plan or at least a run-through of the stages
  3. Overview of the learners

As to be expected, during this Pre-Observation meeting I was asked for my aims and goals as well as a plan, albeit a basic one, but not much was asked about in terms of the learners. However, I hadn’t had the chance to prepare, as I had been busy with other things. As a result, I didn’t really have any aims, though I had an idea of what I wanted to do, and I certainly didn’t have any lesson plan.

Rather than this being a problem, as I technically hadn’t done my paperwork, so to speak, I just simply asked the observer if they’d like to see a show or a real lesson.

A real lesson

So often you hear observers, Teacher Trainers and Directors of Studies say that they want to see what really happens in the classroom. However, given that they always ask for formal lesson plans a day or sometimes several days in advance, how could they ever see what really happens in the classroom? I don’t know about you, but I rarely write out a sequence of stages, let alone a plan. And I certainly don’t plan two or three days in advance.

Instead, what I prefer to do is to focus on the exercises the learners will be doing, as this gives me better greater insight into the steps they will go through when completing the tasks. By doing the exercises myself, I have a more informed expectation of the lesson procedure and outcomes.

As you can probably imagine, the observer relished in the delight of the possibility of seeing a real lesson and not some pre-planned show. So, they naturally agreed and as part of this they accepted they had to forgo the lesson plan.

The lesson

Although the observer had an idea of what I wanted to do in the lesson, when they entered the room at the given time, the lesson had gone in a totally different direction to what had been briefly discussed the day before. Expecting a language systems focused lesson, they got a skills lesson, specifically reading skills.

While that may sound somewhat disorganized, it stemmed from the fact that at the beginning of the lesson the learners had several language-related questions, which naturally led on to us doing the language first and then moving onto the skills later.

Situations like this, where the learners set the scene or focus of the lesson, are not uncommon. In fact, I believe this happens in the vast majority of language classrooms. Why would a teacher snub the learners’ genuine interest in a topic for the sake of sticking to the lesson plan?

This, however, is something observers don’t get to see often, but this observation was a rare opportunity for the observer to see such deviation in action.

The outcome

After the lesson, we had a feedback session. The observer identified areas they liked about the lesson and my teaching, but overall they found more areas to work on. These included things such as:

  • Adapting materials
  • Lesson focus
  • Timing

What really surprised me about the feedback session was that I didn’t feel hard done by or irritated by the remarks. In fact, I was really impressed by what was being said and I could really relate to the suggestions being made. So much so, that once the meeting was over, I immediately began work on the action points.

Why was that? Why was it I walked away from this observation feeling highly motivated and inspired to work on my teaching, even though this had been a fairly unimpressive lesson?

I think the reason is because the observer had seen what I’m really like in the classroom. Their comments therefore related directly to what I really do – not only in that lesson but in most of my lessons.

Unlike in other observations, where the observer comments on the pre-planned show, full of materials, stages and activities which I would never normally do in a lesson, this time the observer got to comment on the real me, the real teacher, in a real lesson.

22 thoughts on “Observing a Real Lesson

  1. I completely agree with this. Formal observed lessons are such a “show” and I agree that they don’t show the real teacher in his/her everyday teaching element. Of course, we should all be able to write a good lesson plan and meet teaching standards, but ultimately we’ll develop the most as teachers if we get real feedback on our real teaching. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And it took me this long to figure that out 🙂 I’m glad I did in the end, though. I hope my future observations will be just as useful. Thank you for reading and sharing – much appreciated!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Now I am going to go out on a limb here and say that when I do observations with my YL teachers, I look at the lesson plan after the lesson. I agree that teachers need to be able to write up lesson plans for school inspections with the British Council or with ISI but writing up lesson plans for colleagues is a bit much to be honest.

    When my YL teachers have written a lesson plan, I don’t read it to begin with and I go into the lesson without any preconceptions or opinions about what is going to happen in the lesson. I don’t want it to cloud my judgement and the majority of lessons that I go into to watch (I prefer not to use the term observe) are of very high quality. I basically tell teachers what is expected from school inspections with the British Council and ISI. After speaking to teachers about what was good or what needs improving with their teaching, we read through the lesson plan and then I start to talk about what needs to be improved (usually aims or objectives of the lesson and why they planned what they wanted to do).

    I tell teachers that I just want to observe teachers as they naturally are in the classroom and I am also happy to do the same for teachers. I had a senior teacher do a peer observation … (whoops! I mean watch me!) and she gave me some real good feedback at how to improve my teaching techniques and staging of my pronunciation lesson. I think that observers (I mean watchers!) of lessons should enter the classroom without any expectation and just see the lesson for itself.

    Now I leave you a question about lesson planning for Dogme ELT (jungle path) teaching: When is the best time to write a lesson plan when pursuing a Dogme ELT style lesson and you are going to be observed? Before or after the lesson?


    1. Hi Martin! I’m glad to read you like seeing real lessons and prefer to use the verb “watch” or “see” rather than “observe”. I don’t mind the term observation, as that is what the person is doing, but I appreciate the negative connotations associated with it.

