I have been formally teaching for 13 years now. Eleven years in secondary school, two years in community college. That means I have been observed at least 40 times formally; those formal observations were written up, rated, and put into my permanent teaching file. Of course, having held various leadership positions at my high school, I was observed many, many times informally by regional administrators, principals groups, city agencies, colleagues, and a host of other organizations or individuals who entered the building and asked to see a classroom in action. I never received feedback from those visits. It was somewhat infuriating and didn’t help me at all as a teacher. Regardless, folks were always sent to me and I still welcomed them.
It’s inevitable that when you’re being observed the classroom dynamic shifts. My students noticed this in December when I had my formal observation. My colleague, Laura, came to observe me. I have a great relationship with her. She left when I went to administer my Course Evaluations to the students my students said, “You were WEIRD when she was here!” And I concurred. I mean, I was undoubtedly myself, but I was also different. We talked about it for a bit, specifically in the terms of ethnographic observations because they did an observation during the semester in their Ethnographies of Work class, and then I left the room for them to complete their evaluations in privacy.
I *do* have an open-door policy to my classroom, but I *do* still get antsy when folks visit. Strange.
Yesterday, a woman from the Community College Research Council (CCRC) at Teachers College came to observe my Arts in NYC class. They are studying our school. I knew she was coming. She came in a little late (annoying) and sat down and began to fill out a sheet that I had never seen (annoying again). I had the class divided into two long tables for an activity we were going to do later after the free write and the lesson on exploring modern art through the definitions of “taste” and “beauty,” but we did not get to the activity part of the lesson.
I have never taught a seminar class before, a class for which I prepare materials to spark conversation and let the class just run with, around, and through these ideas in dialogue with each other, but that happened organically yesterday! It blew my mind. There were about 18 students in class, and to start I had them write their definitions of beauty. We collected their ideas on a whiteboard. From there, I launched into a powerpoint that introduced the definitions of “taste” and “beauty” according to philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant, from the book But is it Art? by Cynthia Freeman, definitions to which the students responded very strongly. I then added in many images from modern and contemporary art, and wow–that blew their mind. They were arguing, agreeing/disagreeing with each other, wrestling with the images, ideas, and concepts in art, nature, and life–all of them in a great big class dialogue. I would say that about 80% of the class spoke and everyone seemed engaged (engagement defined by looking at those who were speaking, looking at me, the art, and what was happening in lieu of spacing out, doodling, being on their cell phones under the tables, etc.). My main job was to facilitate who spoke when and to keep the conversation going. The class went by so quickly and was so alive and energetic that we didn’t get to the activity I had planned.
As a teacher/professor, I felt like they were in a COLLEGE CLASS, a seminar class. The students were articulate, respectful, intelligent, and alive with the material. I was so proud of them.
But then I got a little nervous and squirrely. The woman observing me left when another colleague came in to coach the students on developing their ePortfolio pages for our class. Why did she leave? That was part of the class, too. It was a lesson on curating your academic image. What did she think of the class? Did she feel the class was all teacher-centered? I felt all weird and icky and questioning inside, even though I know that was an awesome class.
I wonder about what one might say of my class is that was their snapshot of it. What they might say about me, the students, our conversation. I must admit, she didn’t exude a vibe that seemed trustworthy–like she was one who knew teaching or community college students or the goals of our institution. It made me feel icky. Slightly violated. Pet the wrong way.
And I wonder if that’s what I will make people feel like as I continue to do educational research.
God, I hope not.