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12 Tips for Classroom Observations in the Digital Age

by Sarah Hodge |

For the past three years, I’ve been honored to mentor student teachers 8,000 miles away in Matsue, Japan. Apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have opened up our classrooms, making it an ideal platform for observing colleagues and student teachers anywhere in the world.

For six weeks each year, I spend an hour each week observing student teachers and then give individualized feedback on camera. Detailed written feedback is also provided after the real-time feedback is given.

Like any classroom observation, it's helpful to have some ground rules in place:

  1. The teacher and observer should draft an observation plan agreeing on the date and time several days in advance.
  2. Be sure the observer has the login information prior to the start of the lesson, along with a copy of the lesson plan and any handouts or materials that will be used during the class.
  3. Let students know in advance that there will be an observer, but that they will not interact with the class (or be evaluating student performance — we’re there to observe the instructors).
  4. If you will be recording the class being observed, be sure to arrange advance consent with the instructor and students.
  5. Try to join the Zoom room or Teams meeting 5–10 minutes in advance. During the lesson, remain in the background with your camera off and audio muted.

Key Considerations When Observing Virtual Teaching

As far as content, I’m looking for the same items that I would be in a face-to-face observation: pacing, flow, classroom management, English language teaching expertise, balance of teacher talk and student talk, and incorporation of various learning styles. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Is good classroom management being practiced? Having clear ground rules (one student talks at a time, other participants mute their microphones) can help to create a less chaotic learning environment in virtual classes.
  2. Monitor the balance of teacher talk to student talk. Are certain students participating more than others? Do some have their cameras off/microphones muted throughout the entire lesson?
  3. What skills are being practiced? Are tools like the online whiteboard, chat, screen sharing, and breakout rooms being used to maximize student output for productive skills?
  4. Is the instructor comfortable with the technology? Are they responding to Zoom reactions (raised hand) and questions asked in the chat?

Giving Effective Feedback

While I am observing, I’m writing down student names, examples of notable teacher-student interactions, the timing of activities, and specific points that I want to bring up in our debrief.

Once students have left the Zoom room, then all the observers turn on our cameras. First, the student teachers take turns describing how they think their lessons went, and then the observers give feedback to our individual instructors. We touch on the most important points on camera, and then I write up more detailed feedback that I later e-mail to the student teachers.

  1. Start with the positives: Praise instructors on strong points first.
  2. Avoid general comments like “Good job!” Instead, give specific examples of what the instructor did well. “Your students produced a lot of great language during the movie quiz. Even the quieter students were actively participating.”
  3. Rather than immediately offering solutions, ask questions to help instructors come up with ideas: “I noticed that Shota had his camera off during today’s lesson. How do you think we can get him to be more involved during class?” Asking reflective questions can help guide your instructors to analyze student progress and set their own improvement goals for future lessons.

My favorite part of working with my student teachers over several years is seeing their confidence blossom as they gain teaching experience and incorporate feedback from previous observations. Good teaching is good teaching, whether in a traditional classroom or a virtual one, and even the most seasoned TESOL veterans can benefit from collaborating with international colleagues through virtual classroom observations.

Note: For those based in the United States, the U.S. Department of State offers the Virtual Educator Program, which gives highly qualified U.S. educators in the field of TESOL a unique and completely online opportunity to support English language learning around the world, participate in public diplomacy, and build mutual connections.

About the author

Sarah Hodge

Sarah Hodge is a supervisory ESL instructor at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) English Language Center in San Antonio, Texas, USA. Since earning her MA TESOL in 2006, she has taught English as a foreign language, English for specific purposes, and English for academic purposes to thousands of international military officers, enlisted personnel, and civilians at DLI's resident campus as well as internationally. She has also developed curriculum, has conducted onboarding and teacher training, and was part of the Peer Coaching Initiative Working Group. A SMART Gold Ambassador and Lumio Certified Trainer, Sarah is passionate about integrating educational technology into the language classroom. Her research interests include bilingualism and language processing disorders.

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