Surviving Lesson Observations: A Veteran’s Guide
By Liam Carrigan
On December 3, 2015
For public school teachers across Japan, November marks just over the halfway point of the school year. By now, if you started in a new school in April, you should have got your feet under the table and finally found your rhythm in the classroom. Likewise, if you’ve already been in your current school for more than a year, then a further 6 months teaching and cultural experience under your belt certainly won’t do you any harm.
It is for this reason that many city boards of education and the proxy recruitment agencies that they work for choose the run up to the Christmas period to conduct those dreaded lesson observations. Depending on the nature of your employment (direct hire, contract or dispatch worker) the observation could be a simple opportunity for input from your bosses, or it could play a critical role in deciding if you are offered a new contract the following year or not.
With this in mind, many teachers, myself included often feel very uptight and stressed out when this time of year comes round. However, as someone who has been a teacher for several years, I’ve been through this process many times already, so today I hope I can offer some guidance to those of you about to have an observation.
Please remember that each school and each company you may work for is different, what I offer today is just some general advice based on individual experience and also general emergent trends I have observed from discussions with colleagues and other teachers.
Don’t do anything radically different from your normal lessons.
When the boss pays a visit, it is natural, in most lines of work, to want to put on a show as it were. In the context of a lesson observation, this is not a good idea, for a number of reasons. Firstly, your communication and coordination with your Japanese teaching partner, be they the Japanese Teacher of English at Junior High School or the Homeroom Teacher at elementary, is one of the key indicators on which your performance is likely to be assessed.
If you go off and do something that is a complete departure from the established norms then this is liable to alienate them and as such it will reflect badly on you. Also, in most cases, your manager will meet with the Vice Principal and/or Principal of your school after the observation. They are likely to discuss much more than just your performance on that one day, so please bear that in mind too.
Don’t worry if one of your “bad classes” is being observed
Most teachers will tell you that they have good and bad classes, and that, as such, some schools are more fun to teach at than others. Without any established context, it would seem that having one of your “bad classes” observed could reflect badly on you as a teacher.
Provided you work for a competent agency or Board of Education, this shouldn’t be an issue. The Board of Education will be well aware of the challenges of each school and hopefully your agency will also have been briefed on such issues. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to further outline your own concerns about the class during the post-observation feedback session.
Listen to advice, but don’t be afraid to do your own thing.
As anyone who has an appreciation for debate, education and personal advancement will tell you, no individual has a monopoly on good ideas. For that reason alone, it is always worthwhile to hear some external critique on your teaching style from an outside source.
However, do not by any means feel beholden to what they tell you. I recall when I worked for an agency prior to my current direct hire role, the person from the company who observed my lesson and offered comments and advice was not only younger than me, but also had no actual ALT teaching experience.
Likewise, for the first year of my work with a city Board of Education in Okayama prefecture a few years ago, the manager there had no experience of teaching in those schools in their present state, having been based exclusively at city hall for several years. As always, listen, be respectful but don’t feel compelled to follow advice that you disagree with. Teaching requires wisdom and we all acquire such wisdom in different ways.
Above all, stay calm
Teaching always has its ups and downs. It’s no exaggeration to say that this week has been one such week for me. On Monday, one particularly undisciplined class almost had me ready to walk out, yet by Thursday, as I type this article, a succession of enjoyable and energetic elementary school classes has helped me recapture the teaching bug and reminded me once again of why I love what I do so much.
Things sometimes go to plan and sometimes they don’t, but whatever happens during your observation lesson, keeping a cool head under pressure is something your boss cannot fail to admire.
The observation is a nerve-wracking experience, however, no sooner does it appear on your schedule than it’s done and dusted for another year. Good luck to all of you being observed over the next few months, though I’m sure you probably won’t need it.