Research Teacher Evaluations Teachers and Teaching

David C. Berliner: A Hug for Jennifer

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David C. Berliner, one of our nation’s most honored researchers of education, shared this essay for readers of the blog.

                                             A Hug for Jennifer

          I met Jennifer for the first time at a party. She taught elementary school to mostly white, mostly middle-class kids in a suburb of San Francisco. We chatted about education for a while and she invited me to visit her class. I like visiting classes, in part, because they are always so difficult to understand. It is an enormous intellectual challenge to witness and make sense of the interaction of teachers and students with curriculum materials in a classroom setting. Sometimes, with teachers you come to admire, it is like trying to put together a recipe after  tasting  a delicious food. It’s hard to figure out the ingredients that made it so special. 

More frequently, my observations struck me as a bit like trying to study what comes out the end of a funnel–without much confidence that you know all about what went into the funnel. It’s hard to figure out the ingredients—the stuff that makes a classroom hum or fail. Some of the things that are sure to have entered the funnel are: all of society’s values; the pop culture of today, particularly as represented on television; the individual child-rearing practices of 25 or so different families; the economic, physical and mental health of the people in the neighborhood around the school; the teaching skills, content knowledge, prejudices and personal family concerns of the individual teacher; the leadership skills of the principal; the educational directives issued by the school district and the state; and so forth. After the large, open-end of the funnel receives a thousand items of this type, I wander into a classroom to observe a teacher attempting to create something sensible and unique out of whatever comes tumbling out the small end of the funnel. You really never know what you’ll see and hear when you go to observe a classroom. 

         Besides the challenge of trying to unravel what goes on in such  complex environments, I also visited classes regularly for another reason. It was because of my profound distaste for the many people who freely comment about education but spend no significant amounts of time visiting schools and classes. These education bashers regularly provide the media with false descriptions of America’s schools, inadequate critiques of the educational system, and unfeasible suggestions for school improvement. So, I took Jennifer up on her offer and I began to occasionally drop in on her class since her school was on the way to my work. On one of those visits, now many years ago, I learned a lesson about teachers and observing in classrooms that affected the rest of my career.

         Jennifer taught fourth grade. She had the self-confidence to let me drop in any time, unannounced, to observe her class. I timed one of my visits so I could avoid the taking of attendance, the principals’ announcements, and other morning housekeeping activities. As I had planned, I arrived just as reading was about to start. From the seating chart Jennifer had given me I soon identified Alec. He had caught my eye, though I was not yet sure why. Alec sat at the side of the class, his face a blank– impassive, masklike. I somehow was compelled to watch him a lot throughout the reading period.  Despite the generally upbeat lesson in which the class was involved, Alec displayed no emotions. He seemed to barely follow what was going on around him.  I was surprised that Jennifer, who usually was so equitable in her interactions with the children, seemed to be ignoring Alec. When reading was finished, and the children went out for recess, Alec remained in the class, the same blank look on his face, and with Jennifer still showing the same pleasant, but unconcerned manner. 

When the children returned from their break, no one talked to Alec. To his teacher and his classmates, Alec seemed not to exist. To me, the outside observer, it looked like a modern version of an old punishment–Alec was being shunned!  I was losing my curiosity about what was happening and, instead, began to get angry at Jennifer and the other children.

       Mathematics work began and Jennifer called small groups of children to the desk where she presented some new concepts, while most of the rest of the class did problems in their workbooks. Alec did nothing. He never took out his workbook and Jennifer never criticized him, and she never invited him to the desk, as she did the other students. I couldn’t stop myself from focussing on this situation, to the exclusion of whatever else was happening in the class. I grieved for this child, remembering my worst days as a school boy and my terror of being ostracized, even for a short time. I remembered the games we sometimes played, games in which we were so cruel to one another. My memory filled suddenly with an event from junior high school. A time when we once had “Don’t talk to Bobby day!”–a day when my classmates and I purposely set out to hurt another child. But never had I seen a teacher join in, as seemed to be the case here. As my fantasies about Alec’s plight merged with my own resurrected childhood fears and embarrassment, I began to get angrier and angrier at Jennifer. When the lunch bell finally rang, and the children filed out with Alec, still alone, but now among them, I approached Jennifer’s desk. I tried to keep the anger I felt under control and I pushed away, to the farthest reaches of my mind, the shame and the embarrassment I felt about being both perpetrator and victim of such exclusionary practices in the past. I said to Jennifer, in as controlled a manner as possible, that Alec did not seem to be participating much in classroom activities. 

