I’m teaching a room of 29 seniors about existentialism. It’s my first year teaching honors 12th grade and my first time teaching existentialism. It’s also my first time teaching (and reading) The Stranger. I’m shaky in my understanding of existentialism and even less clear on the differences between existentialism, absurdism and nihilism. I’m not even sure where Camus falls on this spectrum, or if it even IS a spectrum.
My students have sat patiently through an introductory Powerpoint on existentialism, prepared by one of my colleagues and “taught” by me with mediocre insight but honest enthusiasm. We’ve spent three weeks on The Stranger, on plot and language and imagery and symbolism (oh, the blinding sun!) and tone. The day I’ve been dreading has arrived and I’m now leading a whole-class discussion on philosophy and where different elements (theoretical and plot-based) align on a huge chart I’ve drawn on the white board. In my mind, every one of the 29 students is actively engaged, questioning each other, me and themselves about their own beliefs and those of Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir and others, as I sort their ideas into the chart with sections for existentialism, absurdism, nihilism and “other” – those that can’t neatly fit into a category.
That’s my ideal. But I’m aware of the principle that “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it,” and I know I don’t really understand these philosophies.
Almost 10 minutes into this activity, in walks the head of the English department, who is not only my boss, but also a fellow teacher of seniors with almost a decade of The Stranger under his belt. With him is the new administrator overseeing the English department. Every teacher knows their department head will almost always try to find the best in your lesson, but a brand-new administrator will be looking to prove themselves by pointing out your flaws. Woe to the teacher in an observation year with a first-year administrator.
As those two silently and unsmilingly enter the room, without prior notice to me, they take seats in the back, open their notepads, click their pens and turn their blank faces to me.
My adrenaline immediately spikes and my flight or fight instinct, for a fraction of a second, makes me want to run from the room. My brain reminds me that’s not an option so I do my best to block out my observers and focus on my students. I know that’s the only way I’ll come off well anyway. But my mind skims through what I know they’re looking for. Am I using equitable calling practices? Am I explaining the material correctly and clearly? Am I enthusiastic and warm but also firm and in control? Am I monitoring for attention and cell phone use? Is my voice loud enough but not shrill? (I was once told this by an administrator when I was a new teacher and it has worried me ever since.)
My mind skitters between my shaky grasp of the content and the quality of my pedagogy. I am later told that during the 15-minute observation, nine different students asked questions or otherwise contributed verbally. That’s a very strong involvement number, but I could not have given that information myself. I enter an almost dream-like state where I am laser-focused on my every gesture while trying to block out the existence of the other two adults in the room.
At some signal between them, the observers click their pens, close their notebooks and leave the room, without smiling at me once. As the door shuts behind them, and I allow myself to think that it might have gone well, I realize my entire body is shaking, slightly, like a wire pulled taught. I realize I need a moment. With all 29 sets of eyes on me, all seniors well aware that the observers were watching me, not them, I do the only thing I can to have a moment alone – I turn my back on the class, exhale deeply and then turn back around. That’s all the privacy I can get, and even that was probably too much to take.
I look out at my class, apologize for needing a moment, and then turn them back to our discussion, still needing resolution. Their sympathetic faces stare back at me and one sweet young man calls out, “You did great, Mrs. Starr.” The rest of the class nods sympathetically and I have one of those transcendent moments that teachers get maybe once or twice a year, but that is so wonderful that we stay in the profession for a lifetime.
That love between a class and a teacher, that knowledge that I’m doing my best for them and these young adults appreciate it and maybe their minds grew a little because of it – that’s a high teachers chase every day.
Being observed is nerve-wracking, but it’s necessary, enlightening and absolutely worth it.