by Clara Burch
This essay by Clara was based on observations in classrooms in a public school in Middle Georgia.
I learned a lot from these assigned classroom observations. I learned that it is not difficult to become invisible in a classroom. I learned that observing with a focus is different from a general observation. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very surprised at the information I gathered.
I was surprised to see how easily one can become invisible in a classroom. Even I, obviously much older than nearly everyone else, quickly disappeared. All I had to do was sit very quietly and not draw attention to myself. At first the students were curious, perhaps nervous, (the teachers too) about my presence, but like little birds, their short attention spans soon moved on to something else, something more exciting than a middle age woman in the back of the room. In all three classrooms I saw the students segregate themselves by interest and peer groups, but mostly race. Perhaps there is a correlation. I saw the “jocks” sit together, and the theatre people banded together, black girls tended to sit with other black girls in close proximity to the black males, but white girls were divided up into subsets, attractive (as defined by current teenage standards) and/or popular white girls, and the rest. Even though this assignment was to observe interaction between teachers and minority, gender, class subsets, it was the invisible children who caught my attention. I watched as they silently glided into their classrooms avoiding eye contact. Several immediately opened novels and lost themselves in the pages; others put their heads down and tuned out the world. Some just sat silently watching without being obvious they were watching. They all had the same modus operando, the one I adopted, be quiet, keep a low profile, and don’t attract attention. In each class there were at least two of these students. Some male, some female, some black, some white, some brown, but all invisible.
It seemed as if no one noticed them, none of the other students spoke to them, the teachers didn’t call on them; they weren’t there. I watched them. The readers hid their books and continued reading, the sleepers sat up, but didn’t engage, and the watchers kept watching. When it was time to work, they worked, or at least looked like they worked. They handed in papers. They did not interact with each other. They were invisible. Why?
Did they prefer to be unnoticed? Had the others given up on trying to include them? Did they interact in other classes? With other groups? Was this behavior chosen or forced upon them? The teachers in all three classes seemed to have their hands full with the more demanding students. Evidently if one is well behaved one can easily avoid the teachers’ attention. Did I do this? Were there invisible students in my classes? I mentally went through my seating charts and they were there. Ghosts sitting silently, invisible, waiting on the bell. When as the last time I called their names? When did I last ask them to respond? When did I let them go invisible?
I suppose it is not uncommon to stumble upon an unexpected or interesting “phenomenon” while observing for another. Becoming invisible in the back of the room opened a new window. I was used to being in the front, standing, directing (dictating?) being the center of attention. This new window gave me a whole new view.
My observations on race were predictable. All three teachers were white, there aren’t many black teachers at my school, and middle class. Obviously they were all educated. It appeared that they also were all more comfortable with white students. I do not have any data to back up that statement, what I have is a feeling. It just appeared and felt as if the teachers were more relaxed when they interacted with white students before class. They were perhaps more assured about how to talk with white students. In the class I observed focusing on race, at first glance it may have appeared that the teacher was harsher and more demanding of white students, particularly male white students, but after reviewing the small amount of data collected, and observing firsthand in the classroom (albeit for only 50 minutes) I think the reverse may actually be true. Comments such as “you know better,” followed up reprimands or redirections from the teacher almost always with white students, but not with African American (AA) students. White students (particularly males) kept her attention. They were not allowed to rest their heads, or shout out in class while similar behavior in AA students was ignored or received a cursory reprimand. Was she perhaps subconsciously giving the message that she did not believe AA students understood the proper behavior in a classroom? Or were unable to follow proper classroom conduct? Was she unintentionally showing bias? Did the students pick up on this? As Dr. Deneroff said, “Teenagers are great observers, but terrible interpreters.” Could it be the students were actually interpreting that Ms. B. was favoring AA students by not adding the subtle admonishments? Was Ms. B. just reluctant to engage AA students in a negative manner? One short observation could not possibly do more than raise questions.
My observation concerning gender indicated that at least on that day, the teacher favored the girls. It was not recorded, but she interacted most readily and easily with white girls. I think this may be expected as she is a white female in her first teaching assignment and likely identifies most closely with those students. The teacher did call on girls more often than boys, and did reprimand boys more often than girls. It appeared as if there were a power struggle between the teacher and a group of AA boys. The teacher reprimanded these boys for behaviors she ignored in girls, i.e. coming in late, talking in class. It may have been that the girls were much quieter when they “misbehaved” and so did not draw the attention of the teacher. I don’t think this teacher had much experience with interacting with AA males. I got the feeling that she was perhaps a bit intimidated by the group I mentioned earlier. Which is understandable, their behavior was loud and boisterous and their attitude appeared defiant. The teacher seemed a little unsure about her position (understandably) and a bit frustrated with the behavior of those students. But the boys were just as frustrated. They seemed to struggle with having such a young woman in charge.
My observation in this class made me wonder what type of training is provided for teacher candidates in behavior management and cultural awareness. Too often I have seen first year teachers simply thrown in the public education pool to sink or swim. (I include myself in that analogy). With our society becoming increasingly multi-cultural it is imperative that teachers are knowledgeable of and sensitive to, the norms of the predominant cultures in their rooms. One of the best seminars I ever attended was a no nonsense approach to African American culture. I learned a great deal and have found the information invaluable over the years. I also appreciated an extremely short in service about the culture of poverty. I was lucky, but more than luck, I listened.
I understand there is a language of power and a set of social rules that are observed in the “real world,” and I try to teach those so my students will be successful when they get out there, but my students don’t always appreciate what I am doing. They often feel as if they are betraying their true natures or cultures if they practice the behavior and language of white middle class America. Knowing something of their cultures, “where they are coming from,” if you will, has helped sensitize me and perhaps that helps in reaching them. It is sad how often I have heard teachers dismiss other cultures, particularly those of students with low socioeconomic status, AA, or EOSL. In my experience there is a definite elitist attitude in schools. This was illustrated when I attempted to observe interactions between teacher and lower socioeconomic students.
In my school there appears to be a “school within a school.” The AP/Honors kids, and then everyone else. Many awards and honors are not opened up to “regular” students. Awards night is an exclusive event for AP/Honors kids. Even with a multimillion dollar grant to bring AP instruction to more students, our low status students are being left out. Nearly every AP/Honors class is entirely populated with middle/upper middle class students, and the elitism doesn’t end there. Somehow it has become accepted that AP teachers are the gifted and talented elite on every high school staff. Apparently AP/Honors is the nirvana of the teaching profession. I have taught nearly every English class at every level and it is true that those upper levels come with very few behavior problems and instruction/planning challenges. The real teaching is in the lower levels where motivation, appropriate behavior, and confidence are all but nonexistent.
This assignment took me to some surprising places. I learned just how easily a student can disappear in class if he/she chooses. I also learned that the optimum position to be in is white, middle class, male, and athlete or white, middle class, pretty, popular, and female. The status quo of the fifties is still intact, regardless of the huge influx of multiple cultures, the shrinking of our world through technology, and the best attempts at school reform. To be a minority and/or have very little social status or collateral is to doom one to a mediocrity and perhaps invisibility.
Another thing I learned is that research takes time. To really understand the dynamics of a classroom or school requires hundreds of hours, if not years, of observation. I would like to believe that the time I spent observing in other classes has made me re-examine my own attitudes and actions towards race, gender, and socioeconomic status.