Introducing peer observation to primary school staff

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very impressive and thought provoking, we are planning to implement "Peer Observations" of teaching ...

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The introduction of a peer observation programme at Anton Junior School has led to a much stronger focus on pedagogy, improvements in teaching and learning, and has been embraced by staff. Headteacher Tom Donohoe looks at how this has been achieved

Having never had the opportunity to formally observe the practice of colleagues during my own teaching career, I was keen that as a headteacher I provided this opportunity for teachers in my school.

That said, it has taken me nearly 10 years to achieve this. In the course of this article I will briefly outline the process that we have successfully used here at Anton Junior for the last two years, explain what I consider to be the benefits of peer observation, as well as describing the impact it has had on individual teachers, as well as the school more generally.

Having admitted that it was always an intention to develop a process of peer observation at Anton, it would be justifiable to ask why it took so long for me to implement it.

My answer to this is quite simple: readiness. I was determined that the process would have rigour and accountability and for that to occur I only felt that the staff were ready relatively recently. I wanted there to be genuine trust, integrity and real mutual respect based on professional confidence between all members of staff.

It is only in the last few years that I have felt this was the case. The school has had a relatively high turnover of staff in the decade that I have been headteacher, but in the last couple of years we have had more stability and the excellent staff that we have recruited are now well-established and there is a high level of confidence between “old and new” teachers.



What is peer observation of teaching?

It may be useful to consider the following definition: “Peer observation of teaching for development purposes is a collaborative and reciprocal process whereby one peer observes another’s teaching and provides supportive and constructive feedback. The underlying rationale is to encourage (continued) professional development in teaching and learning through critical reflection, by both observer and observee.” Lublin, 2002.



What are the aims of peer observation?

If I were asked to summarise what I was hoping we would achieve, I would start with the following mission statement: “To offer the opportunity for teachers to have quality time for focused reflection on teaching and learning.”

This though, can be broken down further to identify the other aims of enabling teachers to observe each other:
• To raise the profile of teaching and learning in the school and recognise and identify the good practice of our colleagues.
• To provide opportunities for teachers to engage in high quality, professional discussion about teaching and learning.
• To offer a learning opportunity for the observer as well as the observee, providing a mutually beneficial experience.
• To maintain and enhance the quality of teaching and learning and therefore improve the learning experiences for pupils.
• To enable teachers to identify the professional development needs of both themselves and their colleagues.
• To further develop the sense of collaboration and enhanced trust by allowing colleagues to observe and comment upon each other’s teaching.



How did we secure staff buy-in?

We were clear that the focus of our peer observation should be developmental rather than judgemental and with that in mind we wanted to use coaching as the main vehicle in the process.

My deputy and I participated in a coaching course run by the local authority. From the outset, we made it clear that we wanted to use coaching as the basis for a rigorous programme of peer observation so that teachers had the confidence to question each other and hold each other to account.

Following the completion of this course, we used the following academic year to trial coaching as a strategy for improving teaching and learning with two teachers who had expressed an interest in being involved.

My deputy led this and I observed. It quickly became apparent how powerful coaching could be, if used skilfully. As well as convincing me about the potential impact a coaching approach could have, it also meant we had established some advocates on the staff team who were happy to share their positive experiences.

During and towards the end of this pilot year, we fed back to staff so that they were all kept informed about the process and, more importantly, the impact it was having on teaching and learning.

I was clear that I wanted teachers to want to be involved. To that end, I gave them the option to opt in or out of the process of peer observation that was going school-wide the following year.

I was able to do this as I was fairly confident that all teachers at Anton would want to be involved; and indeed they were. We then spent a good deal of time at staff meetings and INSET days training the teachers how to coach.

We had countless “mock” lessons that we observed on video and then coached each other on. Fairly swiftly, teachers expressed confidence and a readiness to start the peer observation process for real.

In order to ensure that our peer observation was non-threatening, forward-looking and professional, we worked together as a staff team to develop a rationale that we would all use during the process.

We agreed that we were using peer observation to provide a structured framework for the ongoing improvement of teaching and learning practices through peer collaboration and the subsequent discussions that would take place following an observation.

We believed that observation would be a valuable tool for both the teacher being observed as well as the observer, because at its heart, it is about the sharing of good practice and the promotion of a greater sense of collegiality between teachers.

