Carnegie Education

Planning for observation of novice teachers

CollectivED Fellow Henry Sauntson, tells us how important it is for mentors to remember their trainees are not yet fully fledged teachers and they need to support them in many different ways. 


Student teacher in a classroom

"One of the key roles of the mentor in the development of the novice teacher is that of observation of their practice. For many trainees on an ITE route this will happen every lesson – the mentor or classroom teacher is observing, taking notes, offering advice and feedback after the students leave. However, the mentors themselves need to be able to conduct this process without it becoming one that instils fear and leads to a perpetuation of the ‘show lesson’ ideology

Given how busy mentors are it is perhaps inevitable that many mentors use their knowledge of teaching rather than developing a knowledge of adult leaning and mentoring. This can lead to them judging trainees’ lessons as if they are already fully fledged teachers. In order to counter this both school-centred and university ITE providers need to recognise that there is no more important aspect than supporting mentors to observe trainees appropriately. 

In designing our SCITT (School Centred Initial Teacher Training) programme of support and professional learning I was rightly accused of having the ‘Curse of Knowledge’ – loading too much information and research into the model to make it unwieldy. Stripping it back I have looked at Hobson & Malderez’s work and taken their five core aspects of a mentor – educator, model, acculturator, sponsor and psychological supporter. For observation and feedback the mentor needs to embrace all of these and balance them appropriately. This starts with the very purpose of the observation itself – what is it there to achieve? 

For those in ITE, being observed is part and parcel of the course, but how does it enhance the development of a teacher? Mentors must not start the relationship badly by placing too much onus on it from the outset; they must foster the positive outcomes that can arise from feedback given wisely, contextually and sympathetically - all mentors need to beware the curse of knowledge and understand what it is like to learn to do something for the first time; novices need support, modelling and scaffolds. Observation must be a formative force for good – the evidence elicited from the observation must be used to give positive and development points of action to further improve practice.

Mentors have subject knowledge and they have experience. However, this experience can manifest itself in that curse of knowledge– they forget what it is like to find something hard. This is where a more tailored, focused approach to mentor observation can be beneficial, and is one we are looking to promote. 

Mentors might be in every lesson and watching every lesson unfold, but they don’t have to be ‘observing’ it – the semantics come into play here but to ‘look’ and to ‘see’ are very different. We encourage trainee teachers to go to lessons with a clear focus of what to ‘look for’ in order to ‘see’ something of benefit; holistic, whole-standard lesson observations – either of a novice or by a novice of an expert – simply don’t work. Too much information that is too disparate, too transient, and, perhaps most debilitating, a lot of what happens in a lesson is context-specific and responsive – it is non-iterative, non-repetitive and, in the case of a novice observing an expert, non-replicable without the developed schema of the expert to underpin the reason for the action. 

We must instil to mentors and trainees the belief that context is essential to good observation; context includes taking into account relative experience levels of those involved. Wragg (1999) placed observations in context and places importance on the mentor/trainee relationship, underpinned by ‘trust’ and ‘respect’; the trainee knows they will be observed so in an equitable mentor/trainee relationship the observation becomes part of the development; part of the feedback, not the precursor to it. 

So, a model must be formed, and a model that is adaptive to circumstance (such as COVID protocols and distancing). Here’s an example:
1. Agree the purpose and focus of the observation prior to it taking place; do not necessarily plan for the observation to be the entire lesson – centre it around the focus, linked to targets. However, don’t place pressure on trainees to exemplify one particular skill at the detriment of others that are just forming; let the lesson flow. Focus on the ‘how’, even if the ‘what’ needs discussion first; enable improvement through focus and evidence, not a list of Teacher Standard ticks and crosses. 
2. Model what success might look like; discuss examples and non-examples; give the benefit of your experience
3. ‘Observe’ until the focus for the observation has passed; before or after that simply be ‘there’ – no note-taking, no typing – be in the room as support
4. In post-lesson feedback, use the language of the Early Career Framework – ‘learn that’ and ‘learn how to by’ to enable reflection both ‘in’ and ‘on’ the lesson ensure that trainees can learn to be responsive and proactive (Schon, 1983); they can act immediately and they can think about what needs to change next time – create an action and a series of steps in the style of intent and implementation - promote reflection rather than defensiveness
5. Give immediate chance to practice; ITT trainees may well be observed that afternoon, so make feedback immediate and response swift – back on the bike!

There has to be a thread; mentors mustn’t give feedback on one thing, set a target unrelated and then look for other unrelated aspects next time – we must our plan observation of an ITT as a cumulative process aligned to the curriculum being followed by the trainee’s provider and then underpin this with your own expertise and evaluation. We know that there are things that can be observed and things that happen behind the scenes; everything contributes to the sensible, accurate development profile of the trainee teacher.

The role of the mentor here is to support the curriculum of learning being followed by the trainee, so they need to be fully involved in not only its design but also clearly aware of its rationale; they become a key aspect of the implementation and therefore the impact. Mentors need to know how and why trainees are assessed, what training they are being given and what theory is the foundation for their development; if learning science is not a key factor, let’s say, then overloading learning science behind practical application at the wrong time can be detrimental. Yes, it gives the action a background but it might lead to too much thinking when perhaps action is more important. This is where teaching the art of focused, reflection and formative discussion will be more valuable; framing feedback around evidence of practice and enabling evaluation."

Hobson, AJ. and Malderez, A. (2013),"Judgementoring and other threats to realizing the potential of school-based mentoring in teacher education", International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, Vol. 2 [ 2] 
Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner. Temple Smith, London.
Wragg, T (1999); An Introduction to Classroom Observation; Routledge

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