Are excessive observations causing additional and unnecessary stress for teachers? (Pt 2)

Following the previous article on this which was represented by a picture of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch and the word “yes”; I thought we would add a little flesh to the bones.

So let’s look a little further into the practice of lesson observations and look at what can be construed good practice and what is quite frankly appalling!

To make a start, why don’t we consider the purpose of lesson observations, which in a nutshell is to find out what is happening. This may be carried out as part of a subject coordinators role or possibly related to a staff appraisal or performance management. Naturally the format of these 2 sorts of observation have vastly different protocols.

Subject coordinators observations

Dependent on how the school development plan is structured it should be possible to see when a particular subject is under review by the coordinator. During the set time it is to be expected by staff that perhaps some form of lesson observation or book inspection may be carried out. This, however has a very particular focus and is subject centred and is looking to find out how efficient and effective the current subject programme is able to be taught. Perhaps considering use of resources, whether these need to be supplemented or possible additional texts bought for the school.

These sorts of observation and colleague co-operation happen pretty regularly during a cycle of the school development plan and really don’t present any problems or generate any extra workload or stress for staff…which is what we are considering in this article.

Observations for other purposes

So just why would it be necessary for staff teaching observations to take place?

The most obvious answer is for the schools appraisal / performance management analysis.

There are set guidelines for how this should be approached by schools but in our context here the following should be of note :-

(An annual limit of three hours’ lesson observation was previously included in the Education (School Teacher Performance Management) (England) Regulations 2006; however this legislation was repealed by the Coalition Government in 2012.)

However a useful guide for these purposes would be:

  • There should be a limit of a total of three observations for all purposes.
  • The total time occupied by all observations should not exceed three hours per year
  • The focus and timing must be agreed in the teacher’s performance management planning statement.

Performance management forms an integral part of the school cycle and should have at its heart;  staff support, staff development and  of course children’s learning outcomes, progress and success.  In this sort of context, and with these aims at its core, then staff performance management and in turn lesson observations are part of its procedure and form a positive and productive element in a forward looking school.

(as a note here – For teachers on a formal capability procedure an important part of the support offered to the teacher will be a clearly defined amount of classroom observation with structured oral and written feedback. The amount of classroom observation will be discussed with the teacher and any union representative who is supporting and advising them in the formal process…..)

So just what is the problem….or potential problem?

Outside of the 2 above mentioned examples….

There is no requirement to do a specific number of lesson observations or a limit on how many you can do. This is the case in both maintained schools and academies.

The Department for Education (DfE) says that the amount and type of classroom observation will depend on the individual circumstances of the teacher and the overall needs of the school.

The above is the problem….and yes it is a problem!

Whilst we have set guidelines for the appraisal process which brings together an understanding of the process and seeks to clarify both its aims and purposes in order to make it a positive and developmental process – quite the reverse can happen with these open ended, carte-blanche statements giving school leaders unlimited and unregulated permission to do whatever they wish!

Its a bit like the Superman movie quote “with great power comes great responsibility”….and the responsibility lands directly on the shoulders of Headteachers.

Its not as easy as it may seem!

There is a great danger here of the observation process tipping into overload for staff as it becomes another pressurised situation to add to all the other pressure points that currently exist.

Here are some things to bear in mind

  • Who, and accordingly, at what level are these observations to be done?
  • Are there any reasonable needs for arranged observations to be carried out – if not then don’t do them!
  • What is the purpose of the observation and what is the follow up process and data handling / reporting process to accompany this?

Please bear in mind:  OFSTED does not require schools to undertake a specified amount of                                                 lesson observation.

Being in the know

Headteachers need to know what is happening in their school – they are the only people who are 100% informed of all aspect and occurrences concerning the school and its role and function. As such Headteachers do have to get out of the office and “go and see for themselves”….it also stretches legs and raises heads above the paperwork mountains!

To this end we now meet

  • The learning walk…One of the features years ago of an advisors visit was to take a walk around the school. It was a useful opportunity for an advisor to take in what was happening around the school and also for the HT to discuss any problems or changes. I like learning walks and did them a lot in my headships. However there should be nothing formal about a learning walk – it takes in the general feel of the school and the overall atmosphere in the different areas. Of course it does give opportunity to pick up on any aspects that may not seem to be working well and which can possibly be investigated further at a later time. Learning walks may also take a non educational purpose and be centred on buildings or grounds on occasion…but that’s a different thing altogether.


  •  The drop in… This  can be another potential problem area and seems to be being used more and more. By its very nature it is unannounced and as such can be unsettling for a member of staff.   I would at times combine this with a learning walk and enter a classroom for a short period of time was under the guise of asking / giving or delivering something or other. Of course this would lead to an interaction with the children and more often than not a short wander around and chat with individual children… was always friendly always fun – but even in this short time I could learn much about the teacher, the children and also the lesson being taught.

From DFE and union advice

“Drop ins’ are intended to evaluate the standards of teaching and to check that high standards of professional performance are established and maintained. It may not be practical to provide advance notice of these monitoring activities.”

You see – it is the method of operation of both of these aspects that can turn an informal information gathering exercise into an oppressive and pressurised situation for staff. Yes, as a HT you need to be informed but can you see how mismanagement of such an exercise becomes detrimental and self defeating?

Against the background of the formal process of Appraisal just how many more formal and arranged observations are needed and is it really necessary to send in members of the SLT armed with clipboards?

Which brings me on to NQT’s

These are my suggestions on how a school should approach NQT observations and interventions.

NQT’s should be observed at least once every 6-8 weeks, and the first observation should happen within the first four weeks. A variety of people can observe you teach: induction tutors, headteachers, mentors, heads of department, inspectors and representatives from the appropriate bodies.

NOT 2 or 3 times in the first week of a teaching career by a member of the SLT and then have meetings with the HT who expresses concerns! It is all too much – it reflects poor management and should not happen….but it does!

You will notice that I have used bold type to highlight the word mentor in the above paragraph. In my opinion an NQT should only be observed by their own mentor for the first 1/2 term….unless there are serious behavioural issues with an NQT colleague then there is no need for any investigating or action. The mentor can report back to senior members of staff and if needed, discuss and work to provide support but it completely shatters an NQT’s confidence and performance to have any matters moved to a senior level which may involve repeated observation and concern meetings.

School management MUST be very aware of the pressures on NQT’s in the early stages of their career, the learning curves that they are having to cope with and also the fragility of confidence that can be completely undermined by unnecessary action.

Again in my opinion – if your NQT has mastered classroom and behaviour management by 1/2 term then that is a good foundation from which the school can expect to see a positive progression in the future.


In conclusion

There seems to be a growing trend in some schools to undertake extensive lesson observation schedules….sometimes supplemented by learning walks and drop ins by senior staff which then become formalised!  We have discussed the required necessities involved with performance managements and also the ongoing features of the school development plan – but beyond that any lesson observations should be in response to an observed need or fundamental changes in the school procedure or approach.

Observations are a stressful process for staff and as such senior management must appreciate the absolute necessity to keep these to an absolute minimum.  This especially applies in the case of NQT’s where for many the increased stress and lack of confidence caused by knee jerk action on the part of senior staff  can have crippling effect.

So in answer to the question “are excessive observations causing additional and unnecessary stress for teachers?”…the answer has to be YES. But the key is in the title…excessive means unnecessary and as part of staff health and well-being senior management must ensure that this does not occur.


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