Reflective Practice

Faculty Observations: Navigating the Follow-Up Conversation

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By Elizabeth Decker

Faculty observations are a part of life for most college instructors in the first semesters of teaching (and beyond). In my experience, the faculty observation generally includes several stages: the designation of an observer, communication to arrange a visit and send relevant documents, the visit itself, and then a re-cap conversation shortly after the observation. While there is much to be said about how to prepare for the observation itself (my advice, in short: don’t over-prepare), there is also much to say, and perhaps less said, about the post-observation conversation. Having now survived several years of observations and follow-up conversations, across several campuses, I thought I might attempt a crude taxonomy of the experience:

The unfortunate outcome: Perhaps the most disappointing conversations occur when you’re assigned a reluctant observer.  This person approaches the observation process begrudgingly, burdened with other responsibilities, and it’s clear they have little to no interest in spending time with (let alone mentoring) beginning instructors. Likely, this person will have been difficult to schedule an observation with and may have only popped in and out of your class. In these situations, it is quite likely that a post-observation conversation will not even happen, lest the observer dare waste any more time on you. Unfortunately, the reluctant observer also has little interest in understanding your pedagogy or your approach to your class, and will write an observation report devoid of any personalization or understanding of how that particularly class session may have deviated from the norm. It may also be distressingly brief. In these cases, it is best to simply sign the observation form, assure yourself that you deserve better from an observer, and be grateful that you’ll have enough other observations that you’ll never need to submit this one with any job market materials.

The unexpected, and unacceptable, but totally going to happen outcome: I have had two inappropriate post-observation conversations. In one, the observer was very curious about my personal life, and much of the conversation focused on their own daughter’s recent wedding. In another, the observer opened the meeting by asking how I, as a “small woman,” was able to maintain such great authority over my class. The observer went on to tell me that during the first class, every semester, they lectured the entire time on content that was purposefully over the students’ heads and did not allow for questions, in order to send a clear message about who was in control. Flabbergasted by both the observer’s assumptions about how my body would limit my “authority,” and our drastically differing views about how authority works in the classroom, I only remember being rendered mute by their questions, and wishing that the conversation could wrap up. The possible silver lining in surviving these conversations is that while you might walk away scarred, you might also have a positive recommendation to add to your teaching portfolio (and what is grad school, anyway, if not survival of the fittest?!)

The best possible outcome: In the best possible outcome of your post-teaching observation conversation, your observer will have taken the time to read your course materials, fairly assess the day’s class, and generated thoughtful, reflective  feedback that could make you a stronger instructor. This practice, taught to me in grammar school as “constructive criticism,” made me less fearful of the class observation: it was ok—in fact, it was good—if the class was not perfect, because the observer could help me, in the post-observation conversation, address the aspects of my class that were not going as smoothly.

Every instructor’s experience will differ widely across (and even outside of) this taxonomy. As you gain confidence as an instructor, remember to take heart in your principles, reflect on your practices, seek opportunities for professional development, and continue to grow as your own best version of an instructor.

Elizabeth Decker is the TLC Program Assistant. She received her Ph.D. in English from the Graduate Center.

1 Comment

  1. I read this post a couple of weeks ago and I felt that I wanted to come back and share some thoughts since many of us, as in each semester, have just been part of the faculty observation process.

    During my teaching experience, I have found myself in the three situations that you have included in your “crude taxonomy” (among others) – always desiring for the “best possible outcome” to happen, even though I feel that there is always room to learn about each of those experiences (although sometimes you need time to realize this!).

    However, since faculty observations are a must (“part of life for most college instructors”), I always wonder if they can be designed or planned towards more productive and efficient goals; is there a way to make the process more useful and profitable? Is there a way to (somehow) enrich the process within the conditions we are in? I am adding a couple of scenarios that I have run through my head several times when I think about this:

    (1) I wonder if it could be beneficial to have the same faculty observe you during the fall and spring semesters: on one hand, they would be able to see how you evolve as a teacher, mostly if it is your first year. On the other hand, if your fall semester ends up being one with “an unfortunate outcome,” of course you do not want to go through the same experience again in the spring (totally understandable).

    (2) Some of us teach the same classes during the fall and spring semesters – if faculty observations happen more or less at the same time during the semester, it is possible to be observed when you are teaching exactly the same material in both semesters. You can be happy since you already have a great lesson plan ready to go (although the report – hoping for the desired “best possible outcome” – could be pretty similar to the previous one); or, you can think that you would like to be observed teaching a different material that allows for other types of activities/assignments with your class, and therefore a different experience.

    Although these are two possible scenarios among many others (with no answers and many more questions), thinking about faculty observations always makes me re-think critically not just my role as an instructor per se, but about the whole observation process itself; stages, participants, purpose, finality and outcomes. Additionally, I was thinking that I agree on the need to reflect on our practices as teachers but, at the same time, it could also be helpful to reflect that, in the (near) future, roles could change, and we could be the faculty members doing the observation.

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