I told you before, my boss told me I was being watched downtown because I’m so highly qualified, too highly paid and too much of a troublemaker! What this means is they could/might/will walk on campus at any time looking for some reason to overcrowd my classroom, transfer me, or worse. What made this particularly nerve-racking was knowing that many administrators erroneously believed that they were expert enough to judge any teacher in the blink of an eye.
Don’t judge teachers in the blink of an eye.
Unfortunately, this erroneous belief is supported by science! In his wonderful book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell explains the area of study known as rapid cognition or ‘thin slicing’, the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye. He makes a very convincing case and I agree with most of his well researched findings. When talking about evaluating teachers he refers to a study out of Harvard by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal in which they assert that students were reliably able to judge a teacher’s effectiveness by watching a ten second video! Wow!
I would not want to be judged that way, and yet I was. Rather than argue about the misuse of their science (I read Ambady & Rosenthal’s paper and would be happy to discuss details), let me share two stories of ‘thin slicing’ gone wrong and a masterpiece of classroom mischief that turned into a comedic thermonuclear meltdown which, thankfully, did not get ‘thin sliced’. Judge for yourself if you would like to be evaluated in the blink of an eye.
It was years ago before we went to a year round enrollment. I had returned in September to a clean classroom. During that first week an administrator from downtown breezed through my room, saying nothing to me. At the end of the day my boss came to me and told me that the administrator was concerned about my effectiveness because I was wearing shorts (clean and neat, but shorts just the same).
I was furious. Why hadn’t he spoken to me? First off: September in Los Angeles is one of the hottest months of the year. But more importantly, I was doing a lot of housework along with teaching. In spite of the room being outwardly clean to a casual observer, the roof had leaked during a rare summer rain and the cupboards were filled with books and supplies covered in black mold which I was hauling out to the trash in between teaching! Fortunately, my Principal was sympathetic.
The years passed and we cycled through a few different Assistant Principals, each making themselves known in their own way. One year, early in the semester, the new AP breezed through inspecting the rooms. Later that day I got a letter in my mailbox informing me that my room wasn’t up to muster because I didn’t have the Math Standards posted on my walls. I sent an answer letter stating surprise along with my invitation to show him the cause for my surprise because I had standards posted on every wall and printed up in 48 point type! How he missed that, I don’t know. I requested that he speak to me before sending any letters and we got along just fine after that.
Now, as you read this next vignette, imagine the different evaluations you might get by getting thin sliced in the first few minutes rather than the last few minutes of class. Oh, I guarantee that what follows really did happen just as I wrote it – only the names have been changed to protect the foolish.
My third period was full of very immature girls. They dressed like it was Friday night at the dance club but they behaved like they’re about 10 years old – if that. They’d laugh and giggle and make hand gestures to each other and there were so many of them that I had resigned myself to endure more than my share of silliness in the name of peaceful coexistence and the occasional teaching of math. They may grow out of it, but you’d never suspect it by what happened on this one particularly memorable day.
It was one of those rare days when I had barked fiercely enough to get them all working, and learning seemed to be happening, for the moment. I had called Marsha up to my desk to help her with her Algebra. She was seated to my left and we were going over her work. At first I had her attention, but at one point, I noticed she was looking past me over to my right. The whole class was looking to my right. I looked right, and there, wearing a bright red sweatshirt, was Ariel, one of the tallest girls on campus, with her elbows stuck out like wings, her hands balled up in fists and she was squeezing/punching her right breast between her fists with great vigor – momentarily unaware that she was the center of everyone’s rapt attention!
When the element of spectacle finally entered Ariel’s consciousness and you could see that she was now aware of the forty bulging eyeballs staring at her in disbelief (did we really see that?), the room exploded. I laughed so hard I had no pretext of dignity and had to walk out of the room to compose myself – which I/we never did. For the rest of the period I had to bite my lip and have tears rolling down my cheeks and I still had a very hard time of it, as did the students.
Finally, I got up my courage and I asked the obvious. I said, “Ariel, I’m afraid to ask but, what were you doing?”
She said, “I was shooting her” as she laughed and playfully pointed at Marsha.
I didn’t ask why. I didn’t ask what the ammunition was. I consider myself curious and sophisticated but my quota for the bizarre had long since been exceeded.