ESL TeachingTraining

Remote Teacher Observation (RTO)

The Concept

RTO is a process which was created by the author to serve the needs of schools, institutions and teachers around the world who may not have access to regular, high-quality, guiding observation for language teachers.

While teaching is at least as much 'art' as 'science' and we don't necessarily have all the answers to how language learning is best achieved, we do know quite a lot, after some years of research and practice and RTO is designed to support teachers in the quest to do the very best for their students and for their own professional development. Sometimes, it's as simple as having another pair of eyes on a situation so that the teacher can get another view, so to speak. At other times, teacher can pinpoint a particular problem they would like help with, in either case, RTO is a professionally enhancing response.

Because teachers work largely in a void they can often benefit from a series of skilled observations followed by generative feedback designed to support and encourage their professional progress. RTO is about maximising and adding to the tools a teacher has, it's not about picking up on language errors but on working with a teacher from their own perspective, in their own context but from a distance!

Being observed is an important part of every valid teacher-training course, whether an entry-level CELTA or a Post Grad degree in teaching, so the RTO is really an extension of those programmes for teachers already working.

Unfortunately teachers sometimes feel they are being observed as an ‘error spotting’ exercise and needless to say, that must have a negative impact on their performance. Very often, feedback too is a series of do’s and don’ts rather than a dialogue between two teachers. I specialise in helping teachers develop through positive, constructive feedback. RTO is a collaboration between professionals.

How it Works

The system I have developed, ideally uses two observation points to monitor both students and teacher since we know that there are times when a teacher acts in a certain way as a direct response to something a student has said or done; it’s important to be able to see both the teacher and the students to gauge best how to help that teacher. Having said that, if a teacher cannot manage two simultaneous recordings, one can be enough as long as the filming shares time between teacher and students.

It may be possible to position a device (laptop, webcam, mobile phone, ipad etc) in such a way that it picks up both teacher and students. It's always best if students are not really aware that they are being filmed1 since their behaviour naturally changes when they know! If that isn't possible, then have the equipment around for some days before the actual recording so that they are used to seeing it.

Recording sessions should ideally be between 20 and 40 minutes of continual recording and must be of sufficiently good quality to be clearly audible and visible! They should also include plenty ot Teacher-Student interaction as well as phases of instruction giving, correction and language focus.

After recording, the teacher uploads the clip to a pre-agreed folder and I will view it. Next we arrange a skype session to discuss the recorded lesson segment and the teacher's and my views on it. Written feedback is also possible if required.

I recommend that teachers have regular RTO sessions, perhaps once a year or so for full time teachers to ensure that we can help them maintain their developmental progress.

Schools and institutions which use RTO will receive a certificate for each teacher who uses the resource so that using RTO can be seen as a positive marketing device as well as a great teacher support programme.

For further information and a pricing schedule, email:

1. [teachers should be sure that they are abiding by local laws when filming children in class]


These scenarios do not depict real people or places but are an amalgam based on my experience working with teachers and schools around the world, they are typical of contexts in which I have offered support and tailor-made advice to professionals.

Scenario 1

Alison has been teaching English to primary age children for 23 years. Her students love her and she loves her job. However, she gets no support from her managers and has no CPD programme to help her achieve her professional goals. In fact over the last few years, she has become somewhat disillusioned and feels isolated and trapped in a cycle of teaching the same lessons from the same books. She booked 3 RTO sessions using 2 cameras, one, her own phone propped up on her desk to face the children and the other, a laptop camera set on a bookshelf facing her. We worked together to help her find positive strategies to deal with her situation, revitalise her teaching and develop practical answers to questions she had about the use of technology, games, homework and class management. We plan to visit Alison again next year!

Scenario 2

Tamás is a young teacher working in a commercial language school where the other teachers, with no professional stimulation, have become bored and unchallenged. He is newly qualified and wants to ensure that he does the best job possible. Unfortunately, his DoS sees observation as a way to make teachers work in his way, using old-fashioned, grammar translation methodology. We set up 2 RTO sessions with Tamás using 2 different classes. He explained to his young adult students what we were doing and they were enthusiastic. In fact one of his students volunteered to take the 2nd camera footage while Tom's own Ipad was set up at the back of the room. Tamás was pleased to find that he's already working in a very efficient and effective way and together we developed some ideas about communicative activities and teaching pronunciation. Since our RTO sessions, Tamás has been promoted to the DoS position when the previous Dos retired.

Scenario 3

The Exxxx Lxxxx Cxxxc is a medium sized language school in Asia. Its owner is not a teacher but cares about her teaching staff and the quality of their teaching. She booked 2 RTO sessions with each teacher and over 3 months we conducted successful observations and feedback, including an extra group feedback session to support the idea of peer observation and setting up a self-driven CPD programme in the school. The school owner invested in webcams so that we could have the best possible recording facility. RTO will be returning to that school next year.

Prior to training with Steve Hirschhorn and learning about his theories on observation, my main experiences with the process had not been overwhelmingly positive. I had been given some really negative feedback during my time as a primary teacher and I had felt that the whole process was little more than a fault finding exercise that completely undermined my confidence as a teacher. My experiences of being observed as an EFL teacher were not much better, much of the feedback felt muddled and disorganised, and I left unsure of what the person was trying to say. From speaking to other teachers I have found that I am not the only one who feels this way, therefore it was very important to me that whatever I did as an observer was helpful and supportive.

When Steve first explained his views on the observation process, and what he hoped to achieve, I was immediately on board with his vision. Steve believes that observations should be constructive and valuable and that teachers should go away feeling more confident about their teaching practice, not less.

Steve has a very structured approach to training observers, we started by observing Steve as he carried out observations on other teachers and asked us to share our views on what we saw. He took us through the process step by step, and gave us detailed information on the do’s and don’ts of observation and what we should be doing at each stage of the observation process. Once we were all happy we knew what we were doing we observed alongside Steve and were able to contribute a few comments of our own during feedback. I didn’t carry out any observations of my own until Steve and I were both happy that I was completely confident with the process and that I felt able to give feedback in an effective manner. I trained alongside a fellow practitioner, and I found this really useful as we were able to compare what we thought about the process and support each other.

I have found this training invaluable in allowing me to guide other teachers to their best practise. It has given me the confidence to provide useful feedback to colleagues, without worrying that I am going to undermine their confidence or turn feedback into a negative experience. I believe that every teaching setting should adopt Steve’s approach in order to foster good working relationships among staff and improve the quality of teaching.

Theresa Turner

I have had the pleasure of working with Steve Hirschhorn over 2 summers in the UK. On the first occasion I was a teacher who underwent observations by Steve and on the second occasion I was fortunate enough to have been trained and mentored by him in the art of observations and teacher feedback, so I am lucky enough to have been on both sides of Steve's observation techniques.

As a teacher I found Steve's observations relaxed and non intrusive and this continued through to the feedback session. Steve encourages teachers to reflect on their own work and gently guides the teacher into taking a more thoughtful approach into the classroom. The teachers we worked with always went into the observations with trepidation and nerves, and came out feeling upbeat and positive about the feedback given and were keen to adopt a more student centred, self-aware approach to teaching.

The feedback that I have gained from my colleagues has confirmed that they found their observations to be a very positive and empowering experience.

I would strongly recommend Steve to any language school or training centre.

John Milton