Because we had a very supportive staff team, we felt that in all observations the coach would be invested in the success of their colleague, again ensuring that peer observation would be developmental rather than judgemental.



What does a peer observation session look like?

I was clear that I wanted to avoid peer observation that involved a pair of teachers simply watching each other’s practice. I wanted to avoid a situation where Teacher A observes Teacher B and says nice things, and then Teacher B reciprocates by giving equally positive feedback to Teacher A.

While I trust my staff, I had seen this happen in other schools and because I am keen on accountability rather than “cosiness”, it was a situation I was keen to avoid. The way we have organised peer observation at Anton requires a not insubstantial investment of time and money, so it was critical that it had a hard-edged, positive impact. With that in mind we organised staff in triads – Teacher A observes B, B observes C and C observes A.

This means there is no danger of the gentle, reciprocal feedback. We gave a huge amount of thought to the formation of each trio and grouped people strategically in the way that we considered to be most advantageous to each individual.

All peer observations take place in the morning (9:30 to 10:30am). Once the lesson has finished the observing teacher has half an hour to reflect on what they have seen and to prepare key coaching questions that they are going to use to shape the discussion (prompt sheets are provided).

At 11am the teacher who has been observed joins the observer and they have an hour to discuss the lesson in detail, again there is a proforma for teachers to use. Confidentiality is an important part of the process, so this discussion takes place in a private space where the teachers will not be disturbed. There is an expectation that as part of the process both teachers complete an evaluation sheet. This identifies the most significant areas for development as well the key strengths of the lesson observed.

It also requires that the teachers score the usefulness of the session, both in terms of the impact on them as individual teachers and the benefit to the school more generally.

These proforma are given to me (as the headteacher) and I read and file them. Any areas for development may well feed into the formal observations that I carry out as part of my regular monitoring and definitely are followed up by teachers in subsequent peer observation sessions.

After each peer observation cycle, these forms are collated, analysed and evaluated; a report is produced for the governing body so that they too have a picture of the impact of peer observation at Anton.



What are the outcomes and impact?

There is no doubt in my mind that peer observation has had a very significant impact on standards of teaching and learning at Anton.

Aside from the evidence I gain when I carry out formal observations of an improved standard of teaching, there are a number of other important outcomes that make the process valuable.

Without doubt, the profile of teaching and learning has been raised – there are now far more conversations about the pedagogy of teaching. As teachers, we all know the pace at which we work leaves little time to pause and reflect and peer observation has built in some protected time for exactly this to happen.

In addition, it has given teachers the opportunity to share their good practice, celebrating their talents and achievements, while giving other teachers the chance to learn from the most effective practitioners.

Another point that I know teachers would raise is that the more you are observed teaching, the less intrusive this feels; resulting in a decrease in anxiety in teachers about being watched.

Because I am someone who is fond of data (geek!), we have also produced numerical evaluations of the success of our peer observation process. We ask teachers to grade on a scale of 1 to 10 how useful and enjoyable they find the sessions. We also ask them to score the extent to which the session will add value to them as a teacher, as well as how it will add value to the school.

We are approaching the end of our fourth cycle and of the 120 statements that we have asked teachers to score, they have rated the usefulness as 10/10 on 116 occasions and 9/10 on the other four. By anybody’s standards this data is fairly unequivocal.



Conclusions

I hope that in the course of this article I have been able to fairly accurately outline the process by which we have used coaching in peer observation to have a positive impact on standards of teaching and learning at Anton Junior.

I will leave the final words to one of my young teachers who wrote on her evaluation form last week: “Danny is a fantastic teacher and I thoroughly enjoyed watching his lesson. I definitely think that this session followed by our in-depth reflections will help me to think about ways to improve aspects of my own teaching in order to achieve greater progression and development from the children I teach.”Thanks Steph, I couldn’t have put it better myself.


• Tom Donohoe is headteacher of Anton Junior School in Andover, Hampshire.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.


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Comments
very impressive and thought provoking, we are planning to implement "Peer Observations" of teaching in our school system. Hope your guidance will be available.

Regards
Ali Mujahid
Head of Quality Assurance
KIPS Education Network
(125 schools, colleges and academies)
Lahore, Pakistan

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