         When Jennifer responded, I learned a lesson about the importance of understanding the intentions, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of the persons you intend to study. It is difficult, of course, in any communication setting, to genuinely understand another person’s thoughts and feelings. But when you try to be a social scientist, and are not just an ordinary person chatting with others, this commonplace problem in interpersonal communication looms much larger. A lack of understanding, or a misunderstanding of another person’s intentions, can lead a social scientist to make dangerously flawed inferences about that persons behavior.  

      Jennifer responded to me, saying that Alec’s brother had been shot and killed by the police the night before– a rarity in the middle class neighborhood the school served. And it happened at home, in front of Alec. Before I had arrived that morning Jennifer had taken Alec aside and told him how sorry she was for his whole family. She thought the day might be a tough one for him, so she told Alec that he should feel free to participate or not that day, to do whatever he felt like. She would let him decide how he wanted to use his time. She also told him how glad they all were that he was in the class and when he felt like getting involved with everything again to just start doing so. The other students had all heard about what had happened and were not shunning Alec, but giving him some breathing room. My anger, of course, was gone. In its place was a sense of wonder.

      How many incidents like this one did Jennifer have to deal with per week or per month, on top of her academic responsibilities? Who taught her to confront this awful event in such a straightforward and sensible manner? Actually, I am still not sure it was the best response to Alec’s loss and sadness, but it sure seemed to be a sensible response to me. Did she have such sensitivity to youngsters when she first started teaching, or is this part of what teachers learn as they gain experience? How could I have been so blind as to what was going on that I grew angry at Jennifer? How many other times have I observed classes and reached completely wrong conclusions about what was going on?

         After this incident, when I was working in classrooms, I was sure that I had become a better social scientist. I tried always to understand the intentions of the teachers that I studied. I spent time with them, trying to learn what they were going to teach, what special constraints they were under, and what they thought I should know before I began watching them. When I did this, I was sure that my conclusions about what occurred in their classrooms were different than before I had met Jennifer. More importantly, however, is that my views about observation in classrooms had changed. I once thought that some kind of “raw” observation was possible, that a kind of neutral, objective mirror of classroom life could be obtained. But Jennifer taught me that is just not true.

          Observations can be relatively undistorted, relatively objective, but never completely so. In fact, it is likely that observations and interpretations of classroom life without understanding teachers and their intentions, are likely to be more distorted than observations and interpretations made with such knowledge. I believe this despite the obvious loss of objectivity and neutrality that must occur as teachers and researchers get to know each other better. I’ll say it clearly: Interpretations of a teachers’ behavior without knowledge of the teachers’ intentions are either useless or, worse, inaccurate and unjust. My visit to Jennifer’s classroom that particular day, as an outsider, had led me to inaccurate and unjust conclusions about what was going on. It was sobering.

         There is also a bigger issue to which this incident is relevant. Since we cannot adequately interpret life in classrooms unless we have an insider’s understanding of that classroom, how is it possible for principals, department heads, and others who evaluate teachers, to do so when they visit a teacher’s classroom infrequently, stay for only the briefest period of time, and try to distance themselves from the teacher to maintain a goal of objectivity? The unbiased observations of the outsider may be a requirement in physics, chemistry, oncology, and other natural and biological sciences. Doing “good science” certainly requires the illusion of total objectivity, even though the best of scientists acknowledge that such a goal is impossible to achieve. But in areas of social behavior and especially those research areas concerned with classrooms and schools, such calls for objectivity are probably misplaced. Perhaps the only way to understand life in classrooms is to visit frequently, stay for a lengthy period of time, and have a shared vision with the teacher of what is intended. Evaluations of teachers that rely too heavily on formal observation instruments, notions of objectivity, and the outsider’s view of the classroom are likely to report, as I might have, that Jennifer was an insensitive, uncaring, human being. A more appropriate evaluation system would have caused the observer to hug Jennifer and give thanks that she chose to teach children rather than sell computers.

DAVID C. BERLINER is Regents Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

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