The right stuff

Starfleet Academy is well into its annual cycle of teacher evaluation.  I will be observed multiple times by both my department chair, Dr. Tea, and my higher-level evaluator, whom I’ll call Mrs. Which and whose title is something like Director of Curriculum/Instruction/Scheduling.  Dr. Tea had already sat in on parts of two of my classes “just to get a sense of the groups,” and this week both she and Mrs. Which observed an entire class each–my two sections of ninth-grade honors English.

Getting observed used to stress me out a fair bit; even though I’ve mostly had pretty good experiences with observations, there have been two times during my teaching career that I came very nearly unglued while being observed, including one in which I couldn’t seem to muster the confidence to move around the classroom and just sat there like a piece of petrified stupidity.  (Afterwards, my evaluator said gently, “You could move around some–you know, write something on the board?”)  Ugh, I don’t even like to think about it.  That was at GU.  I used to get very good evaluations at 2YC, though, and also did fine at the SLAC where I taught a few years back.  I never did get observed at BAC or NCC, and nobody has gotten around to coming to see me at New RU yet, either.

Something that is helping me be less weirded out is that the two classes that I teach in a classroom that isn’t mine are often witnessed, to some extent, by one of the two teachers who are based there.  They work quietly at their own desks, often with earplugs or iPod earbuds in, but sometimes afterwards we talk a little bit about what went well and what didn’t.  I have become a bit desensitized to having someone else in the room, and that helps.

Also helpful is watching other people teach and talking with other teachers generally, which helps me to realize that everyone has students who whisper in class and do ridiculous things (I actually caught a girl with a pair of scissors trying to snip the hair of the boy in front of her) and that we all face similar challenges and cope with them within the limits of our own patience, ability and temperament. 

I am still not a big fan of being observed.  I feel that I’m less real with the students because I’m thinking about what the thing I’m doing looks like.  Perhaps this is why it’s easier to be observed when I am presenting very prepared material; I felt more confident about the class Dr. Tea witnessed, which involved asking the students to try to decode a passage of Old English (Genesis 3:1-2 in Aelfric’s translation) and talking to them about the language since we are starting Beowulf.  Obviously, I’ve already thought about what it will look like, what I’ll put on the board, etc.  By contrast, when Mrs. Which came in, I was talking with the students about their Antigone papers, which involved answering a lot of nervous, vague questions, and showing them a technique for revising a thesis statement.  Much more seat-of-the-pants, and rife with opportunities to say something dumb or confused.

However, when I met with Mrs. Which, she seemed to think I was modeling the writing process, and giving them opportunities to answer their own questions, and exuding a powerful sense of enthusiasm for writing and literature.  Which, I guess, I was.  She had lots to say about what I did right and a few very specific, useful suggestions–what could be better?  Interestingly, she pointed out something I hadn’t even remembered, which was that two students came in rather late.  I should be keeping track of that, she said, and communicating to the students that I do expect them there on time, because they will start to take advantage if they think I don’t notice.  Overall, though, she said, she is very pleased with my transition to high-school teaching, and she hopes I am too.

The class Dr. Tea observed is the one that’s usually very sharp and focused, and they were somewhat giggly and distractable the day she was there.  But she pointed out that from her position at the back of the room, she could tell that almost all the whispered side conversations were actually about the Old English, which was kind of fabulous to hear–they were excited and interested!  Dr. Tea said it made her wish she could sit in the back of her own class.  She also pointed out a student she thought seemed very disengaged, which I appreciated since it reinforced my own impression and now I know I need to figure out what to do about it.

Anyway, this has been a very positive evaluation experience so far, quite similar in many ways to the one What Now? had last year, I think.  It feels good to be approved of, of course, but I also feel very supported in my efforts to become a better teacher.  I am actually sort of looking forward to having Mrs. Which come to my most likely-to-be-disruptive class (in which, the other day, I handed out my very first detention, ever) to give me some feedback on how I am handling it, whereas in other settings I think I would be tempted to try to hide from everyone that I am frustrated by how hard I have to work to keep them on track.

This weekend: piles of grading!  But also a Sunday spent on a belated birthday outing with the Snork Maiden, her best friend, and Stubb.  And the beginning of my NaProWriMo (National Project Writing Month) project.  I’m putting a checklist into the sidebar.  It starts in the morning.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I’m glad to hear that the observations have gone so well. It sounds like you’re getting both validation and helpful advice. I do think that high school teachers have often thought more about teaching, classroom management, etc. than college professors (to make a gross generalization), and it’s been interesting to observe and be observed in these new circumstances.


  2. Posted by meansomething on November 3, 2008 at 5:14 am

    Well, when your students are taking scissors and pens to one another, you have to think about classroom management in a way that maybe you don’t when your students are just occasionally rolling their eyes? Not to make light of college classroom management, though, because I certainly know it can be a bear…


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