For this month’s blog, I would like to offer you a gift for the New Year. It is the gift of observation, with a twist of non-judgment. Obtaining the ability to observe selected interactions without judgment will transform your teaching and your relationship with yourself and others. It can bring new insights and revitalize your instruction.
The only prerequisite to accepting this gift is that you have an open mind as you begin to train yourself to look at an experience with an “outside” perspective or a non-judgmental eye. And that’s the kicker; true observation is judgment-free. It is somewhat like meditating, where you learn to become aware of your thoughts and allow them to come and go without placing value or judging upon the experience.
A Few Definitions
Merriam-Webster definition of observation: (emphasis added)
A statement about something you have noticed: a comment or remark.
The act of careful watching and listening: the activity of paying close attention to someone or something in order to get information.
Dictionary.com (emphasis added)
An act or instance of noticing or perceiving.
An act or instance of regarding attentively or watching.
An act or instance of viewing or noting a fact or occurrence for some scientific or other special purpose.
Some definitions do hint towards a subjective interpretation, such as “An act or instance of noticing or perceiving.” (Dictionary.com, emphasis added). But for this discussion, I will use the scientific definition of Direct Observation, where you only watch interactions, processes, or behaviors as they occur – Not how or why they occurred.
Where to Start?
The sky is the limit on what area you might be interested in observing. The challenge is not in finding a relevant experience but staying engaged in the process and not giving up. It is easier to keep the standard New Year’s resolutions, such as joining a gym, cutting back on carbs, or partaking in Dry January, than to observe without judgment.
I think the main reason observation without judgment is so difficult for teachers is because of our training and educational enculturation. Whether it be our childhood experiences in school, undergrad studies, graduate work, or teacher in-services, classroom assessment and instructional evaluation are drilled and embedded into our teaching psyche.
Whatever event or experience you choose to observe, plan on repeating the observation for at least a week or so. Do not hastily judge the effectiveness or non-effectiveness held within the process of non-judgmental observation. It is a challenging experience that just takes time and spaciousness (more to come on spaciousness).
Three Obstacles You Will Need to Overcome
1. No Judgement – When you first start implementing direct observation, the biggest obstacle you will face is not getting pulled into self-judgment and placing value (positive or negative) on the experience. It will take about two to three weeks to become better at not judging and assessing habitually.
2. Forgetfulness and Forgiveness – Once you select an event or situation to observe, you will probably get caught up in your workday, forget all about what you were going to watch, and then remember hours later. Don’t give up. Forgive yourself and try again. I put sticky notes that read “Observe” on my computer monitor, classroom piano, and whiteboard to remind me and keep the idea fresh in my mind.
3. Start Small – The purpose of observation is watching an event or activity as an observer and not as the participant. Practice your observation skills on something small like how you walk down the hall and then expand to investigate your posture while teaching or playing the piano. Below are a few suggestions that may give you a few ideas.
Observation Possibilities for the Novice
Observe how your students enter the classroom or how you start each rehearsal.
Observation Possibilities for the Curious
Teach your students the 10 to 1 Countdown Warm-up Activity (see below) or
observe how you react to that challenging colleague (good luck on that one).
Observation Possibilities for the Bold
Have your ensemble complete a Rehearsal Sequence Form (see below)
10 to 1 Countdown Warm-up Activity
1. Teach the choir the countdown sequence: 10 1 9 2 8 3 7 4 6 5 5 6 4 7 3 8 2 9 1 10
2. Select a conducting pattern and ask the choir to place a number on each ictus.
3. Have the ensemble chant the countdown sequence as they watch and respond to your conducting gestures.
* Become aware of how the choir responds to your conducting gestures regarding dynamics, articulations, accelerando/ritardando, etc. Remember – “Just the facts ma’am” – no judgment.
Rehearsal Sequence Form Instructions:
1. Distribute the Rehearsal Sequence Form to your ensemble.
2. For questions 1–4, ask the choir to reflect on past rehearsals and write down what steps were taken to learn the music.
3. For questions 5-8, ask the students for their ideas on what should come next (example responses can be found at the end of this post under Postlude).
