Reflective Teaching in Action: Rethinking Language Instructor Evaluation

Lynne deBenedette, Brown University

During the past 20 years the models for assessment and evaluation of language instructors' work have been considerably discussed and redefined. In particular, there have been efforts to move away from a solely "prescriptive" model (specifying guidelines for performance, offering advice for improvement of same) (Gebhard, et al., in Richards, 1990), in favor of practices that encourage what has come to be called "reflective teaching": an approach that is often "teacher directed and initiated," involving significant amounts of self-observation and seeking to effect professional growth through a variety of activities and tasks. These have included journal-keeping, audio and video recording of classes, filling out surveys and questionnaires, and various kinds of teacher-initiated intervention into classroom practice. (Richards and Lockhart)

It must be stated frankly that detailed evaluation of instructors' performance, with feedback provided, probably takes place most consistently when those being assessed are graduate student TAs (ongoing peer observation of faculty language teaching being, in all likelihood, less common). Anecdotal evidence suggests that in Slavic Studies there is some kind of basic provision for TA evaluation nearly everywhere where such labor is used. At X University the practice in the last few years has comprised classroom observation of TAs by the course coordinator, followed by a one-on-one meeting to discuss in detail observed classroom behavior. This "micro approach" (Richards, 1990), concentrating as it does on observed teacher behavior, has been helpful in some ways, but has had some severe limitations. For one thing, observed performance at one or, maximally, two days during a semester has the potential to be but a rough indicator of normal teaching behavior, especially considering the disruptive potential of an observer who is known to many of the students in the class. Second, the feedback meetings (at which the TA is provided with a written "blow-by-blow" account of everything that occurred during the class period--as nearly, of course, as the observer could manage to get it all down) has by its nature a tendency toward prescription: "you might want to try it this way next time..." Third, and worst of all, is the intrinsically authoritarian nature of the enterprise, and the relatively passive role the TA plays in the proceedings. (Language acquisition study has led us reject the notion that a course emphasizing, for example, prescriptive grammar will greatly affect learner oral performance; talking about "how to do it" is unlikely, on its own, to affect "how I do it" to a very great extent.) Moreover, even given the coordinator's efforts to have the TA do as much thinking aloud as possible about what went on during the class, and to have the TA try and draw his/her own conclusions about how effective the lesson's different elements seemed to be, it is still far from certain that this will lead, not so much to changes in behavior, but to the recognition by the observed TA of exactly what constitutes her/his teaching self, possessed of certain ideas, tendencies and behaviors. It is developing this capacity for self-reflection that must be the long-range goal of any training. It would seem logical, then, to move away from a solely prescriptive approach to evaluating the work of a language instructor, whether TA or faculty member, and to provide mechanisms for both these types of instructors to assess their own performance and development.

Among the many factors that combine to determine how instructor evaluation is conducted, time is (unhappily) of greatest significance. In a sense the TA is fortunate; part- or full-time faculty members rarely have built institutionally into their professional lives the time to conduct significant amounts of self-review. This paper will report on an attempt to use more effectively the relatively limited amount of time available for instructor assessment at a university where both TAs and faculty members teach courses in language. The paper will document the implementation of a new set of procedures for evaluating instructor performance over the course of a semester. The new evaluation procedure will use video recordings of classes (done at times chosen by the instructor and recorded by university media services staff) and will combine these with a set of self-assessment tasks to be performed by the instructor (both before and after the recording is done) that require her/him to take into consideration ideas about micro and macro lesson planning, classroom management, etc. Meetings with the course coordinator will follow up on what is seen as an essentially instructor-directed (rather than coordinator-initiated) process. An attempt will be made to have procedures and assessment guidelines conform to the following standards: they should not take significantly more time to complete than the current procedures; they must be equally useful for both TAs and faculty members; above all, they must involve the instructor actively in contemplating teaching practice, planning habits, and classroom management. The paper will report on reactions to the new system and draw conclusions about its feasibility and effectiveness.


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