Monday 20 October 2014

How to set up a system of observing tutors that is safe and effective

A previous post raised a range of issues that relate to effectively implementing and evaluating L&N provision.  This post is designed for the person in a professional development role tasked with overseeing the implementation of ELN within a medium to large organisation.  A position I have held.

This position is tough as the role requires bridging two different worlds.  On the one hand, management, and on the other, tutors.  As such the role requires that you take on-board the unique stresses and demands of each domain without ever being a complete part of one or the other. This is partly what makes this role essential in an organisation as it enables a unique perspective on the demands of the roles while avoiding the extremes of both.

One of the key tasks for the person in this role is to observe and provide professional feedback to tutors and work toward meeting performance outcomes set by the organisation.

Beginning tutor observations

Tutor observations are essential to improving organisational performance.  They are also a key tool for cultivating an internal culture of constant improvement.  Yet, as a tutor there is simply NOTHING more intrusive and threatening than being observed.  The solution is to set things right at the beginning and stick to it.  I will describe some key ways to do this below.

Selection of the observer

Managers take note:  The person you select for this role (and observations) must be an experienced, trusted and respected staff member.  If this is not the case, abandon the whole idea now.  If you are not 100% certain you have the right person, have the tutors select their own person from the staff.  Or if it looks like the whole thing is too difficult, distribute the task to all the staff and work through every staff member.  That is, every tutor will have a go at observing other tutors and giving feedback. This has proven to be effective in the past.

Change the notion of 'observing' 

 Assuming you are this person, here are some ideas to help reduce tutor concerns regarding the observations.  First, change the connotation many tutors have with observation.  That is, the top down quality control view.  Observations are done to provide another perspective on tutoring practice in order to develop skill, not to check up on how tutors teach.  What helps is to create a divide between the findings and management.  There is an easy way to do this.

1.  Have a meeting with the tutors and tell them what is happening.  Make sure you tell them that this is to improve performance and provide positive feedback.  Note, that they won't care what it is for, they will likely simply view it as threatening.  Don't say anything else -  just ask for their concerns. Then just listen.  

2.  Address those concerns.  Most will relate to security and vulnerability, and the possibility of bad performance reviews.  You are adding to their workload and stress.  You MUST address these concerns. Here is how:  


1. All the observation feedback must be confidential and anonymous.  That is, the feedback will be only between the tutor and observer.  

2. The feedback from all observations will be thematised and summarised into a report that management will see.  This report will present themes that CANNOT be traced back to any one tutor.  It is broad and not specific to single tutor performance.

3. This report will be sent to all the tutors first and if they have any concerns they can talk to you privately before you send the report to management.  Give them all time to read it.  Make any changes the tutors want.    

4.  Positive feedback.  In my experience most tutors expect this to be an unpleasent experience- it should be incredibly encouraging. Make it encouraging and rewarding for the tutor.  Give great feedback that specifically identifies the things that are really good at.  How they handled difficult learners, how they introduced certain content, their rapport with learners.

As for constructive feedback, simply ask them.  "What do you think you could have done to improve the lesson?".  Let them talk.  Give no constructive feedback.  None. Nadda.  Thank them and reiterate the positive feedback.  Promise to send them their feedback form and make sure you do within one day.

At the next observation, however (one, two,  months  later) during the feedback, read back to them what they said last time about room for improvement, and ask them how they addressed what they had mentioned.  Let them talk.  People will quickly realise what's happening.  Ask them again what areas they would like to improve and then repeat again in a month or two.

The simple fact that you have put in a system that gets tutors  to state where they may need to improve, and that it will be regularly talked about, will get tutors taking action. And... tutors will begin to enjoy this process - once they realise it is safe, and not a system to beat them with.  It is a time of validation and reflection.  There is no stick.

What you are trying to develop is a culture of constant improvement in which tutors do not fall into ruts and can make change.

Use the second themed report to show that tutors had identified and acted on key areas.  Ask them for feedback and then send it to management.  The first three reports will not really any use for real measurement, but they are a way of implementing a process that serves the tutors and the organisation.

In time the reports will indicate key areas that might require training or PD.  Themes will emerge (say classroom management). Once you have a pattern you might decide to bring in a classroom management specialist.    It is also a great way to remind management of what is happening in classrooms.  They will like this because once the tutors trust the process and don't dress up the results then management have an extra mode of communication to inform their thinking.

In my experience, observing tutors is wonderful for boosting morale and getting a buzz going.  Once you have told tutors it is happening do it quickly, with a day or two.  Otherwise they worry and they shouldn't.  Make the experience positive.  They will tell the others and word will spread that it is good.

Last thing:  we all know that we prepare better for the lesson we are being observed on and hence it does not reflect a 'real' session.  That's okay.  You see, hopefully, the extra time the tutors put into that lesson will ensure a good class, and generate new ideas and behaviours.  It will pay off.

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