I’d like to respond to Zhenya’s fantastic post titled “Did You Like My Lesson?” over at the wonderful “Wednesday Seminars” teaching blog. In the post, she talks about the tendency to give vague positive feedback to a teacher who you’ve just observed and is expecting praise in return. The questions she asks in the article are vital for any observing teacher. Mainly, she wonders if her mental assessments are overly critical and dismissive of mitigating factors such as class size or even just a bad day on the part of the observed teacher. How is it possible to distinguish poor teaching from a bad day? What would I do if put in a similar circumstance after watching a teacher flounder for an entire period?
I certainly remember being in the shoes of the observed teacher after having taught my first lesson. It was a terrible lesson and things had gone poorly. Having no teaching experience behind me, however, I thought I had done quite well and cheerily asked this question to an experienced teacher who had watched the lesson and even team-taught with me. Her response to, “How was it?” was an awkward smile and a deafening silence. I was totally crushed by this and I started to rethink my career choice immediately afterwards. I realized after the lesson that there were many good reasons for such a bad lesson, not the least of which was that I was unfamiliar with the class, totally new to the culture, and had received nothing more than a quick three-day training period up in Tokyo before being thrust into the classroom. On the other hand, I had failed to ask key questions to the regular teacher of the class, carefully plan my lesson, and check it with someone more experienced than me to see if it was sound. So I have to bear part of the responsibility for the monstrosity of a lesson I had unleashed on the unsuspecting first-year high school students.
I realize now that getting an honest answer to the question of how my lesson went was a motivating factor in improving my lessons. They did get better, slowly, over time and although I’m still not a “great” teacher, I’m now an okay teacher (and I’m okay with that). I have a decent handle on my lesson planning, classroom management, and preparation after 11 years of honing my craft. So I would say that getting vague positive feedback (for me, at least) would have done me no favors at the start of my career. Having said that, the teacher who answered my question with silence left me to figure out all the pieces of a successful lesson on my own, which took a long time that could have been saved by sitting down with me and being gentle but firm about the problems she sensed. I also think she might have known the root of the problem was not a character flaw (though I have plenty of those) had she taken the time to find the reasons for why I had or hadn’t done certain things.
Perhaps one good answer to, “Did you like my lesson?” would be a quick smile, a few words of encouragement, and an offer to chat about it over coffee later. If the opportunity arises, this could be arranged before the lesson begins to ward off the question altogether. If the question still pops up immediately after the lesson ends, I would try to calmly explain to the observed teacher that there’s no way I could answer them without having time to distance myself from the situation and think more objectively about the good and bad parts of a lesson. That lag time between the class and the feedback would probably help the teacher who has just been observed gain a more realistic perspective on what has just occurred. During the lesson itself, one way to avoid being overly critical as an observer is to have a two-column sheet of paper with “positive comments” on one side and “negative comments” on the other. The task of the observer is to have the two columns balanced by the time they give any sort of feedback whatsoever to the teacher.
I want to say a big thank you to Zhenya for her blog post. It really made me think about this issue and consider my own observer tendencies and how they could be improved.