Sunday, October 29, 2006

Visitors in the Classroom

Every so often, one of my beloved relatives makes noises about coming to visit me in flyover country. Most recently, she and her partner were going to be in a neighboring state for a couple days, and she proposed flying up to see me. I happily assented. She said she wanted to see me teach.

I'm uncomfortable with having family members come see me teach. Mostly, it just makes me uncomfortable. I've been a student in classes when profs had their parents visit, and it didn't bother me, but did seem a little weird. And yes, I've let my Mom visit my classes when she came to visit once. Guilt is a powerful motivator in my world.

I hesitantly told my relative okay, partly because I know I live in flyover country, and that actually coming to visit, even if she's within a few hundred miles, is unlikely. As it turned out, I was right about the odds, and she decided not to visit after all.

I find having extra people in a class slightly disruptive at best. Sure, we're all observed, and we all observe, and it's okay. The disruption is slight. And there's a purpose served in being observed, and in observing. When I observe, I learn from other teachers, and when I'm observed, I learn from my observer.

I don't think most students mind much one way or another. Some probably feel a little shy or uncomfortabel about having an instructor's family member in the room; others probably enjoy getting a sense that their instructor has parents and such. It's probably a wash for most students most of the time.

I don't quite get the urge to watch someone teach, though. I can't imagine asking my sibling or cousins if I could come watch them do their jobs.

But then, on the RARE occasions when I went to work with my Dad (when there was a small project I could do to make some spare change, wrapping stuff, or stuffing envelops, and mostly on weekends), I didn't watch him work. And when I worked there on occasion as I got older, I was busy doing my own tasks, although I did get to see him do some kinds of work (such as asking me to make copies of something, or type up stuff). My Dad spent a lot of time at work doing figures, keeping track of things, making phone calls, and handling questions. So maybe it just wasn't the kind of thing that seemed likely to have entertainment value for a kid?

I think the relatives who want to watch me teach think that there's going to be some entertainment value involved. While I do make an effort to be less than fatally boring when I teach, I don't really think I'm generally entertaining. And a lot of what value I bring to a discussion depends on my audience bringing in knowledge and context. If you haven't read Titus, then seeing me talk about it really isn't likely to be interesting.

I also think the relatives who want to watch me teach have a sense of ownership, a sense that my performance reflects on them, perhaps? I'm uncomfortable, often, with the ways family members express ownership or possessiveness; one effect of living so far from the home turf is that I confront the issue infrequently.

The next likely confrontation is just ahead, though, when my Mom comes to visit for a few days. I think she's once again going to want to watch me teach, and I want to say "no." That guilt thing will get me, though.

Still, why is it that she thinks it's okay to want to come to work with me, when she wouldn't dream of bringing that up with my sibling?

Is it the teaching thing, or is it something about our relationship?

Do other instructors have family members who want to watch them at work? Do people in other fields?

Or is my family just special?


  1. My mom is OBSESSED with the idea of seeing me teach. Also, every guy I've ever dated has wanted to see me teach. I do not get it at all.

    That said, I reached a compromise with my mom: I'm letting her come see me give a library talk to a community group in the spring. A) She'll blend in with the audience, B) It's a talk intended for a general audience so she might actually enjoy it.

  2. My parents and other relatives have never asked to see me teach. Spouse saw me give an introduction to a visiting speaker one time and somehow derived from that the idea that I'm a good speaker/teacher. I'm content to let it rest at that and not spoil any illusions.

  3. Perhaps it's a bit easier as a performing artist--we tend to see our classes, especially the big ones, as "one more performance." And for the last half dozen years, I've had a lot of observers in my studio, either parents of students, or younger kazoo teachers wanting to see what I do. All the same, having an "audience" does change the focus and energy of the classroom.

    My parents want to see me teach, too, and they've done so in the past. I've told them: no observing this semester while I'm still getting my feet wet at a new university, but maybe next term. They have watched me conduct my ensembles (rehearsals and performances) before. My solution has been to make a BIG deal out of it, kind of like Dave Letterman with his mom. I say something corny like, "Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome, with a round of applause, the people responsible for the miserable torture you're currently experiencing in this class...MY MOM AND DAD! Now be nice to them, pay attention, and let them think you learn something in here!"

    The students, thankfully, have loved it. And you know, they DO behave better with my mom in the room. :) I suppose it helps that my parents are old enough to be at that "cute" stage.

    Why do family want to visit? Well, it may be that "teacher" thing. My dad was always inviting me to come visit his elementary school classroom while home on winter break. It meant a lot for him to get to "show off" what he did all day, especially since as a male teaching 5th grade, he didn't get a lot of respect for his career choice--I guess he figured it would be nice to have his offspring admire what he did. (And he was an amazing teacher, so it was a joy to observe him.)

    My great-grandpa used to get all dressed up in his navy three-piece suit, comb his hair carefully, and shine his shoes (back in the 70s, when the hippie movement was big), to actually AUDIT his professor sons' classes every couple of years. He'd sit in the back row, and he wouldn't say a word (although the students, who thought he was terribly cute, always tried to coax him to talk). But he'd beam with pride that he, a high school dropout, could have somehow produced two professors.

    So maybe it's just that your family is really, really proud of you? I don't know about your family, but in my education-workshipping family, the opinion is that being a prof is just about the most successful career one could ever possibly have. I know that my cousins and aunts tend to brag about what I do. (They clearly have not thought of the un-glamorous parts of our jobs! And they haven't seen my paychecks, either!)

    Just a thought. :)

    (Oh, but the boyfriend-watching-me-teach thing? That would SO not happen. Gah.)

  4. Yeesh. I cringe to think that a family member will ever want to see me teach. I would try to find some way to nicely turn them down, I think.

  5. Hey -- at least your relatives recognize what you do and that you're probably pretty good at it!

    One quick question -- any rocks in your treat bag from the party?


  6. The thing is that teaching is different from watching someone work in an office -- there are other people around whose function it is to sit in the audience/classroom. Your parents just want to join you...

    My mom has dropped by a couple of classes just to see what I do. I don't mind and my students have seemed to enjoy meeting her. Of course, if there is something relevant -- I also call on her :) --- since she's a nurse and I teach ethics, there are many examples she has experience with.

  7. My brother came to see me teach once, but he was probably younger than the students at that point!

  8. Anonymous6:15 PM

    As much as my mother would be thrilled to bits, I would never want family in my classes. Dr. Crazy's compromise sounds like a good one, though.

    My husband actually wants me to come sit in on one of his classes this semester. I think I'm sort of a character in his antecdotes to his students, and he wants to prove I'm real or something.

    And a friend of mine invited his parents to his dissertation defense! That sounds even worse.