Doors of Perception: how our approach to lesson observations is harmed by our childish attitudes to classroom doors

One of the biggest dilemmas facing school leaders surrounds how best to scrutinise the teaching in their school. Some prefer to conduct long but infreqeuent scheduled observations. This means that teachers are forewarned that someone will be coming to watch their lesson and they’re able to “pull out all the stops.” The potential drawbacks here are obvious: teachers who are able to “put on a show” for one hour a year may come out of such a process looking better than those who continue at their usual reliable but steady level of effectiveness throughout the process. It may tell observers little about what “normally happens” in that classroom and potentially rewards the wrong things. At the other end of the scale, some school leaders prefer a policy of regular unannounced drop-ins. Each visit feels less individually significant but it can create a strange workplace culture- making teachers feel like naughty children who might have their antics checked by the “grown-ups” in SLT at any moment. In most schools I’ve encountered during my career, getting this balance right has proved a challenge.

I think the solution is very simple. Studies in transactional analysis suggest that healthy workplace relationships involve colleagues interacting with one another on an “adult to adult” basis. Whenever these relationships start to resemble a “parent to child” dynamic, the seeds of resentment, defiance and alienation are sewn. Because most school leaders start out as teachers, they can sometimes get this very wrong when they become managers- I certainly didn’t always get it right when I was a deputy head. I’m now back in middle leadership as an English subject leader so I’m a class teacher myself but I also have a responsibility to know what’s going on in all the other classes in the school. This means I have an interest in enabling a strong culture of peer-to-peer observation, as well as enabling those with leadership roles to gather evidence about their area of responsibility. However, I also have a rank-and-file class teacher’s perspective on things. Pondering these different priorities has led me to what I think is quite a good idea. Here goes.

Imagine that a school adopted this simple five-point policy on classroom observations:

1.) Observations of teaching are short but frequent
2.) All teachers are encouraged to watch one another (including those with less experience and seniority watching those with more.)
3.) Anyone can drop in unannounced and watch what’s going on in a lesson if the door is open.
4.) Whenever a teacher doesn’t wish to be observed, they can close their classroom door.
5.) Teachers are encouraged to keep their classroom doors open more often than not.

Why does it need to be any more complicated than that? The first of my five points will discourage set-piece firework display lessons designed only to an impress an observer. The second point emphasises that lesson observations are primarily a stimulus for dialogue between teaching professionals for their mutual benefit and development. The third and fourth points ensure that if a teacher is trying to deal with a sensitive problem or wants to try out a new idea without knowing how it will go or is even just having a an unusually bad day, they’re given the space and professional respect they need. The fifth point ensures that teachers can’t use the fourth point to take the piss.

I guarantee that the vast majority of teachers would respond to this policy by keeping their doors open the vast majority of the time, yet the culture of fear that stalks many schools in many teachers’ minds would be neutralised by the reassurance that they can close the door whenever they need to. Not just senior leaders and subject leaders, but all teachers could drop in and out of each other’s classrooms and discussions about learning would become more authentic. Pedagogical conversations would be based on what everyone knew was really happening in the school, not on teachers trying to make themselves sound impressive or avoid being “found out.” Of course, there might be the odd teacher every now and then who would keep their door resolutely shut and a conversation might have to be had about that. Schools would probably also need a more robust policy when it came to teachers who were clearly underperforming. However, the goal for most of the teachers in a school should surely  be to create a collegiate “adult-to-adult” culture of shared professional support and dialogue.

I don’t think this issue is as difficult as many school leaders think. We just need to open our minds and, at least for a majority of the time, our doors.

One comment

  1. Well said Tim! I am about to meet with a head to carry out Performance Management advice and a major question point is how they know what is going on in the school…and not just data either. I am not surprised by the number of issues I see on teacher well being or rather lack of it. Teacher/ staff relationships reflect the overall culture in a school and the pupils pick up on negative vibes very quickly too!


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