Learned helplessness

In the Saturday MA class three weeks ago, I played a three-minute video clip that showed how a former student-teacher set up a speaking activity in a Primary One classroom. The student-teacher, Hope (invented name), was having her Teaching Practicum at a primary school when the video was taken, and I was her methodology tutor as well as practicum supervisor. Hope had been managing the speaking lesson superbly, and when she started to set up a milling activity for the class, I took out my handy video camera, and recorded the scenario. Watching the clip again during that class three weeks ago, I kept thinking what a talented teacher Hope was. It was the first teaching experience in her life, yet she was so proficient with classroom routines, and taught one successful lesson after another.

Three days after that class, I received an email from Hope. Hope reported that she had had a lesson observed by her panel chair and principal the day before. The lesson didn’t go well, and according to the panel chair, the principal was quite negative towards the lesson.

Well, other teachers might not mind that very much. But Hope would: I have been keeping in touch with her since she completed her teacher training three years ago, and I know how much she cares about good teaching.

Lesson observation is a common activity in schools today, but it is important that we put it in proper perspective. What is the purpose of lesson observation? What can happen to a lesson when it is taught to be observed? How should observers approach a lesson observation?

I recall those scenes in hospital drama on TV where a doctor is observed performing an operation by other doctors. I admire the medical profession for this practice (even though I have no idea to what extent this is really happening in hospitals). I think this is a wonderful example of professional development.

Often I would compare these hospital scenarios with peer lesson observation in our field. When I do this kind of comparison, I often wonder: Compared with a doctor performing an operation under observation, what are the chances that a teacher being observed will be able to produce her best performance? Which scenario is under more control of the observee, a doctor operating on an anaesthetised patient, assisted by a team of specialists and nurses; or a lone teacher facing a class of 35 energetic or aloof students? In the operation theatre, the doctor can map out each act to the smallest detail in advance. In the school classroom, the teacher cannot fully predict the students’ mood or their ability or previous knowledge.

Even with the most thorough preparation, and years of experience, a lesson can still go wrong, or end up as a mundane one.

This is why, in my view, we should never equate a teacher’s performance in one lesson with her general teaching competence. Moreover, we should never forget that classroom teaching competence, albeit probably the most important one, is only one of the attributes of a good teacher.

And we need to remember that evaluation of performance is only one purpose of lesson observation. The other purpose, which to my mind is an even more important one, is professional development: professional development in terms of promoting a spirit among staff of improving one’s teaching on an on-going basis. “We care about good teaching; we will continue to strive for excellence in teaching; to that end, we can always learn from each other through lesson observation, and we are happy to open up our own classrooms to visitors.”

This is the kind of culture that I would like to nurture in a lesson observation project that I am currently involved in as facilitator. This project, called the Learning Circle, is organized by the Tuen Mun District Education Office. At the moment, there are 5 participating primary schools, with four to five teachers from each school. All the participating teachers are qualified and experienced teachers of English, and the  Learning Circle has only one aim: professional development. Members of the Learning Circle visit each other’s schools for lesson observation. Each lesson observed is followed by a post-lesson discussion. In my role as facilitator, I have been emphasizing to the teachers that the purpose of each lesson observation is not to evaluate the observee’s performance, but to learn, and if the lesson does not turn out to be a good one, which can be the case, to use the observed lesson as stimulus for self-reflection.

I have to admit, though, that this change of emphasis may not be easy for all the stakeholders, since the evaluative ethos is still pervasive in schools (especially in primary schools, I would venture to say). It might even be more difficult for school administrators to accept this perspective since much of their work involves evaluating. Consequently and unknowingly, they might be undermining teachers’ initiative in striving for excellence on an ongoing basis.

Take the case of Hope. She finished her email to me with this lamentation:

“It seems that no matter how hard I try, I won’t do well.”

I wrote back to Hope to ask her to clarify. Did she mean that (a) no matter how hard she tries, she will not be able to satisfy the principal, or (b) no matter how hard she tries, she won’t be able to teach well?

Hope replied: Both.

Which reminds me of the term in psychology: Learned helplessness.

I have a good knowledge of Hope’s teaching competence. That particular lesson may not have gone well. But what’s the big deal! The important thing is that Hope is able to keep up her zest in teaching, and to keep improving. Those of us with the power to influence teachers’ work, such as teacher educators, school administrators, and government education officers, etc., must guard against smothering teachers’ passion and self-confidence.


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