Sunday, 13 December 2009

What to Expect When You are Inspected

parade of fabricated elephants

It was a neat little list of personality adjectives. Hard-working, organised, tidy... They marched like pink elephants on parade, then suddenly... They turned into tiny monsters, which grew, until they turned into big monsters with sharp claws and even sharper teeth. Gluttony, anger, greed... Then they disappeared and instead there was my lesson plan, only I couldn't read it. Everything was a blur and I couldn't see the inspector, but he was there somewhere and he wasn't pleased at all.

Then I woke up.

Then my school was inspected. The personality adjectives behaved themselves, so did my lesson plan, so did my students, and so, hopefully, did I.

I've been in the classroom for 20 years and, as you can guess, this wasn't my first inspection at all. So, why panic?

1. Because it never gets easier. I mean teaching, not being inspected. You never reach those high standards of perfection you set yourself 20 years ago. There are times you feel you are improving every day and there are times you get frustrated and actually feel you are a worse teacher than you were the year before.

2. Because somebody is watching you. Somebody who knows. Your students take everything you do in class for granted - they are usually easy to please (OK, usually, not always). But another teacher - be it an inspector, your DOS, a colleague, or even a novice teacher - they will sit there and take in everything you do or fail to do. I find novice teachers particularly scary. They walk into your classroom looking for ancient wisdom and they still believe that it is possible to reach perfection in class. You can see the disappointment in their face as they realise they are observing yet another imperfect teacher in action.

3. Because you have worked hard and you need someone to acknowledge that. Again, the students won't do. As John Cleese says in that film, they are not qualified. But a colleague is a different story. Getting a compliment from a colleague will do wonders for your self-esteem.

4. Because you yourself will concentrate on what you are doing rather than on your students. This is why most teachers complain that the classes that are observed are not as "good" or as "natural" as their "real" classes. This is true, up to a point. If you let your lesson plan rule the class and completely disregard your students and their needs, then your class will not be good and it will not look good. There are all sorts of things that can force you to adapt or completely abandon your original plan. One of the main problems is that students tend to behave differently when someone is present. Talkative students grow quiet, good students often forget basic things and there is always that student who decides that now's the right time to ask all the difficult questions about grammar and vocabulary. Most of them, however, think that they need to rescue the teacher, so they pretend that they understand even if they don't and start talking in pairs before you told them to (happened to me during the inspection).

The system of class observations is not perfect but the alternative is terrifying. Imagine having to teach for the rest of your life without any feedback from your colleagues. Or, for that matter, without the chance to observe another teacher and learn from them. Learning from each other is the only way we can go forward, towards that ideal of perfection that we had in mind when we were novice teachers.


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