It was November. The door handle turned; heads twisted in the direction of the sound. Ofsted had come to visit, and they were impressed.
As Head of Professional Development, one of my duties is to ‘coach’ lessons in our observation room. It just so happened that, at the time of the last but one inspection, the school was putting on a series of themed ‘demonstration’ lessons in a purpose built observation suite as part of our ongoing CPD. The inspector walked into the observation area, liked what she saw, and stayed the whole hour.
What impressed her so much at the time, and what has remained fundamental to our practice since we built the room in 2004, was the quality of discussion undertaken as staff observed a science lesson. Sitting alongside the classroom, looking through a mirrored window and listening through a sound system, were 14 staff who hadn’t had to take a day out of school to attend a course, who could cross reference ideas about good practice, who could ask questions, offer support and suggestions to one another, who could relate the lesson to their own CPD needs and who could speak to a coach about the lesson – all without disturbing or influencing the class being observed.
The role of the coach has always been central to our observations in ‘the room’. Prior to the lesson, a coach meets with the teacher to discuss their plan and intentions for the lesson, any anticipated problems, how the teacher will try to overcome them, how the lesson relates to the children’s ongoing learning – in short, the coach can act as the mouthpiece of the teacher while the group observes.
One of the original purposes of our observation room was to ensure, through our coaching model, that staff could reliably identify features of a lesson that made it effective, and so work on incorporating some of these elements into their own work. Coaches, who are members of our Professional Development Department, are all teachers with a strong track record of successful classroom practice and who are reflective and critical practitioners. They are able to point out little moments in a lesson where a teacher’s decision-making has made a difference, where a choice about grouping, resources or order of presentation has enabled a ‘light-bulb’ moment for pupils.
Lessons are arranged and titled according to themes, for example, teaching challenging classes, stretching pupils of all abilities. Sometimes these themes are devised to address whole school issues, for example, literacy, or sometimes to enable staff to improve a particular area of their work as identified by their own line managers.
Observation room themes are linked to wider CPD themes that run through the year, on twilight evenings or whole-school INSET days. The observation room, though, is strictly a developmental tool, not used for lesson judgement or performance management. Any teacher can choose to take a class into the observation room, perhaps having asked a peer to observe a particular aspect of their work. These lessons do not have to be reported on to ‘superiors’ or managers. Similarly, departments can choose to plan jointly and watch the delivery of a lesson, allowing them to work on subject development priorities. No teacher ever HAS to teach in our observation room. And saying ‘no’ if you are asked to is not looked upon negatively.
I have taught in the observation room many times and have probably been observed by well over half the staff in our school. Prior to each lesson, I’m a little nervous, though this soon fades away once the lesson is underway. I forget I’m being observed, and so do the children. I get caught up in my delivery, my interactions with the class, my questions, and theirs. The children themselves, many of whom work with us repeatedly in the observation room, also soon get into the swing of a typical lesson. Observers are often amused to see boys and girls glance into the mirror to check their ties, or swish their hair!
Ours is a school where staff – and pupils – talk frequently and openly about the processes of teaching and learning. We offer several phases of demonstration lessons a year, some of these directed to teachers of a particular career stage, many to staff in general. Cover is arranged if teachers need to be released for professional development using the observation room. Used supportively, developmentally, an observation room is an excellent CPD resource – ours has been in regular use for almost ten years and has been a model other schools have followed.