      As for the Dogme lesson, while its an interesting question, doesn’t the notion of a pre-prepared plan fly in the face of the principles of Teaching Unplugged? While I think there is a lot of discussion around the role of planning and aims in Dogme, I’d assume that if there is any such thought or documentation, it would appear post lesson, in accordance with the principles of post-planning outlined in section A of Thornbury and Meddings book


  3. Good post. I think lesson plans are useful at certain stages of a teacher’s development. In Celta courses and at the very start of a teacher’s career the process of writing one can help focus teachers on areas they’d otherwise miss. It can help consolidate the procedures or language analysis in the teacher’s head. However, for teachers further into their career the process can be a case of just writing up the lesson without rethinking it a great deal. In this case it’s a chore.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice. I hope one day I meet an observer willing to see a real lesson. I’m going to do a pre-sessional this summer again for six weeks, and I already know I’ll be observed for quality control (even though it’s the third summer in a row they’re employing me – surely, I would have got fired a long time ago if my teaching wasn’t up to standard). And I’m already frustrated that I’ll have to write a long formal lesson plan and get hardly any PD out of it.
    Why don’t more observers agree to watch real lessons? It would mean less work for them too. For example, no need to read the lesson plan.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I mean, it wasn’t offered to me – I had to put the idea in their head and use the whole “we want to see what really happens” notion that trainers and managers so often spur out yet never really execute to my advantage and ask for it. So you might have to do the same.

      Also, the plan is just one observation here but after getting feedback and working on the action points I was like “so are you coming in again next week or the week after to see how nice gotten on?” Which wasn’t in the plan but I just pretty much demanded it. Again, you might have to do the same 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I wouldn’t be stressed or frustrated about the fact you’re going to be observed. Of course they’re going to observe you: you may have become a bad teacher since last year or 3 years ago. After living in Belgium your level of English might have dropped. Because of the NEST-NonNEST debate you might have been totally disenfranchised with the industry and given up. There’s lot of things which could affect your teaching, and I think they want/need to come in and see you’re doing the job as well as they want. In your case of course the answer is going to be yes 🙂

      However, they could at least drop the plan for you and other returners. They know you can plan. Maybe they could argue they want to make sure you haven’t lost this skill, but I think it’s secondary to teaching.


  5. I want to do some observations but I basically have no way to do it and I’d only see show lessons. Glad it went well for you.


    1. You mean you want to go in as the observer? Are you in a position to just drop in to a lesson? That way you’d see more of what was real, not a show.

      When I worked at IH Newcastle the DoS used to do drop in observations every month as part of the teachers’ formal CPD. It was great, as you had no idea when they were going to come in and they’d see the real deal! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I can’t do drop-ins because I need someone to cover my class. Because of that, it might not even happen, but I’d love to see one.


          1. Do you think it would be the same if it were the same person doing every drop in, who had been involved in conversations with the teacher about his/her development (and even had their own open door policy) would it be better? In other words, what if it were someone the teacher had ongoing discussions with about development?


            1. Yes, I do. I think just like with our learners, who we guide throughout the year, teachers should also be guided by the same trainer, or at least a main trainer – that way not only is the trainer fully aware of what the teacher is working on professionally, but they can also work with the teacher regularly, more often, and on bite-size chunks of development 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Totally agree. I think, more than the type of observation, it’s the relationship with the observer that matters. A relationship which needs to be based on frequent discussion and observation-feedback. More like a development coach than a skills assessor. Needs time investment, not to mention interest, and not all observers want to make that investment unfortunately.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. One problem in the network of schools I’ve worked in over the years is that the DoS has had a high sense of self-importance and a need to be the person of power in the school. As such, they’ve very really delegated training and observations. So much so that even as an ADoS I did two observations in a whole academic year, as the DoS felt they ought to oversee the development of all the teachers in the school. Yet, giving teachers that one to one development, regular input and observations isn’t possible if you’re overseeing a team of 15 teachers. That’s why I think DoS’s need to delegate more, but I think most of them don’t see that as necessary.

                  Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the post, Anthony – Very good material for discussion, indeed.

        But drop in observations? For real? I am sorry but I think drop in observations is a cruel means of monitoring and assessing teachers’ performance; I certainly do not see the PD value of this and I certainly would not accept anyone to come to my class without letting me know beforehand.

        In regards to lesson planning, is it possible that you’re talking having your background in mind? What I mean is that given your training and educational background, I am sure that the minute you see a coursebook page, you instinctively design a lesson plan in your head which is of course not set in stone but has different alternative options ready to be used according you your learners needs.

        For someone, though, without your training and experience, a lesson plan can be instrumental during an observation. How many times have we observed great teachers who deliver poorly designed lessons? How many times have we observed very well planned lessons being delivered unsuccessfully? The lesson plan is the only means the observer has to identify the observee’s weakness and help them improve.

        To make observations ‘real’, I think we have to have observers who focus on learners rather than teachers.


        1. Yes that’s right, I meant me and my background – not some teacher in their first year or something – this was just about me and my abilities and situation 🙂

          I honestly don’t mind someone dropping into the lesson. I appreciate some others won’t like that – I guess the suddenness or spontaneity of it might be a lot of pressure. Most teachers I’ve spoken to though don’t mind it. But they’re also in a similar development phase as me.

          Yes, observers should focus on learners and what they’re doing. I think that’s a long way off for a lot of ELT managers out there at the moment though, too many focus on teachers.


          1. Sure, I wouldn’t mind someone dropping in for observations (I have been observed so often that I don’t really care about having observers in my room). Inexperienced teachers, though need to know beforehand. And, most importantly, learners HAVE TO know that they will be observed, don’t you think? What about the stress they go through when having an observer in class?


            1. But you just said a moment ago you “wouldn’t accept” anyone coming into your class without prior notice…

              I haven’t put much thought into how learners feel with an extra person in the room. I’d hazard an educated guess that many like knowing there is some quality control of what’s going on in lessons. But the emotional reactions of learners to lesson observations is something I haven’t thought about much before but it sounds interesting and something I should definitely look into. Maybe there’s some writing out there on it already 🙂


              1. Sure, ‘don’t mind’ does not necessarily mean that I would accept it. I don’t accept it because I think there is no value in drop-in observations plus, I think it is not ok for the learners. That’s why I wouldn’t accept it.


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