Teachers’ Professional Development through Peer Observation
in English Language Classrooms
Teacher’s professional development is a process that makes one aware of what he or she is doing regarding teaching learning and classroom activities.It is a procedure through which teachers bring change and growth (Head & Taylor, 1970) in relation to new experiences, new challenges and new responsibilities. There are various methods for promoting teacher professional development that are of equal importance, and among them, one of the tools to enhance teacherpersonality, quality and strategies is peer observation. It is an approach through which teachers exchange their experiences, their views on teaching, their teaching methods and techniques to help each other grow and develop.
Why Peer Observation in English classroom
In today’s world the scope of English language is increasing, and teaching and learning English has become not only the part of language acquisition but also part of self-development. An English language teacher is expected to perform best with the help the knowledge he/she has acquired through academia or various teachers trainings and workshops. A teacher should persistently focus on the teaching methodology, making appropriate plans, observing what is going on and reflecting on his or her teaching behaviors. For this, she needs to embrace new techniques, methodologies, and ideas, and keep up with the changes in the field of education. As Richards(2009) has stated, “There are pressures from within the language teaching field, as the profession continually reinvents itself through the impact of new ideas, new educational philosophies, and new research paradigms, and teachers are expected to keep up with the changes.”
In this way, the English language teacher can help maintain andimprove standards not only of the students but also his or her own. Unless the teacher develops his or her standards of teaching, the students’ development is taken for granted. Thus, for the professional development of teachers and for the enhancement of teaching quality, the implementation of various methodologies needs to take place and among them, one is peer observation.
Significance of Professional Development
Teachers attend various trainings, workshops, meetings, conferences, in-service trainings, read journals, and increase their qualification in order to get new ideas regarding teaching learning pedagogy. However, when they find that these trainings and new ideas are not adoptable or transferrable in the traditional pattern of teaching learning pedagogy, with frustration, many of the teachers leave their profession. Diaz-Maggioli (2003) is of the opinion that this stage is the stage of “diversification”– teachers begin to question their effectiveness when some of the students fail to learn, and many teachers leave the profession as a result (p. 8).
Thus, teachers ought to be provided with such teacher education that helps them to be highly qualified teachers: knowledgeable, effective leaders, innovative, action-oriented role models in classrooms, schools, districts and communities throughout the world (Mohan,2011, p.11).Now, teacher education has moved beyond simple in-service workshops and has expanded into a more robust system of a continuous process of learning by teachers, gaining new knowledge and experiences, achieving integrity of personality, accepting challenges and eliminating the blockade between them and their students. So, for me, professional development stands forkeeping myself on the same side of the learning fence as my students. This is the only way that I can keep alive a sense of challenge and adventure in my career, and avoid getting in a rut. If I am in a rut, then so is my teaching and then so are my students, and learning from a rut is “tedious, slow and uninspiring” (Underhill as cited in Head & Taylor,1997, p.7).
While teaching, teachers need to assess how well they are doing and what other changes need to be made regarding their teaching, as that process helps them in their personal and professional development, done through self- reflection, self-assessment, planning action, peer observation and many other methods. As Head & Taylor (1997) have suggested sixteen different ways for creating opportunities out of which one is peer observation, I am focusing on ‘peer observation’ as an excellent method to assure teachers of personal and professional development in the long run.
Objectives of Peer Observation
Peer observation is the process of colleagues observing others in their teaching, with the overall aim of improving teaching practice (Hendry & Oliver, 2012). This is set up as a good strategy for teachers to learn different teaching approaches. It is applied to develop professional skills. The teachers improve themselves or develop their professionalism by visiting each other’s classrooms. They learn from their peer’s classroom and provide feedback for better teaching learning processes. Similarly, Diaz-Maggioli (2004) has defined it as “a confidential process through which teachers share their expertise and provide one another with feedback, support, and assistance for the purpose of refining present skills, learning new skills and solving classroom-related problems”.
Peer observation by fellow teachers is one of the teaching approaches to help improve instructional quality. It is a method where there is a construction of co-operation and support between or among teachers that enables them to promote their professional development. According to Fanselow (1988), by seeing teaching differently, teacher-learners can “construct andreconstruct, and revise their own teaching” (Fanselow, 1988as cited in Burns & Richards, 2011). It is an innovative practice through which teachers reflect on their teaching experiences as a mechanism to bring change in their practice. It is implementedin schools to help maintain and improve teaching standards by spreading good practices, exchanging views, ideas and uniqueness of one’s own teaching practice, and providing opportunities for other teachers to learn about new or different teaching approaches and solve problems regarding their classroom teaching as well.
Peer Observation and Collaboration
Peer observation brings opportunities to bring teachers together who might not have a chance to interact and share ideas or expertise, and to discuss problems and concerns as well. Thus, peer observation helps teachers to work collaboratively on teaching practices, providing feedback and developing self-awareness, and helps them develop autonomy concerning effective teaching decisions. It leads to the teachers’ professional growth through reflection and self-evaluation. Such collaborative options attempt “to induce internal and open-ended changes in the teacher’s reasoning and in their decision making processes” (Arsene, 2010).
Peer observation is a non-evaluative system to observe, emphasizing a shift from the supervisor or coordinator to the individual teacher, and there is careful collaboration between teachers as to who is going to be the observer and observee. Kallioinen (2011) also believes that some of the crucial elements in making tacit knowledge explicit are the collaboration between teachers, the development of openness and trust, as well as collaborative knowledge building in equal interaction. If the work environment’s atmosphere is not conducive to openness and trust, it is very likely that most tacit knowledge will remain unidentified and invisible.
