Teacher as an Observer

03/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

One of a teacher's (and parent's) most important skills, as an observer, is underrated. Yet without honing this skill, he can never truly understand his students and meet their individual and group needs.

After a particularly difficult, but productive reading period, I gave my entire third grade class, "earned time." I could see they were getting hyper and I felt their mood. To push them any longer would have resulted in discipline problems. I prided myself in sensing the mood of the class. I called it seeing the "class as an organism" separate from its individual parts. The class had a mind of its own and it needed to be dealt with as if it was a single entity. Often, if the lesson was too difficult, too easy, irrelevant to them, or just plain boring (my fault), instead of pressing on until either I got angry or individuals would act out, I would end it. Maybe I would take them outside for physical education, have an art lesson, let them have earned time, or move into one of the other alternatives I had ready whenever a lesson was not going well. Instead of blaming the class, I usually assumed the fault was mine.

While they were occupied in something they loved to do, my task as a disciplinarian was minimized and I had time to think about why the lesson bombed. One day as I was thinking and observing them one of the district's assistant superintendents came in. What he saw was me sitting at my desk, not thinking and observing, but "doing nothing." He just came over and greeted me affably, but his eyes had that "gotcha" look. I didn't apologize or explain, because I knew he didn't approve or agree with my methods. He stayed only a few minutes and I continued my thinking and the next day my lesson was more successful.

Of course I didn't always need to stop a lesson to figure out why it wasn't working. At times I quickly realized that I needed some materials or data that I had at my fingertips. Sometimes, it was the wind, rain, extreme heat or cold, or some event had gotten the class' attention so strongly that first I had to deal with it before any productive work could be done. Sometimes, no matter my expertise, I couldn't get them focused, so I threw in the towel and went with the flow. Because I was comfortable with doing what was based on my observations, I did not have to do this very often.

Many teachers are terrified of deviating from their lesson plans because they are unable to defend what their intuition and experience tells them to do. (I believe what we call intuition is a preponderance of brain activity in the limbic or emotional brain. All data goes through it, even when using the cortical or logical part of the brain. Each has its basis in experiences and has its own purposes. Each gives us valid ways of behaving and each can be wrong as well as right. When I trust my intuition I am using a valid, "felt sense" that often helps in understanding the emotions of the situation.) They do not want to be demeaned and treated by their supervisor as if they were bad children. So, instead of being good observers they ignore all the signs the students give them and press on with the lesson as if it was written in concrete. And, everyone suffers!

As important as it is to closely observe and feel the class as an organism -- and respond appropriately -- it is most important to be constantly observing and feeling empathetically with individual students. I tell my students that I will not be treating them all equally. Since they and I know from our simplest observations that each person is very different from all others, they understand it is unjust and bad educational practice to treat them all the same. What they can all expect is my constant vigilance to honor and respect their rights under the Constitution and to show a reverence for their thoughts and feelings -- as long as they do the same!

I tell them that through their daily work, tests, as I listen to them in groups and privately, and through my observations I will try to optimize their abilities and cope with their weaknesses and needs. It means I may ask Bill to do only five math problems because I know that proves he knows the concept, but Tom may have to do fifteen to reinforce his knowledge. It means that I spend time with and help Jane hold her pencil and help her trace the letters while most of the class works on their own. I may let Ted work on the computer unassisted, but I sit with Frank because I've observed he will get into the control panel and I have to repair the damage he's done. He can complain all he wants about his rights, but my observations and notes of his behavior give me the proper tools to justify my responses to his actions.

Observing takes time, training, effort, and a belief in its validity. I see the way a student tilts his head when he reads or looks at the board and know he needs his eyes tested. I listen to how a student says certain sounds and I know that she either sees, hears, or her brain processes them differently. I will try different approaches and materials with her.

I always explain my observations to the student and often share these with the class. I had three first graders who had failed first grade the year before. They were considered dyslexics. All were angry and hated reading. The second day of school I drew a picture of the brain and the eye mechanisms on the chalkboard and explained to the class how these three children actually saw words differently. I asked the class to help each of them when s/he saw a word differently. The three were no longer "stupid" in their eyes or in the eyes of their classmates and all three became better readers; one even read sixth grade materials at the end of the year.

One of the first things I do each year is teach the class many table games such as checkers, chess, and card games. During earned time I observe who plays with whom, how well they play, and who are the real leaders, followers, cheaters, and victims.

By constantly changing the daily, weekly, and yearly plan, I offer them such a wide variety of skills, concepts, methods, and materials that in a few months I have observed them in so many things that I know what each student does well so I can build on his self-esteem and, by knowing what he does poorly, I can plan for things to teach or reteach to overcome his limitations.

I do not depend on my observations alone, but in parent meetings I ask questions and listen rather than assume my few months of observations are more important than the parents' years of seeing the child in many more settings. In our second conference I am in a better position to share and I offer more then.

Parents, teachers, and supervisors need to reexamine the value of a teacher as an observer. Competent observers see all kinds of hidden strengths in students and parents that can lead to increased skills and self-confidence. They can spot problems before they blossom into rigid and self-defeating behavior patterns.

Of course, training courses on how to observe, what to look for, and how to manage a class to optimize the observer's talents would be great, but a change in the attitude about the values of observing would be monumental.

There will be teachers who will abuse or misinterpret what I'm saying as an excuse to sit and do nothing, (like that administrator assumed about me) but most will become better observers. This will mean they will listen much more to what their students say to each other as well as to them. They will continue to instantly judge everything they observe, but knowing that their first impression may be wrong, they will not react too quickly, but will get more information. They will make less serious errors because their actions will be more thoughtful. Their relations to their students will be more patient, considerate, and helpful. This will result in the students' sense of greater justice and they will spend less time in interpersonal conflicts and more on each task, which will lead to increased academic and social skills.

It works when the observer is comfortable with himself as a person and believes that no one can possibly know more about his class than he does, so he can resist others' intrusions and suggestions -- if they are not useful or would harm his class. I have refused to teach methods or use materials that I felt would hurt my class or were not as good as other materials I had. I did not refuse out of stubbornness or a need to be different, but out of conviction through reading, research, and successful experimentation. I proved the worth of the innovation or I would have used the prescribed ones.

Some supervisors and parents dislike the idea of the teacher as an observer, because it gives the teacher too much power. My belief is that if you want to educate, not indoctrinate students, then the teachers need to be able to learn from their own mistakes. They need to be able to become increasingly competent observers and then learn what methods and materials they need to meet the various needs of their class and individual students. They need the legal power to be safe to trust their own observations and judgments. (Another word about "intuition." Since it isn't "conscious" like things are when your cortical brain is busy, people tend to negate its value. Trust your intuition, but be aware it, like the cortex, is also liable to error.)

It isn't happening now because teachers are observed more than they are trained as observers, so they seldom discover who they are as human beings and teachers. They are always teaching using someone else's vision of what the students' need. They cannot teach students to become responsible, sensitive observers of their own and others' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors because they do not know how. This also applies to some parents.

Observing seems like a simple solution, but if it is implemented it would forever change schools from places of indoctrination to -- havens of education!