By Eileen Liang
“This is meant to be constructive and helpful,” my department chair said at our post-evaluation meeting. “Don’t worry!”
But I had been worried. I had fretted about this evaluation for weeks. When I first heard from my chair that she wanted to schedule a teaching observation, my brain immediately went into panic mode. I emailed and texted friends. “What should I do?” I asked. “I’m not ready!”
At that point I had been teaching my Intro to Sociology course for five weeks. With almost ten class meetings under my belt, I would have hoped to feel just a tad bit more comfortable with my role as instructor. But stepping in front of a class still felt foreign, like trying on mom’s shoes when I was six.
My first instinct was to put the observation off. The internal dialogue went something like this: OK. OK. OK. So, you just started this new “critical news presentation” project. It’s been a bit of a bumpy start, maybe not all that well thought-out on your end. Maybe it’ll be better in a week, shoot, you’ll be teaching gender that week, and that’s her area. Maybe put it off another week? By then you should be better at this, maybe even impressive.
All of which makes very little sense, because, well, I was still very new to this, and certainly no one was expecting me to be “impressive.” Yet, I still expected myself to be something close to perfect, and that expectation quickly frayed my nerves. As the date of the observation drew nearer, I stopped sleeping. I worried over my lecture. I practiced the lesson, boring my family stupid with the same talk, over and over. I even let my students know ahead of time: please bear with me on that day, I may be extra nervous.
After days of neglecting my own work, and a literally sleepless night, the day of the observation arrived. I tried to steady myself at the front of my classroom, but quickly, things started to go wrong. The projector would not turn on (the first and only time technology failed me this semester). Frantic calls to IT ensused. In my panic, I let my students sit there, doing nothing. Realizing this wouldn’t be a good look for me when my observer came, I improvised some group work (“discuss the concept of ‘masculinity’ within the context of our latest documentary, Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood, and American Culture), then hovered anxiously over the tech person as they attempted to fix the problem. A temporary projector was brought in. With only 15 minutes left of class, a student suddenly turned to me and asked, “Did your observer come yet?” She had not. I had worked myself up to a state of near nervous breakdown, and she hadn’t even arrived. I cried in the bathroom after class.
When my observation finally happened two weeks before the end of the semester, I didn’t feel any more natural standing at the front of the class. I did, however, absorb the lesson of that fateful day: it’s not that high stakes; after all, your observer might not even show, anyway.
I was shaky, especially at the beginning of class, and went through my lecture much too quickly, but I made it. When my observer left about halfway through my lesson, I found myself enjoying teaching again. I was free to be my usual self (instead of whatever weird teaching persona I thought I should embody while being watched in this official capacity). It was honestly a relief to teach for my students again. One of the best things to come from this experience was realizing I actually liked being with my students, had actually started learning to enjoy teaching (this group, anyway). I hadn’t notice this before. But, something about having a stranger in the room disrupting the usual equilibrium and energy of the class community made me very aware of just how enjoyable it was to be there—yes, teaching!—on a normal day.
“It was an enjoyable class, and you seem to have a rapport with the students,” my chair continued during our post-evaluation talk. “Don’t worry, you did a fine job.” She let me read my written assessment, which was kind, and fair. After brainstorming together about a possible group project for future classes, and some suggestions about reading assignments, our meeting ended. As I walked away, I couldn’t help but admit to myself: the hardest thing about this whole process was scheduling and communicating with my observer. The actual evaluation? More helpful and less punitive than expected. It’s meant to be constructive, after all, and in my case, at least, it was.
Eileen Liang is a doctoral student in Sociology at the Graduate Center and a contributing writer for Visible Pedagogy.