Getting Protective about Observers in My Classroom

by Mr. Sheehy

When it comes to teaching, I try not to hide anything. I openly admit my failures to just about anyone who is willing to ask about them–be it on this blog, in a staff meeting, or in friendly conversation. Considering that I work in such a public place–20-30 students see what I do day in and day out–it seems relatively pointless to attempt to hide my weaknesses.

Yet recently I found myself cringing about having someone come into my classroom, and I am no more excited about an administrator doing my evaluation than any other teacher, even a non-tenured first year one. I was a bit surprised at myself when I realized how opposed I was to having this visitor, and I’ve been giving some thought to what it is that bothers me about it.

  • Is it that I earned certification in a highly involved program and I’d had my fill of classroom observations through that year?
  • Does it have to do with the years of courses I have taken without time to test out the ideas I developed during those courses, and I want to be left alone to experiment?
  • Am I becoming a cranky old teacher who wants to be left alone since I know generally what I’m doing and don’t want someone to throw recycled jargon at me?
  • Is it that I do not want to be evaluated, even if that is not what the person is trying to do, on the basis of a short visit?

Maybe.

I think it might also have something to do with the manner in which a few ideas have trickled down to me the last couple years.

Let’s say for an example that my district read a study that found that sitting in circles could be beneficial. Circles foster conversation between learners and openness to their ideas. It takes the symbolic emphasis off the teacher and forces the teacher to rely on different classroom management techniques to control the classroom. The district then conducts a series of professional development opportunities to communicate this to faculty. It then follows it up by checking into classrooms to see if the desks are in circles (I am, of course, making all this up).

Now the teachers want to make sure they stay on the good side of the people with the power to evaluate them, so they put the desks in circles. Never mind whether some of those teachers have been able to foster conversation between learners and openness to their ideas with the desks in other shapes–what is being looked for are circles, and therefore if the teachers want to make their lives easier, they’ll simply do circles.

I know it’s an imperfect analogy, but I need a concrete illustration to point out how this kind of initiative can put a teacher on the defensive. If a teacher has been doing something great for years, something admirable and worthy of emulation, it does not matter because it does not match the formula. That teacher could easily feel these two things: 1) what I am doing is apparently not good enough, and 2) fidelity to the formula is the easiest way to please those in charge.

When I as a teacher am feeling like observers of my classroom might be walking through the door with specific lenses–the lenses of an initiative that has grown trendy, like my hypothetical circle of desks–I am hesitant to hear what that person has to say. I do not want someone to see that my desks are in a circle but miss all the things I was already doing to produce the same effect that the circle was intended to create. If someone is going to come into my room, I want that person to have a firm grasp on our purpose; I want them to be be able to see what is going on in light of that overall purpose, despite what topics are trending on the Twitter feed of educational professional development.

Maybe my observer from last week was not coming with that lens, of course (I have no particular reason to suspect it); maybe it could have been a wonderful opportunity to have someone take a clean look at what I am doing. The thing is, I have seen this pattern of lens-filtered, formula-driven thinking so frequently that I am coming to see it as the default mode of observers. Until I see otherwise, I am protective of being put under that analysis.

In case you’re wondering, by the way, I decided to forgo the chance of having a visitor. I suppose I’m more of a cranky old man than I had realized before.

Thanks for reading.

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