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Teaching Profession Opinion

The Particular Agony of Teacher Observations

By Justin Minkel — September 18, 2018 5 min read
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I hate being observed. When my principal walks in with her laptop or a clipboard and pen, I’m instantly afflicted by a crippling self-doubt I haven’t felt since junior high. I scan the room with the alert panic a gazelle must feel when scanning the savannah for predators.

I trail off in the middle of a sentence, losing the thread of whatever I was talking about before my principal walked in. My face gets flushed, my armpits dump sweat, and my voice sounds plaintive and shrill. The kids suddenly seem either wild or half-asleep.

To my own critical gaze, my classroom looks like a junkyard: backpacks knocked off chairs, pencils scattered on the rug, crumpled tissues and broken crayons littering the book baskets. I experience a vast, volcanic anger toward Parker for choosing this precise moment to roll sideways on the rug and start jabbing his partner in the back with a splintered pencil. I would normally tell him to knock it off and sit up straight. In the presence of observers, though, I feel compelled to pretend I only ever speak to my students in the gently loving tone an elderly librarian might use when reminding her favorite grandson to whisper in the library.

So I shoot death ray lasers at Parker with my eyes, while sending him a telepathic message to please, for the love of all that is holy, sit up straight and at least pretend to listen because the principal is right there behind him, and now she’s taking notes with a concerned expression that I interpret as, Why on Earth did we hire this fool?

Parker fails to receive my desperate mental message, of course, because he has now reclined on his back, folded his hands on his chest like a snoozing sea otter, and started a conversation with the kid behind him about whether Thor could beat up the Hulk.

A few days or weeks from now, I’ll be able to laugh about this moment. But until the merciful river of time carries me beyond the present reality of this agonizing observation, I am dying inside.

Surviving observations

There’s something deeply personal about appraisals of our teaching. It’s not just our professional competence that’s wrapped up in an observation, but a sense of our worth as human beings. In walks an administrator, often at the worst possible moment, and suddenly our flaws loom in our minds like the distorted reflection in a funhouse mirror.

So for those of us who die inside every time an observer walks into our classroom, what can we do about it?

1. Remember that we’re all in the same boat.

There is no perfect day of teaching. Even the best teachers experience failure, frustration, multiple mistakes, and moments when their students are either maddeningly unruly or so bored they look catatonic.

Your principal—or whoever else walks in with a clipboard—isn’t perfect, either. She is trying, like we all are, to do a good job in a role where mistakes are unavoidable and chaos theory bites a sizable chunk out of the best-laid plans. If the person observing you is a true professional, she will show you some grace. She will know that you’re trying to do a complex job well, and she’ll recognize that whatever she witnesses is a single snapshot in the photo album of your classroom.

2. Keep direct instruction short, so you can spend most of your time helping kids one-on-one or in small groups.

I feel a thousand times better when my principal walks in while the kids are busy reading books, writing stories, or playing a math game, rather than during the direct instruction portion of a lesson when I’m talking to 25 kids in various states of alertness. Even when I’m not being observed, my best lessons happen when I give most of my thought to the experience, activity, or product the students will be creating, rather than the words I’m going to say. When the kids are engaged in their work, I’m not on stage. I’m doing what comes most naturally—having a true conversation with children one-on-one or in small groups.

3. Clear some space in a really big cabinet where you can jam all your mess.

We don’t always have the time or will to file student work into portfolios and resettle hundreds of scattered math manipulatives into their original homes. For those depleted afternoons when you’re in desperate need of your beloved couch and a giant bowl of ice cream to replenish your spirits, a comprehensive cleanup might be out of the question. Instead, take 10 minutes to stuff the worst of the mess out of sight, then get home to your couch and ice cream. If observers do make an unannounced appearance the next day, the anxiety spike will be less piercing if your room looks a little less post-apocalyptic.

4. Show yourself some grace.

Most of us are way more generous with our colleagues than we are with ourselves. When other teachers on our hall are nervous about an upcoming observation, or feeling mortified after a bad one, we lavish them with reassurance and remind them of the many things they do well in their classroom. We need to show ourselves that same generosity of spirit.

When my wife and I were going through pre-marriage classes, the priest described this sense of grace you come away with when you visit certain couples’ homes. He told us, “That grace doesn’t come from everything being perfect in their marriage or their family. It comes from the couple trying as hard as they can, with everything they’ve got, to be kind to one another and make it work.” We need more of that sentiment when it comes to the work teachers do in our classrooms every day.

Principals, superintendents, and policymakers can help move observations in the right direction by focusing on things that matter, like student engagement and creativity, rather than things that don’t: an immaculate classroom, students who remain silent as monks when walking the hallway, and the obedient inscription of every lesson’s objective on the board. (Is there a single one of us who recalls fondly, from our own time in school, that amazing lesson taught by a beloved teacher because of the numbered state standard written on the board?)

We often punish ourselves, though, by being our own harshest critics. We exhibit a brutal fixation on our flaws that we would never inflict on our students or colleagues. That harshness does nothing to improve our teaching.

This work is really, really hard. We’re often doing better than we think. And when a lesson bombs, we can reflect, learn from the mistakes, and do better tomorrow when we get the gift of another chance.

None of this means that you or I won’t experience crippling anxiety and self-doubt if our principal walks in tomorrow morning, clipboard in hand, at the precise moment our math lesson wobbles off the rails. But we can take a deep breath, consider our strengths, and get the kids started on their work. We can trust that the observers whose opinions truly matter will see what matters most: An imperfect but glorious class of young humans sharing the company of their glorious but imperfect teacher, all of us bringing our best selves to this messy, complicated, beautiful profession at the heart of it all.

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