From 2014 to 2016 I worked for a startup company that enabled physical English language schools to expand their market by delivering remote English lessons to online learners who found it difficult to attend a physical school. This was before the pandemic when remote teaching was still viewed with a lot of distrust by language schools.
When approaching these schools one of the biggest reservations school managers had was over their ability to observe and support their English language teachers online. Many felt that if they couldn’t go into the classroom, meet, and observe the teachers, or speak with the students, they would have no way of knowing how good the quality of the learning was, how satisfied the students were or how they needed to support their English teachers.
Although these are all valid concerns, the reality is that it’s possible to collect far more data and information about a remote English lesson than it is about most physical classroom lessons.
Here are 10 ways to observe and support your English language teachers online
1. Drop in sessions
Just like the physical classroom, it’s possible to drop into any online English lesson. All you need is a link to the classroom, and you can join the remote lesson from wherever you are and observe with the minimum of disturbance. To do this it’s best to have the camera and microphone muted, so that students aren’t disturbed by hearing and seeing a stranger in their lesson.
This can be a little more disruptive if you are observing students while they are in breakout rooms. It will be more obvious that there is an extra person present, and students might find this disturbing. But if the teacher has explained what’s happening before the lesson there shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
2. Recorded observations
One huge advantage of developing online English teachers is that every lesson can be recorded, so you don’t have to be in the classroom while the English lesson is happening. You can also choose which lesson you observe from the recordings, so you don’t have to watch an ‘observation performance’ lesson.
We all know that teachers can pull out one of their strongest lessons when they know they’re going to be observed, but it’s much better to watch their average everyday lesson. The other big advantage of having recordings of lessons, is that when you are discussing the lesson with the teacher you can go to the specific part of the lesson and watch it again together. This can help make feedback to the teacher much clearer and more useful and the discussions more productive.
3. Following up on complaints
Recordings of lessons can also be useful if you get any negative feedback from students. You can go back to the part of the lesson the student refers to and find out what happened. Then you can talk through it with the teacher and decide whether there really is a problem, how to address it with the student, and how to support your teacher to improve this area for the future.
4. Student feedback
Teaching students online makes it much easier to capture their feedback at the end of a lesson. For example, you can have a popup form that allows students to rate the lesson. This could be a star rating from 1 to 5 or you could have a questionnaire that asks students specific questions about the lesson. Of course, you can do this with physical lessons too, but instead of sitting at home at their computer, most English students are in a hurry to be somewhere else at the end of a lesson, or they don’t trust the anonymity of paper.
Collecting all this information digitally also helps you crunch the numbers and find patterns. If you have teachers that are consistently being rated badly by students, then you can observe some of their English lessons and see if you can find out what they can do to improve. You can also find out which teachers are getting consistently high ratings and find out what they are doing well. Likewise, if English teachers have a specific lesson that is getting a low rating, they can review it themselves and try to improve their rating.
5. Observation data
One of the problems with collecting digital observation data is that you can end up with too much of it. In the school that I worked for, our teachers were delivering a total of two thousand lessons a month, all of which were recorded. We were also collecting students’ feedback at the end of each lesson, so we had an abundance of data. This was potentially useful, but analyzing the data and drawing useful conclusions from it could be very time consuming.
If every English lesson is being recorded, you can’t possibly watch all your teachers’ lessons – it would take too long. It can, however, be useful just to dip into a selection of them at random points and see what’s happening. This way you may be able to spot common areas of weakness or strengths that you can address in a more formal teacher development session.
6. Teaching portfolios
Teachers can start to create a teaching portfolio by editing the best parts of their English lessons into short clips. They can store these and share them with their peers to help each other develop. You could have a specific YouTube channel for this, for example.
Using portfolios in this way can also help to deal with the problem of data overload, as the teacher is then vetting some of the video data for you and sharing what they consider to be the best of their lessons.
You can find a collection of digital portfolio tools in this article: Digital portfolios for assessing remote and online learning.