* This activity will give you an excellent non-judgmental view of your students’ observations.
Observation and Self-Generation
An exceptional book that has influenced my personal life and transformed my teaching is Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-Generative Leaders through Mind, Body, and Heart. Self-Generalization is a tool we can use to discover our habits while teaching and working with others. The four-step process of Self-Observation, Realization, Reorganization, and Stabilization allows us in a non-judgmental way to discover, label, choose and initiate new responses while teaching. The section on Self-Generation in chapter two gave me the skills I needed to uncover my habits and become more present and aware in the classroom.
1. Self-Observation (p.51) – First, observe yourself in action with no judgment.
“I’m talking a lot.”
“I’m rote teaching now.”
“I’m modeling correct vowel placement now.”
2. Realization (p.52) – Next, become aware and name what you observed.
“I talk a lot during rehearsals.”
“When rehearsing a new song, I do a lot of rote teaching.”
“I model correct vowel placement a lot.”
3. Reorganization (p.54) – Now observe this habit when it occurs and be aware of another possible choice.
“I could talk less and have the students sing more.”
“I could have the students focus more on music reading techniques.”
“I can ask a student or section to model correct vowel placement.”
4. Stabilization (p.55) – Finally, integrate this new awareness and possibly modify your teaching.
“I will talk less and have the students sing more during rehearsals.”
“I will initiate new strategies to help the students become better readers.”
“I will ask a student or section to model correct vowel placement.
Give Yourself a Break
Doug Silsbee (2008, p.43) calls our habitual responses and reactions to events and interactions Interpretive Structure. Our unique and particular Interpretive Structure can become limiting and challenging as we learn to work with others. Unfortunately, due to our habits and conditioned responses, we tend not to comprehend or see the possible opinions of others and exclude many factors that could help our understanding.
To help reorient ourselves and create stronger relationships, Silsbee offers five interactive approaches that can improve our connections with our students, colleagues, and family. These qualities can help bring awareness and understanding as we relate and work with others.
Spaciousness – This is the absence of our learned and conditioned responses and habits. Use this if you start having an emotional reaction to what you observe. Silence is ok.
Compassion – This is the awareness and recognition of our shared humanity. As you observe, give yourself and others a break – breathe.
Unconditional Positive Regard – This is our acceptance and support of others. It also strengthens our ability to differentiate between the person and their actions.
Resonance – This focuses on active listening that improves mutual understanding – but, it may not lead to an agreement.
Neutrality – We strive for no attachment, investment, or desire for a particular result – we try not to have an agenda. With neutrality, we intentionally acknowledge that we are both connected to and distinct from the other person.
This past year, I incorporated the Self-Generation and the Interpretive Structure paradigm into my teaching and social interactions with great success. Incorporating spaciousness, compassion, unconditional positive regard, resonance, and neutrality into your non-judgment observations will help you get a clearer view of your habits and idiosyncrasies.
TL;DR – The Gift of Non-Judgmental Observation
Since I have incorporated the gift of non-judgmental observation into my instruction, I have made several discoveries about myself, along with a few remedies.
#1 – I used to walk down the halls a bit slow, with rounded shoulders. I now walk a tad faster with a lifted sternum.
#2 – I tend to talk too fast during rehearsals. Now when I become aware of a rushed teaching pace, I breathe, reset, and slow down.
#3 – During rehearsals, I tend to look at the music much more than I look at my students. I now put my music down more, step away from the piano, and have the students help me during rehearsals by referring to their scores for where we are beginning and their starting pitches.
I encourage you to give yourself the gift of non-judgmental observation and see what happens. It’s weird; you might not think that greeting your students by name at the door and showing that you are available to them would make a difference. But it does.
You won’t know unless you watch what happens when you try.
Here are a few examples of a few Rehearsal Sequence Forms completed by my 9/10 Treble Choir for I See the Light, Arr. By Mac Huff.
Schön, Donald A. Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint, 2016.
Silsbee, Douglas K., and Richard Strozzi-Heckler. Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-Generative Leaders through Mind, Body, and Heart. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008.