Ask Andy

Ask Andy: Observation Anxiety

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Dear Andy: I just got a letter about my upcoming teaching observation. I have no idea who my assigned observer is, and I don’t really know what to expect. Help!   

Signed, Panicky First Time Teacher

This is a great, but big! question. To start with some perspective, please know that at CUNY the observation is required for instructors during each of their first ten semesters of teaching, which is just to say: do not feel stressed about the request for observation—everyone has to do it, and you’re not being singled out.

Usually, your department chair will tell you who will be doing your observation, though it’s possible they will not. Either way, as you prepare for this day you should resist the temptation to break out a shiny, glittery, never-before-tried assignment and stick to “business as usual.” Do activities that aren’t entirely new to your students. You will feel more confident, your students will know the drill, and your observer will be able to see a realistic class dynamic.

It’s best to tell your students that someone is coming to sit in on class. Most of us like to know ahead of time if our routine changes, and sometimes students see a new person (stranger danger!) and are less inclined to participate. When you tell your students about the observation, you might remind them what would be helpful (e.g. doing the reading, arriving on time, wearing clothing), and be sure to reinforce that the observer is there to observe you as a matter of routine. Remind your students that they are not the focal point of the visit, nor have you been singled out as an instructor.

We’ve only begun to answer your question. For more information, please take a look at our TLC guide for more on the logistics of setting up the observation and tips on preparing, and talk to other people in the department to learn more about the observation process on your campus (and perhaps a bit of behind-the-scenes info on your observer). You might also begin thinking about what to expect in the post-observation discussion. The observation provides a format to get some feedback on your teaching, and it’s one of your earliest  opportunities to develop language around your pedagogical choices.

Dear Andy: I’m teaching a class that is an hour and fifteen minutes long, twice a week. It seems like students start packing up before class actually finishes and while I’m still lecturing. How do I get them to stay engaged until the end of class time?

 Signed, Hear Me Out, Please

We’ve all been there: it’s difficult to talk over papers getting crinkled into backpacks. No matter the length of your class, students will start to depart mentally if there’s not a clear signal that class is winding down.

One strategy to stave off the premature pack-up is to consistently use specific activities or wrap-up tasks at the end of a class session. Wrap-ups are a great way to transition away from content delivery and toward reinforcing some of the main concepts covered during the session, scaffolding forward to what’s coming next or putting the day’s material in conversation with the overarching questions of the course.

You might ask students to work in groups to make an outline of the dominant points covered (perhaps forming the base for an ongoing study guide for exams); to do a freewrite in which they reflect on the material covered; or have them list three questions on an index card they have about the material (a great way for you to check in on how students are doing). Or, you might explicitly switch instructional modes to signal that you are moving into the end stage of class, quelling student anxiety that you’re never going to wind down. You could move to a macro focus, pointing out how the material covered relates to the course content or goals. You can also use the time to remind students what is coming next (assignments, content, schedule changes, etc.) or to preview the reading.

Using a wrap-up activity at the end of class helps students reinforce the key concepts, sends a clear signal to students that you are respectful of class time, and makes valuable pedagogical use of those final minutes. Added bonus: it keeps you from having to activate the “peeved teacher voice” that can come out in these moments.

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