Top tips for observing primary teaching

Nicola Walshe

Faculty: Health, Social Care & Education
Department: School of Education and Social Care
Course: BA (Hons) Primary Education Studies
Category: Education

11 May 2017

Nicola is our Primary Education Studies Course Leader in Cambridge, and she has put together her top tips for arranging and get the most out of primary teaching observations.

With just over half a term still to go of the academic year, you should have plenty of opportunity to see some teaching in primary schools before the end of July. Visiting primary classrooms – as varied an array as possible and preferably in more than one school - is really helpful preparation you can do for your BA in Primary Education Studies.

Students who do this always ‘hit the ground running’ faster than most. Such experience familiarises you with a range of teaching and learning problems that occur in classrooms and helps you to get your own brains and imaginations working hard on some of the possible solutions.

It is quite possible that you will also see some inspiring teaching of outstanding quality.  We hope you do ... but that would be a bonus!

For some of you, full-time work or other commitments might make this very difficult but if you can just engineer one day out to go visiting, and take time to reflect carefully on that experience using the questions on the next page, it’ll be well worth it. For those of you with more flexibility, you should endeavour to spend as many days as you possibly can observing primary teachers and their classes.

How to go about it

Simply phone or e-mail the Head Teacher in any comprehensive schools near you, explain that you would like to see some teaching and learning before you begin your BA Primary Education Studies and ask if you could possibly visit for a number of days and sit at the back of a few classes.  Normally, Heads Teachers are only too delighted to welcome an enthusiastic, aspiring teacher into their schools.  But as they are likely to be busy and hassled, you can maximise your chances of their saying ‘yes’ and welcoming you warmly by:

  • emphasising that you do not want to take up any of their time; you just want to sit discreetly in some lessons and that you won’t need any other ‘looking after’;
  • volunteering to do anything you can in the classroom, in return for the privilege of being there  - e.g. helping out in any group work, working with a weak reader, working with an exceptionally able pupil, helping a small group of pupils with a role-play or on some computers.  
  • offering to do any small jobs out of the classroom on a voluntary basis (e.g. using your ICT skills on the department website, being a much-needed extra adult on a school trip, putting up a classroom or corridor display, or just listening to children read). 

What to notice and look for

  • When things are going well, what seems to motivate pupils (to think, to persevere, to listen, to engage...)? What is the teacher’s role in securing such motivation?
  • What factors sometimes make pupils slow to tackle a task or quick to switch off? (think about factors within the lesson itself and within pupils’ own learning – don’t just cop out by saying things like ‘they’re badly behaved’; ‘they can’t concentrate’; ‘they are sleepy’; ‘it’s after lunch’!  Ask yourself what is going on in this child’s head and if such a situation confronted you, as future teacher, how you might organise learning, communicate differently or simply enquire and listen better in order to prevent or overcome it.)
  • What kinds of things confuse pupils? If you were teaching this topic, how would you avoid these things happening?
  • At the end of the lesson, if you were the teacher, how would you know if the pupils had learned anything? What methods did the teacher use, during the course of the lesson, to establish what or how well they had learned?
  • Did the teacher use any practical activities which you had not seen before and which interested and excited you as tools for learning (e.g. certain kinds of role-plays and other interactive games, creative use of audio, visual or multi-media material, simulations, ways of preparing for extended writing of a particular type,...)? What impressed you about these activities?
You may not need these questions. You may be thinking along these lines already. But after a number of days in school observing classes you can maximise the value of that time for your own future learning by reflecting upon five or six of the above questions, wherever they seem relevant. Invent a way of recording some of these reflections, succinctly and analytically. Experiment with lists, patterns and diagrams.

If you are enjoying thinking deeply about questions like these, in relation to real lessons, by the time you arrive in September, you will be off to a very good start. Spending time in school is an absolute privilege and should help affirm why you are joining the Primary Education Studies course in September. Enjoy!

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