Campus Culture

Calming the Storm: Classroom Observations

As long as I have been teaching, I have received classroom observations. I suspect I’m not alone in finding the experience stressful. In all other circumstances, a bad class experience helps me adjust my teaching. A bad class while being observed is a professional liability.

I appreciate that observations are a form of peer review, and that they are one of many measures of our performance. But over time, I’ve come to see them as having the problems of other high stakes test: I’m not sure anyone learns anything. Being observed demonstrates your skills, but it does not cultivate them. It’s purely gatekeeping—declaring who is and who is not a good teacher.

And because it’s gatekeeping, it’s contentious. BMCC lore is rich with stories of terrible observations, mostly from the perspective of faculty who have received terrible observations. But I have never heard a single story in which someone became a better teacher. More often, I hear stories about faculty who became defensive and aggrieved. One of my colleagues essentially avoided the person who had observed him. But then, shortly before retirement, the senior professor apologized for the bad review, saying, “I was wrong about you.” Huh? Aren’t observations about a class, not a person?

I have helped friends write responses to negative evaluations, and I have heard of evaluations simply being dropped when the person complained. In other words, faculty observations are potential sites of aggrievement.  They often put those of us being observed in a defensive posture, justifying our behavior in the face of critique, rather than being reflective on opportunities to discuss pedagogy. Teaching is often quite lonely, and rather than building a sense of community among faculty, observations often make us adversarial, not nurturing.

I only remember learning from one observation. The professor wrote a fantastic evaluation, and then as we settled into discussion she delivered a number of “painful truths.” I accepted all this silently, but in fact, I nearly quit teaching altogether. She told me that I was treating my students as versions of myself—that I expected my students to respond to the kinds of teaching that had inspired me as a student. She told me that I was teaching to the top of the class. I was devastated, because I was trying very hard not to make such presumptions. She ultimately became a mentor to me, and we worked together for years on various projects. Yet I often think about how difficult it was for me to become an effective instructor, and how that journey was often quite painful.

The flip side, however, comes with my role as an observer. Then my main focus is on the basic dynamic of the class. I’m looking for reciprocal respect, student engagement, intellectual rigor, clear explanations, and the willingness of the instructor to meet the students where they are. I’ve observed instructors who gave me lesson plans broken down into five-minute increments (which were stuck to!), and I’ve observed instructors who shrugged about the fact that I was coming on research day, and the students sat at computers the whole time looking up articles. Still, the things that I look for have to do with the relationships that drive the class, much more than the lesson plan or the particular discussion of that day.

Last semester, I decided that I would make the relationship reciprocal and extend an invitation to my observees to attend any of my classes that they wished. Certainly, this doesn’t change the power dynamic—I submit a report about their teaching, and they do not submit a report about me—but I hoped it would create a spirit of openness. I also wanted to be visible to my observees as a fellow instructor, as well as an observer.  Who am I to tell you about teaching? Come find out.

One of my observees did take me up on offer, and I was unsure how the lesson would go. Fortunately for me, it went wonderfully. I got to show off, yes, but it opened up a different kind of relationship between me and my observee—we were able to discuss pedagogy in a different way, because I was present in her mind as a classroom instructor, and I had made myself vulnerable to her review.

I plan to keep offering to open my classroom to the faculty I am assigned to observe, and while I don’t recommend it to everyone, I feel like it’s an important step for me in rethinking observations as an opportunity to help us grow as a faculty and to see each other as a community of teachers and scholars.


3 Responses to Calming the Storm: Classroom Observations

  1. Rifat Salam February 11, 2019 at 4:41 pm #

    Lot of good observations about observations! They certainly have a bureaucratic function but they can be so much more. I created a set of guidelines for observing adjuncts in our department but the most important thing I emphasize is that they should be approached in as collegial and collaborative a way as possible. I’ve made suggestions that people (I hope) appreciated and I’ve gotten a lot of great teaching ideas from observations I’ve done—and I make sure I tell the instructor about it. The functions of the observation report create a built in power dynamic, so what we need to do is to create an alternative vision and culture around this process. I also love the idea of reciprocity and would like to see more opportunities (like open teaching week) to observe each other’s classes in a nonjudgmental context. Thanks for this piece, lots of things to think about.

  2. Page Delano February 13, 2019 at 3:48 pm #

    This is so interesting, and I can read it without any anxiety about being observed, as I’m away this semester…I thought Rifat’s additions were good, but Jason, you made me think perhaps a session of team teaching might be good — the two meet before hand to discuss how to team teach a class…? A colleague and I years back brought our classes (095s, I believe, together to have a discussion of “The Bluest Eye” — ) and it was great! Mostly student offerings.

  3. Monica February 21, 2019 at 2:59 pm #

    Thank you for writing this, Jason. I really appreciated your thoughts.

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