(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at San Leandro High.)
It’s a story that apparently isn’t true, but ought to be.
Czarina Catherine of Russia announced to her court that she would like to take a trip into the countryside to see how the serfs who lived in her realm were faring.
Since the Russian leader was considerate enough to give fair warning her consort, Grigori Potemkin, took advantage of the time lapse to plot out a carefully designed route for the Czarina’s trip. They even went so far as to construct a model village complete with happy serfs for Catherine to observe.
We do the same things at our school.
At our high school my teaching is observed by my supervisor, an assistant principal, every other year. Generally this consists of two or three visits to my classroom.
These forays are planned ahead of time. I meet with the AP and we agree on a date and a class period to serve as a sample of my craft. I lay out what I plan to do.
I know that the kind of rating I receive will depend primarily on which of my classes will be observed.
If the AP agrees to see me teach an upper track (honors) class I can relax. There will be no need to make special preparations. The students will be attentive and cooperative. What I do will show off my skills.
If the AP suggests a lower track (CP) class it’s a whole different ballgame. I will need to plan carefully.
In every CP class there are from two to six unruly kids who hate school and, often, hate me. Another fifteen or twenty are bored but not openly rebellious.
The deeply disaffected kids have been referred to the office many times. I’ve called their parents to report misdeeds. I’ve denied them access to the bathroom because they can’t be trusted in the hallways. I’ve lost my temper with them.
Will they take out their resentments towards me by acting up in front of my supervisor?
I try to plan out the week’s lessons so that, on the appointed day, we are doing something that shows the kind of teacher I am.
But, of course, I also try to add something that will keep the unhappy kids quiet and on task.
I had one girl this year who, for whatever reason, displayed a high-spirited intelligence on the day of my inspection. All by herself she made the day’s lesson a deeply satisfying success.
If the class is in a good mood, if they feel some goodwill towards me, if the room isn’t too cold, if the class is not immediately after lunch (when students are at their most fractious), then I generally get a good result.
But if my students feel resentful towards me or towards the school, or if they find the subject dull, then I’m in trouble.
Either way it’s not a true representation of my teaching.
With so few observations every minute is magnified in importance. In two years I spend about 1,000 hours in the classroom. To assess this I am watched for about 150 minutes.
Over the years I have tried to get my supervisor to drop in unannounced into my classroom on a regular basis so that she could weigh my pro’s and con’s based on a whole series of valid observations. With luck I could also come away with some helpful hints from someone who is, presumably, a skilled instructor.
In eight years I have had fewer than three actual administrator visits that weren’t preplanned, no visit lasting more than five minutes. I’ve asked for more, I’ve pleaded for more, but the hectic pace of the school day doesn’t allow for such.
And thus I am reduced to constructing my bi-annual Potemkin Villages.
This column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary. You can read more essays like this in the archives of Entirely Secondary.)