The watchman

16th May 2014 at 01:00

It's as if we're arranging a blind date. We exchange notes via each other's department mailboxes and send emails stating our available times. We agree on a particular hour and location. I arrive on time at my colleague's classroom, where I will be observing her teaching. Perhaps it's more like arranging a medical screening; no matter how well it goes, it will be unpleasant at best.

Who am I to offer commentary on her teaching? Who am I to judge her qualifications based on 60 minutes in her classroom, upsetting the chemistry that she and her students have developed? If I were just stopping in as an equal, a guest, to watch and not judge, that would be different. We would both be happier.

Shyly sitting down at a desk in the corner, I feel myself becoming a student. Sometimes, sensibly enough, my colleague calls attention to me. She waves her hand in my direction and announces my name; the students look over and I nod. He's here to observe me, not you, she tells them, so don't be nervous.

I'm a full professor, so I am not observed any more. How absurd. I'm no better at teaching than I was when I first started in a community college 21 years ago.

I hated being observed every term. I felt like an actor playing a character based on myself. And I was flummoxed by my students' convincing portrayals of compliance and enthusiasm - why couldn't they pretend like that when no one was watching?

The times when I forgot that the observation was due to happen were probably better, because I didn't have time to be self-conscious. "Oh, well," I figured, "this is how we teachers actually behave."

I love watching classes that I'm not teaching. I draw a map of the room. I scribble down as much as I can of what the students and the professor say. I make a note when latecomers arrive ("tall male, 12.09pm"). When it's quiet because the students are writing, I sometimes sketch them. In my own classes I'm too busy to observe students this closely. But observing is easy. It's easy to watch how hard it is to teach.

It's only as an observer that I really see the classroom from the students' perspective. As a teacher, I am conscious of the atmosphere, of the interactions going on, but I can't flip the picture. As an observer, I am like an anthropologist witnessing a strange ritual. I am at one with the students and I watch the teacher with a steady awareness of her physical presence: the tone of her voice, the knock of her heels, the squeak of the marker on the whiteboard. I hear the birds outside, the students passing in the hallway.

I am aware, unlike in my own classes, of the attention the students pay to the teacher. They are actually listening. They are actually eager to do something. When the class is over, the observed teacher looks relieved and I am happy. I have reams of field notes.

My only chore is filling out the forms, ticking the boxes, constructing approving phrases. Unless - and this is so rare - it hasn't gone well.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College, New York City

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