First Person

When Teacher Observation Goes Horribly Wrong

—Image by 4D 1st Prize/Flickr Creative Commons/Ross Brenneman
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I was in my first year of teaching high school social studies in Framingham, Massachusetts. I mostly taught sections of early U.S. history, which, as I often told people, was pretty cool because so many famous events took place near where our school was later built. Henry David Thoreau, for example, went into the woods practically right up the road.

After school on a cold day in March, I was scheduled to compete on a faculty team in a school-wide volleyball tournament. Excited to take part, I left my apartment that morning with all that I would need to transition from teaching to playing: an apple and a granola bar, my old basketball shoes, a school tee-shirt, and a pair of blue and green plaid shorts that, when worn, extend an inch past the knees on my 6’9” frame.

But before I got to volleyball after school, I had, of course, to teach, and that day was noteworthy in that respect because I was to be observed by an assistant principal during my first period. Two yearly administrator observations were required of all untenured teachers at the school. This would be my second. The first went well. But I wanted to be seen as a good and serious teacher, so I had made sure I had the perfect lesson planned.

About an hour into the 90-minute class of 10th grade U.S. History I, the students were working on a project in groups of four and five. I walked from group to group, observing what was being done, answering questions, asking questions, in some cases prodding lethargy. Sarah, the assistant principal, sat at my desk in the back of the room, swiftly tapping the keys on her laptop.

"Too much goes on in the life of a teacher to dwell on any one event for too long."

Walking around the perimeter of the room, I approached a group of four girls that sat circled, diligently working, near the classroom’s door. Kayla asked me a good question, and as was routine for me when I talked with seated students, I crouched down into a catcher’s squat so that our eyes were level as I answered the question. Upon doing so, though, I heard the abrupt, unmistakable sound of a seam ripping.

My lips sealed tightly and my eyelids separated like a space shuttle taking off from the earth. Kayla, an upbeat student who was on the school’s cheerleading team, asked me a new question: “Did your pants just split?”

I was wearing a faded pair of blue corduroy pants. In cold months, I only wore corduroys to school. But this pair, along with an olive green pair, was unique in my wardrobe. It was a favorite item, partly because it was almost threadbare. At the time, as part of image of myself as a dedicated teacher, I was an adherent of Thoreau’s advice to “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” Sarah’s formal teaching evaluation, which I received later, reads, “At 8:42, Mr. Kissling’s pants split.”

A Loss of Control

I don’t think I answered either of Kayla’s questions. Standing up stiffly but quickly, I backed away from the group of girls. My head pivoted toward Sarah. I managed: “Could you watch the class for a few minutes?” Probably not a typical request during an evaluation, but Sarah agreed—and what else could she do? I opened the door and walked directly across the hall to a faculty bathroom where I confirmed what I feared. The seam along my backside had a 4-inch split.

Mercifully, I remembered that I had my volleyball clothes in the car. I exited the bathroom, walking quickly through the school’s labyrinthine hallways toward the parking lot. No fellow hall-walkers likely saw the rip, but I’m sure it would have been hard not to notice my awkward gait. In any case, clutching my plaid shorts, I returned to the bathroom across from my classroom and changed out of my pants. Although I looked foolish, I kept on my tie and tucked in my dress shirt. I also pulled up my navy blue dress socks as high as they would go. What the heck. Mortifying as it was, maybe the humor in the situation could salvage something.

“At 8:49, Mr. Kissling returned,” my evaluation reads.

My polite students giggled, and my more comfortable students howled. Sarah chuckled. I smirked. My greatest fear—not being in full control of my classroom—had been realized. My secret vulnerability was exposed. And yet, I was fine. Class actually resumed for its remaining minutes.

When the period ended, I walked down the long corridor to my other classroom—I was a new teacher, after all—for my next period. Whether I stayed in the character of a teacher that had pants on, as was my plan, I’m not quite sure. But by the end of second period, Sarah showed up at my door. She had my pants. Our life skills teacher, who had a sewing machine in her room, had been kind enough to mend the gap.

‘Room for the Unexpected’

At the conclusion of the period, I changed back into my regular attire. But for the rest of that day, and a week or so beyond, students and teachers gleefully recalled what had happened. Eventually, however, the moment largely came and went. Too much goes on in the life of a teacher to dwell on any one event for too long. Each new day in school brings so many more hours of preparation, interactions, questions, challenges, and joys.

And yet I think that seam-ripping moment was an important one in my development as a teacher.

My pants split in the spring of 2005, in my ninth month of teaching. Up to that point in the school year, I hadn’t missed a day of school, and each day I wore a necktie, even after my principal took the opportunity to poke fun at “the rookie” who wore a tie to a Friday afterschool happy hour at a nearby pub. I was having some fun teaching, but probably not enough. I took teaching seriously. Very seriously. Too seriously.

When my pants split, I soon learned that teaching is just as much, if not more, about immediate, messy moments of interaction than a detailed, fully articulate, closely-followed lesson plan. I began to court the unexpected classroom moments as I found that often they were our best learning moments (whether they were fun, tense, vibrant, difficult, or something else).

Now, in 2014, I teach student-teachers, most of whom aren’t too far away from the point that I was at when my pants split, both in terms of time spent teaching and level of ease in the classroom. I share this story with them. I want it to be an example of how unforeseen events take place in the classroom—and how not only are those events OK but also how they can be meaningful. I still plan meticulously, but I also make ample room for the unexpected.

Teaching is serious business in so many ways. It’s about students and their complicated, precious lives. The responsibility is huge—as what, really, is more important than attending to the lives of our youth? Seriously. But teaching must be infused with levity and, to an important degree, vulnerability. I needed my pants to split—in class, during an administrator’s evaluation no less—in order for me to reach this necessary conclusion.

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