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.

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3 thoughts on “Why lesson observations turn teachers into Sartre’s Peeping Toms

  1. Having been the guy popping into the lessons on many, many occasions – I promise that I have wanted to see only obe thing. A teacher who is working towards engaging each pupil in the learning process. I couldn’t care less about lesson plans, how the teacher looks or the untidy desk. I hope that your DoS and other senior colleagues have the same motivation! And I also hope they always find you later and give you some positive feedback so that you end the day feeling good about your teaching (even if they share some “areas for improvement” with you).
    But don’t forget – they have to come and see lesson, unannounced, or face misery when ISI come to town!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Andy! That wasn’t quite my point – it’s the fact of having someone there to ‘see’ anything that’s trouble, even if – or perhaps especially if – he’s there to see “the one thing” that you suggest. I should add that I have very supportive HoDs (and am one, I hope!) and DoS, and had an incredible mentor in my first year of teaching. All of them, while giving excellent feedback, felt awkward about the process and knew that, to a greater or lesser extent, it was artificial. Like lessons taught at interview – they all serve a purpose, but not necessarily the one stated. I can also sympathise with the need to keep ISI happy, but – at the risk of fulfilling Godwin’s law too early – it does sound a little like the Nuremberg defence in disguise … !

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