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.