Collaboration is conducted with co-planned lessons with co-teachers and students as well, whereteachers learn strategies to tackle difficulties that can occur in the classroom. The teachers do not feel hesitant and are open with each other about their problems and solutions as it is non-evaluative system. Gnawali (2001) clarifies what collaboration is, stating that by sharing experiences and having dialogues with other teachers about their own classroom events, teachers can find solutions to their classroom problems more easily and more quickly than working by themselves; sharing can at least relieve tension and give a sense of comfort.
Karn (2007) elucidates that discussions with colleagues can add a lot to one’s professional development as well as heighten morale. The teacher, who wishes to find a solution to a teaching problem, might speak in confidence about a failure, and get an idea as to how to teach a language item effectively.
In this method of professional development, teachers observe each other’s classes as an observer and an observee. During this procedure, both the observer and the observee reflect on what they have perceived from each other’s teaching practices. The peer observation method encourages self-reflective practice, which helps to generate new teaching ideas and strategies; these new, “applied” strategies have a direct link to professional development.The reflective process and its underlying elements as they pertain to second language education appear to be most beneficial in view of teachers’ developmental purposes (Arsene, 2010). Thus, peer observation necessarily involves self-reflection so that teachers could arrive at a better understanding of their own teaching practices.
Traditional vs Contemporary
The traditional teacher education process also applies peer observation as a method. Previously the mentor or the administrators used to observe the teachers’ classroom practices; this approach is still used in many schools up until now. These people usually sit at the back of the classroom just to observe the teachers, to measure teaching performance and to point out the teachers’ shortcomings. For such observation, Foucault (1979) has argued that such a tool then adds to the repertoire of those in authority, where individuals may be subjected to the hegemony of a ‘disciplinary society’ and its normalizing judgments (Foucault, 1979 as cited in Byrne, Brown & Challen, 2000). After the class is over, the teachers are given feedback, but most of the time, observation is done for the sake of keeping records about the teachers. In such kinds of observation there is always a power differential between the authority and the teacher.
Most teachers do not consent to traditional observation procedures because they feel anxious while being observed and experience it as a nightmare. The method is prescriptive and the focus is on the checklist through which a teacher is judged. There is a difference in position between the one who is observed and the observer making the comments and giving suggestions on the lesson observed. Since there are obvious underlying assumptions about how classes should be conducted and what an efficient teacher is like, this type of approach is perceived as heavily prescriptive (Arsene, 2010).
In contrast, in contemporary peer observation methods, teachers work collaboratively in order to observe each other’s classes, where there would not be any power relationship; rather, all the teachers are empowered to share their experiences on teaching learning, their teaching strategies, new techniques and best practices. The teachers reflect on their teaching as a self-awareness procedure and support each other by providing valuable feedback to learn about the strengths and weaknesses, and how to improve on those flaws. According to Gnawali (2001), providing feedback to the peer is very important because this is the period when teachers come to know more about their teaching style, identifying their own strengths and weaknesses, and thereby learn how to perform better. For novice teachers, peer observation provides an opportunity to see what experienced teachers do and how they do it when they teach a lesson.
Stages in Peer Observation
To implement peer observations, it is said that the teachers have to go through three stages, which are pre-observation, observation, and post-observation. In pre-observation the teachers describe the class and the aim of the lesson, providing the general picture of what is going to happen in the classroom; the focus is usually on classroom procedures. Post-observation is conducted immediately after the observation so that the details of the procedure can be easily remembered. Peers encourage self-reflection on the lesson and the practices they noticed in the classroom via supportive and productive feedback, given immediately afterwards for the development of the teacher’s self-efficacy. The encouragement to apply peer observation and self-reflection tothe teachers is always persuasive in that it leads them to the betterment of themselves and their learners. When a person is verbally persuaded that they can master something, their self-efficacy is strengthened (Hendry & Oliver, 2012).
In the Nepalese Context
As a tool to enhance the teaching skills and develop teaching professionalism, peer-observation is used by only very few Nepalese schools. Today, many teachers are still provided with traditional teacher trainings which comprise a top-down approach and which usually occur as a one-off that does not consider teachers’ ongoing professional development. These types of trainings, though numerously provided, are non-transferrableto the classroom, so are useful neitherfor teachers nor for students. However, some of the schools have focused on professional development of teachers to improve teaching learning, and employed various methods, such as peer observation.
My own experience also forces me to recall those days when we teachers were told to observe each other’s classrooms. Though advisable, we were not ready for this method because we were not given any direction and guidelines concerning peer observation and were not given details about the procedure. We went to each other’s class as if it were just to evaluate a peer teacher for his/her teaching and as a result, students made fun of the teachers being observed as soon as the class was over. This negative effect of peer observation was due to improper plan of the school. The teachers were not given any training on observation and providing useful feedback and as a result the program came to an end. Thus, before employing peer observation, schools need to provide adequate trainings on observation and giving supportive feedback to the teachers. A timetable should be set for the teachers to provide enough time for pre-observation, class observation and post observation because all these stages are equally important. It should be non-evaluative, so that teachers would not feel anxious while being observed. Hence,developing adequate trainings, disseminating proper strategies and guidelines, keeping record of the observations, and guiding productive discussions among teachers to generate genuine reflection and supportive feedback would help this method be successful, and thereby have a direct effect on teacher’s professional development.
For enhancing personal and professional development, peer observation has turned out to be a golden tool that provides support, not only in serving the professional development of the teachers, but also in assisting the development of teaching skills through formative and constructive feedback.
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(*Sangeeta Joshi is currently pursuing her MPhil in English Language Education (ELE) at Kathmandu University. She is a teaching faculty at prestigious private colleges in Kathmandu namely, Uniglobe College and Kathmandu Model College.)