Observation Revisited

A mentor of mine told me a story of a student – let’s call him Jonathan – who completely blew up in a class that she was observing. I mean, went off – dropping f-bombs and attempting verbal abuse on the teacher. Jen knew from previous observations and background that Jonathan has a very tough home life and tended to be a ‘tough kid to reach;’ however, she didn’t know a whole lot more about the student’s growth and development, and the angry event piqued her curiosity. The next day, she went to observe the same student in a different class.

The class she chose is everybody’s favorite: math! She did her best to practice strong observation techniques, and what she noticed began to surprise her. The entire class period he looked to all the outside world to be doing nothing. However, when the math teacher would begin to explain something to a student nearby, Jonathan would shift his posture to allow one ear to be a bit closer to the verbal explanation. Any time the teacher wrote a statement accompanied with a ‘like this…’ statement, Jonathan would sneak a peak towards the paper where the writing was occurring. Jen realized two things: first, this kid was actually doing a lot more math than it seemed, and second, that he didn’t want anyone to know this was the case. Jonathan – somewhere in his impacted home life – had developed seemingly impenetrable walls of fear of vulnerability. He (in his mind) could not allow himself to be vulnerable – even in a subject like math – so he constructed his best image to the outside world that learning was not something he cared about. After all, if you don’t care about it and don’t put any effort into it, who could fault you for not being good at it?

We have discussed observation previously, and this anecdote provides another example of the need for teachers to be observing with fidelity and priming our observations by training ourselves to be ‘part psychologists.’ The process of training ourselves in this manner turns out to be closely related to what we are training our students to do – expand perspective. The ultimate goal in the process of expanding perspective is to see the world as it really is, without our hopes and fears overlayed on top of it. So too is the case with observation – if we can train ourselves to strip away the layers of ‘this is what I should be doing in the classroom/expecting from my students,’ we will be able to see the developmental trajectory of each student more clearly.

The first step in this process, I believe, is focusing on ourselves. My own personal journey to stripping away my concept of what I should be doing in the classroom involved gaining confidence as a teacher and meditating – your path may be different but the end goal is the same. Instead of subconsciously asking at every moment during a class ‘What would it look like to my principal if he walked in right now? What would he think?’ we want to ask ‘What learning is occurring right now, and what would I need to know to best facilitate it for each student and the group as a whole?’ Sometimes the answer is not immediately conferring with students during a Group Think / Grapple portion of a class period, but just letting things happen and observing where each student is in terms of their ability to engage and hang-ups when doing so. This can give us the insight that Jonathan needs to overcome a vulnerability problem before he can engage in the math.

The second step in this process is becoming as informed as we can as to the aspects of human psychology. Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability – were it an integral part of Professional Development at schools – could lead to more teachers recognizing and having strategies to help the Jonathan’s of the world to learn. Needless to say, this recognition would be more valuable to Jonathan’s education than continuing to have a teacher learn how to ‘create the most engaging lesson possible,’ further ‘arcadifying’ the classroom when the reality of the situation is that classrooms will never compete with modern media in terms of the entertainment provided.

The day after Jen told me Jonathan’s story, a girl in one of my classes who I have observed to be very good at ‘getting me to do the work’ that she has the capacity to do asked me yet another question. Once again, I knew she could do it without my help if she just stuck with it long enough. However, it all of a sudden struck me – the girl that she sat next to is far behind in math, but resembles Jonathan, minus the blow-ups. She just won’t let anyone help her! But, I began to wonder: was she like Jonathan in the sense that every time her next-door neighbor asked a question, she benefited?

And so I began to observe anew, expanding my perspective on what I perceived to be happening, and hopefully taking off the shades through which I was viewing the world.

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