Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Come watch my pretend class!"

There’s no denying that being observed is stressful, no matter how long you’ve been teaching.

The Boston Celtics’ legendary Hall-of-Fame center Bill Russell claims, during his first few years in the NBA, he got so worked up that he threw up before every game. Later, he said, he got his nerves in check and only threw up before playoff games.

Likewise, in my first year or so as a teacher, I’d get so pumped up for a class I’d become almost ill. But by my third year, I only tossed my grits on the days I was observed.

Even now, after a handful of decades, I don’t look forward to it. Why is that? I’m not ashamed of or embarrassed by my teaching. I’m not a bad teacher. I shouldn’t be intimidated if Marzano himself trotted in for a peek. But there’s something unnatural about the whole thing.

People who understand teaching know that what is only a collection of teenagers on the first day evolves into some sort of community after a few weeks, and usually into another kind of community a few weeks after that.

The same sort of thing happens, in microcosm, during each class. There is, in the first minutes, the Great Entrance, a sort of unruly procession of kids shaking off the transitory freedom sandwiched between classes, the conversation bytes as they settle into desks, trading a few last-second greetings or jibes or insults with their friends across the room, the rehashing and reducing – if it’s a quiz day – of a literary masterpiece into hurried simplistic fragments (“Macbeth has Banquo wacked but, but like, his kid gets away and Macbeth totally freaks … ”).

After some order is established, they move into a probationary, wait-and-see period, no one wanting to be the first one to show too much interest. Slowly, a conversation begins and the community, which was alive and well yesterday, rises like a Phoenix from its ashes and class begins in earnest.
What does it take to derail this process? Very little. Once, a first-period student wanted to see how things went in second period, so she dropped by, found a seat and quietly observed. The mood of the class changed. The temperature dropped a degree or two.

An observer, then, is assured of not observing your actual class, especially if she enters once the conversation has begun. This community, this rapport that you’ve spent so many hours building devolves into, to quote Fitzgerald, a “feigned counterfeit ease,” an icy, self-conscious desire (you hope) to please, a collective impulse of (you hope) good intent.

So maybe this is a reason not to be nervous: Your actual class will not be observed. The stuff that has gone badly for you on other days probably won’t today; those spontaneous zingers you’ve fired off with great effect into a sometimes appreciative teenaged audience will be silenced today; if there is laughter, it will be forced or muted or self-conscious, with a look back over the shoulder to see how the observer’s taking this.

Unless you can loosen things up a little, your observer will watch you teach a room full of pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

And speaking of invasion, this whole process feels something like a weird sort of invasion of privacy.

There are a few things you can do to prepare for this bit of artifice, this teaching theatre, and it doesn’t have to include memorizing the Marzano indicators. After a brief commercial break, I’ll be back with some suggestions.

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