The tyranny of observation in language classes

I had my lesson observed today. It was by a colleague I like, who ‘gets’ the way I teach, so it wasn’t particularly nerve-wracking, but there’s still that theatre about it. Do you acknowledge the observer’s presence? Do you explain it to the class? Do you include them in discussions and activities?

In the UK, observations are frequent. Any British Council-accredited language school has to observe each teacher once per academic year, and said teacher has to fill out a detailed lesson plan and post-observation reflection.

This is by far the worst part. All the sample lesson plans include phrases like By the end of the class students will be better equipped at recognising compound verb forms and applying them in writing. They are unflinchingly based in explicit teaching, which as I’ve pointed out before, is a terrible way to teach. It’s shocking how completely detached from the scientific method they are, and how pervasive their dogma is. One time while talking to another teacher at a training I commented on the unproven nature of the audiovisual method, and he said, “Well we can’t really know if anything really works”.

Excuse me? Then why are you running expensive teacher training courses? Why are you trusting in the materials that the British Council, Pearson, and Cambridge spit out year after year? Why are you even teaching?

But that comment made one thing very clear: the dominant paradigm of English language teaching has nothing to do with best practices or fulfilling students’ potential. It’s about pushing a Eurocentric and colonialist model of language where English is a glass palace, full of Byzantine passages that students must navigate with the help of brain-melting grammar guides.

And within this model, observations are not about improving teacher ability, but checking whether they toe the party line. You can do a perfectly good class, where there is rapport with the students, where there is plenty of comprehensible input provided, where both students and teachers are having fun, and be docked for ‘not meeting course objectives’ or ‘having an abundance Teacher Talking Time’.

When it comes down to it, lesson observations sit on a very particular crux: that lessons should be planned. That improvisation, falling outside of planned time frames, adapting to students on the fly, is a bad thing, or at the very least, a fringe method to be briefly touched upon in teacher training courses but ultimately discarded.

I feel the complete opposite. A teacher who cannot improvise a class is not a teacher. They may be an excellent textbook-user and bureaucrat, but they are not a teacher. And given that languages only really require talking and modulating of input to be successful, they are absolutely not a language teacher.

This may sound arrogant, but we have to draw a line in the sand. If we don’t strive to be better ourselves, the TEFL industry, which is rife with lazy gap-year students, manipulative bosses, and weary dead-enders, will remain just as awful as it is. And the British Council, Pearson, Cambridge and the like will maintain their strangehold on what teaching is and what it is supposed to be.

Teaching is not a list of institutionally approved heuristics that can be neatly observed, like a potted plant in a greenhouse. It is a vibrant, adaptive, joyful burst of morning glory.

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