My Best Observation Ever

Observations and evaluations are the kind of words that usually get our collective teacher pants all knotted up in a bunch. We start to get nervous. There is something about an administrator in our room clicking away on their efficient dell laptop or tapping away at their district-issued ipad that makes us a little jittery. Early in my career, I would show off for this kind of moment. I would use every trick I had, jump over desks, and clean up every activity to garner all the praise I could find. It made me feel good. But then, about 5 years in, I got kind of jaded to the whole observation process. It seemed that that better I was at showing off on stage, the higher my marks were. It had nothing to do with student learning and everything to do with my stage presence. I was good at showing off, and one principal even told me that my observation was the “best lesson I have seen in 20 years.” It all felt contrived, so I stopped showing off. I didn’t even want to know when they were coming. I wanted real feedback. It prompted one principal to tell me that, “with all the hype, I have to say I was a little disappointed.”

I smiled.
“Sorry to disappoint. I don’t show off anymore.”

This week at my school, the second semester began and there were a few holes in student schedules where they lost an elective class and it didn't get replaced. Instead of waiting in the guidance counselor line that looks more like the downtown DMV, or taking their chances in the crowded library, some of them make their way to the third floor to sit in my room during one of my classes.

I'm kind of flattered. I can't imagine having to put up with me every day for a required 42 minutes, much less opting to sit and observe my nonsensical meandering for another period. On a normal day, I have very little patience for students invading my class when their is another class in session, but this week the “Boll! I don’t have a class!” Excuse seemed kind of legit.

My common mantra of "go to class" fell on deaf ears when some students actually had no class on their new schedule. It's one of those things in schools that seems like it shouldn't happen, but it always does.

So on Wednesday, during my AP Language class, two 11th grade girls squeezed behind my desk with the agreement that if they distracted students they would leave. It seemed fair enough, and they are nice kids who genuinely wanted to see how much different the AP class was than their own. Or, maybe they wanted a quiet(ish, because let's be real- I'm entirely too loud) room to scan through their facebook feeds in peace. I was fine with that.

But then, at the beginning of class, I had an idea. I grabbed two blank pieces of paper and walked over to my desk.

"Can you guys observe me?" I asked with the nerdy excited tone that I get when I think I have a fun idea. It's a tone that always gets an eye roll, but I think kids secretly like it when their teachers are excited.

"What?" said the more outspoken of the two girls as she looked up from her phone.

"Um, I haven't thought this through. But I kind of want an evaluation. The kind that awkward principals in suits sometimes do when they are in your classrooms."

It's pretty common for me to make bad jokes when I haven't planned. It's even more common for me to make bad jokes when I am in that nerdy excited mode. Seriously, It's an annoying thing that I do. I start laughing and half expect a sudden snort to work its way out of my excited laugh. I've never been a snorter though.

"What do you want us to write?"

It was the right question. A question that my spur-of-the moment idea couldn't perfectly address.

"I'm kind of just interested in how you see my class. I want you to pay attention to how I talk to students, how the class reacts to me, and how I handle each moment. Focus on things that only students might notice about what it is like to be here."

If I were them, I would have chose a mindless scroll through my Facebook feed. Or maybe putting dog ears on selfies with cheesy Snapchat filters. But the students I teach are far better people than I was or am, and these two played along with my idea. After 42 minutes of what was a lively discussion on representation of minority groups in media, the students filed out of the class and the two girls each handed me a page of notes. I told them they made my day.

When I got a moment that was a little less frantic (there is no such thing as silence during a school day), I pulled out the notes on my evaluation. What I found was more helpful than most of the principal evaluations I have received over the years. There was no talk of the word wall that wasn't updated, or the objectives that were incomplete on the board, or the one student who kept their head down after my gentle nudge.

Instead, their feedback focused on the nature of the discussion. They talked about how there were a few students in the room who they know skip most classes. They noted how impressive that was. They mentioned how passionate the debate was, and how some people were participating who rarely participate in other classes. They told me that although some kids were on phones, they were still moving along with discussion. Before I could feel too good about myself, they told me what to work on.

They told me by name the students who weren't talking at all. One girl even said that some of them looked like they wanted to talk, but couldn't get a chance in the crowded room. They told me that there were a few kids who were distracted by their phones and that I should probably do something about that.

In the end, they both said that they enjoyed being there. They said it looked like everybody did. That probably meant more than anything. I know there are students that I miss each day, and it feels affirming to know that they probably liked class. Their observation included an understanding of context that was far deeper than any I have ever received. And that will change my classroom.

I think I'm going to start making student observations a more regular part of my practice. I'll come up with a more organized form to help the students give targeted feedback and conference with some kids before I throw them on the spot like I did the other day. Then, I'll invite them in when they have a free moment and see what they notice. They are, after all, the client. I should be orienting my methods and styles to their methods and styles. I should be building a classroom that caters to them far more than it caters to principals, folks in business suits, or myself.

"Boll- you're the best" was scratched at the bottom of one of their notes. A reminder that even with the cell phones and the loud students and the missed opportunities, I am still doing enough to earn my place in the room. That meant more than any satisfactory rating I ever got.