7. Peer observation
Recording English lessons can also be useful for setting up peer observation or buddy programs. In a physical language school it can be hard for English teachers to get a break from teaching their own lessons to take the time to go and watch somebody else teach. If the online lessons are recorded, peers can observe the lesson when it’s more convenient for them and they will have more time to make notes about what they see.
You can pair English teachers up as ‘buddies’ to watch their partner’s lesson and give feedback based around specific observation tasks. Teachers can select specific parts of the lesson for their buddy to focus on by giving them the time reference. This saves time as they don’t have to watch the complete lesson and can just focus on the specific parts.
8. Online staffroom
Teachers in physical schools are bumping into each other regularly and can meet informally and share ideas and materials, but English teachers working remotely can easily feel more isolated. Creating an online staffroom where teachers can share activities, articles, and resources they have used with their students can really help with this.
You can even have a constantly open video chatroom so English teachers who are between lessons or who have some time free can ‘hang out’ in the live chat room and drop in to socialise with their peers. Whereby is a good free tool to enable you to create a browser-based video chat room.
9. Video support meetings
Likewise, it’s good to have a video chat space where English teachers can meet with their line managers for formal and informal chats. Catching up ‘face to face’ in this manner is an important part of making sure teachers are supported both pedagogically, as well as mentally and emotionally.
Texts, emails, and group messages are fine for some things but it’s still important to see people’s smile and hear their tone of voice for many of the important support roles we play.
You can use a free tool like Wereby to do this or you could check out some other free platforms in this article: ‘9 Free Alternatives to Zoom for Getting your Classroom Online’.
10. Road mapping goals
As an online English teacher it can be difficult to get a sense of your own progress. You may not have regular contact with other English teachers, so it’s vital to create a development plan with several goals as milestones. You can work towards these and have regular reviews with your line manager to discuss your progress.
You can use ‘Kanban’ type tools like Trello to monitor your goals, the tasks you need to do to achieve them, and your progress towards them. Kanban boards have a list of tasks on sticky notes, and you move these tasks from left to write across three different columns. These usually have the headings ‘To do’, ’In progress’ and ‘Completed’. The advantage of digital ‘Kanban’ boards is that you can share them so that progress can be tracked.
Find out more about Kanban boards at: Wikipedia: Kanban board.
Extra tip: Online training sessions
Just because English teachers are working remotely, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have staff meetings and teacher development sessions. Teachers can meet in the online classroom for idea sharing sessions and take it in turn to lead sessions. It’s also much easier and cheaper to get a new perspective by bringing in guest trainers or consultants.
Bringing guest trainers or consultants into physical language school can be expensive, but prices are usually much cheaper for virtual sessions because there’s no travel time or expenses to cover. It may be worth paying for a day of their time to review your observation lessons recordings as they may bring in a fresh perspective and identify and address issues with teachers that you may have missed.
Which ways to observe and support English teachers online will you try out?
Observing teachers and making sure they have feedback and support that addresses their specific needs is incredibly important to ensure teacher quality both in the physical and online language classroom.
As you can see though, observing English lessons can be as effective, or even more effective, in an online school than it is in a physical one.
You just need to think slightly differently and take advantage of the opportunities that technology offers. It does still take time and a skilled observer to understand what’s happening in the classroom and deliver feedback in a way that is helpful and constructive.
Would you like to find out more about observing teachers and providing feedback?
You could consider our 30-hour online Observing Teachers and Providing Feedback course with tutor support.
Want to learn more? Check out some other blog posts:
- 6 tips to approach teacher observations in online teaching, from one of our Leadership in ELT graduates.
- 9 Free Alternatives to Zoom for Getting your Classroom.
- 6 tips for moving your teaching online – How do you adapt your teaching techniques for the virtual classroom?
- How to become a successful online TEFL teacher.
- Read more about setting and tracking goals in this article: Setting & Tracking Goals for Remote Learners.