Why lesson observations turn teachers into Sartre’s Peeping Toms

Jean-Paul Sartre on the Pont des Arts, 1946

Jean-Paul Sartre on the Pont des Arts, 1946

You are quite alone, your eye pressed to a keyhole, looking and listening in a state of jealousy to the goings-on in the room on the other side of the door.  Aware of nothing else, all your attention is focused on trying to see and hear what is going on in there.  Suddenly, a scrape on the floor next to you wrenches your attention back to the corridor where you are kneeling.  You realise someone has discovered you, and is standing there, staring at you.  You are immediately aware of how you must look, the awkward explanation to follow …. Now, hear me out: we’ll get to the teaching bit in a minute.  The above is Jean-Paul Sartre’s two states of the human mind: a ‘je’ and a ‘moi’.  While you’re focused on perceiving the room, not thinking about what you look like yourself, you are ‘je’.  Once you realise someone else is looking at you, you become self-aware – ‘moi’.  As soon as that ‘looking’ happens, you are no longer just ‘being’ yourself: you cannot act as you normally would.

It is the same with lesson observations.  Imagine: you are in your stride, knowledge and enthusiasm streaming off you towards the pupils.  Your attention is on them, instinctively responding to their subtle changes of mood and expression.  Then, as you bring a point to life mid-anecdote, you suddenly notice your Director of Studies in the corner.  At once you become aware of having strayed from the syllabus; of the blue whiteboard marker stain on your shirt; of your desk in a messy state, of the unmarked books next to the unruly stack of coffee cups and half-written lesson plans; of your last sentence that could, in light of the adult company, have been more happily worded; of the fact you have not used at least 5 or 6 forms of ICT this lesson … In short, your ‘je’ has become a ‘moi’, the class’s attention has now diverted to examining the spots on the carpet and the Director of Studies is now tapping his pen gently on the desk, one eyebrow raised, wondering why you’ve stopped.  If only he were a little boy approaching a cicada to catch it, he might realise that it was him, the cause of its sudden silence.

To be clear: we should certainly be reflective practitioners; look at ourselves constructively, regularly, with the help of experienced colleagues: the unexamined life is not worth the trouble. The real trouble is, we shouldn’t always be reflective: if we are self-consciously correcting or analysing ourselves at every step during an actual lesson – as is inevitably the case when an observer is in – then we can’t do our thing.  Like an author who self-edits every sentence as he writes it, you’ll get nowhere.

You simply can’t be a teacher and look at yourself being one, all in the same moment.  What an observer sees in such a case, is not you: what they see instead is an imitation of the teacher you think you should look like to them, while being simultaneously prevented from being that very teacher.  Out goes the instinct: the spontaneous, intuitive, un-self-conscious engagement with pupils.  In comes the acting, the box-ticking, the self-conscious pronouncement.  Feedback on this theatre will be of limited use. The curious thing in all this is that having 20 pairs of pupil eyes stare at you, as distinct from an observer, does not seem to have the same effect, except perhaps for very new teachers. Either through habit, then, or because you have a natural vocation, it is only the presence of a senior colleague which has this effect, with lesson observations as the occasion.

Is all this dependant on some simple insecurity, or just a local example of universal paranoia?  Is it dependant on some ‘guilty conscience’, whereby we feel we might be doing the wrong thing?  Yes: teachers often feel they are not trusted to get on with the job; they are to be assessed, like their pupils.  But is this right – or more to the point, does it make for good teaching?  I remain unsure.  One obvious point is that, since other professions are poked and prodded in quest of quality control, should not teachers be, too?  No: first, apple and oranges; second, noting that a psychological hindrance is common to more than one area does not make it right.  To butcher Heisenberg: observe something, and you change the nature of it.  To (really) butcher Sartre: observe something, and it will cease to be.

— W. Gunson, 15 April 2015, Oundle, posted on the anniversary of Sartre’s death.

Post-script: Extreme cases – I pity all the more those teachers whose schools have, for whatever well-founded reason, had to install CCTV in teaching rooms.  As for colleague observations, though, the other way around seems to work better.  Watching a mentor colleague teach his or her set does not have the same effect on him/her (though it will depend on the colleague), since you effectively become another pupil in their class, not an observer – something that Heads of Department and others cannot easily pretend to do.

What Makes a Good Pupil?

Kipling - the Elephant's Child

Let me be an Athenian. All education is about virtue – so a good pupil is a virtuous one. No, not that annoying goody-good in the front row whose hand shoots up before you’ve even finished your question to the set. That’s not virtue, that’s knowledge: to be a Know-it-all is not to embody perfection in a pupil. Neither is it the Genius who can work it all out quickly once the working is demonstrated on the board. That’s not virtue, that’s intellect: to be quick of mind is not perfection, either. Yet neither is it the hard-working, conscientious, recently-elected Captain of Diligence for the Scholars’ House: that’s not virtue, it’s graft: he or she is not the virtuous pupil, either – or, at least, not the perfect one.

This ranging of stereotypes, then, is unhelpful as a method of finding a ‘good’ pupil; one who is virtuous. Let’s take as our razor a simple contrast instead. Because there are, in fact, only two kinds of pupil: the one who says “Here I am, sir!” and the one who says, “Ah, there you are, sir!”. The latter is the virtuous. The latter is the good. Why? Because he or she has shown initiative born not of necessity, but of curiosity.

And we may recognise these pupils by their actions: the pupil who sends you an email the evening after a lesson, with an interesting link to a newspaper article; the pupil who catches you after the lesson and chats, unselfconsciously, about their own experiences of a subject, revealing aforethought; the pupil who comes up to you after Chapel and – though you won’t mention this to the Chaplain – has been daydreaming during the Sermon on a tangent you raised in your lesson and has something further to say; the pupil who is curious to a fault; the pupil who has the smile of reason, as in Voltaire, but will also take things on faithful trust because they chime with instinct; the pupil who is not petty, neither slow to anger at others’ ignorance, nor quick to scrunch up his or her face in disdain; the pupil who is curious amidst his own ilk and not just around teachers. These are the good pupils, and their virtue is born of an agility – both of mind and spirit – that allows them to tiptoe deftly through the minefield of prejudices and pitfalls we adults regularly and mischievously set up in their way.

All of that said, I quite like the Know-it-alls: they have potential, but their manner needs work, and they must be taught not to equate knowledge with the ability to wield it. The Genius is the opposite: while impressive, he or she is often lazy and may actually know little, being idle in the assumption that the engine of their quick wit needs no fuel for the stoking. The Grafter has potential, too, but his or her method may preclude inspiration and curiosity – not allowing one’s eye to be caught and kept by an off-piste word in the dictionary, but instead forcing it to remain on track in quest of the word required to complete your prep, may be efficient and diligent, but it will produce no intellectual wonders, nor serendipity in a subconscious link forged.

The pupil with pluck; the plucky pupil, the “Ah – there you are!” pupil, the virtuous pupil: the Good Pupil, is one who takes matters into their own hands. The satiable curiosity of Kipling’s baby elephant is strong with these pupils. As teachers we must nurture that curiosity, draw out their genius to which it can be yoked, train them in hard graft – but not so exhaustingly that their genius can no longer flex to its full. And, through all this, heap their plates high with knowledge – and not of the bite-sized sort, but that which must first be chewed and digested to derive the benefit. This Good Pupil can then develop their own ‘moral good’, much of which grows out of their academic good. The Athenians called that Virtue – and the purpose of all education.

W. Gunson, Oundle, Easter 2015.