Observation as a Superpower

Sometimes I get asked what my superpower is as a teacher. I find the question a little ridiculous – who has super powers? I certainly don’t. But it did get me to thinking. What can I, or any instrumental teacher for that matter, do for my students that very few other people in their lives do for them? Several things come to mind, but one thing stands out: dispassionate observation. That is, observation without judgment. Lots of people observe your students, their parents, for example. But what gets everyone off track is the judgment part. “This child does A so it means that this child is B.” Or “This child does A and if I were to do that, it would mean B about me so therefore it means that about him, too.” We all tend to judge others by our own yardstick.

What’s the difference between observation and judgment?  Observation is noticing something. Judging means assigning a quality to it: good, bad, what are we going to do about it, etc. Noticing someone has strong muscles = observation. Assuming therefore he must be a bully = judgment.

I’m sure this happens to most teachers at one point or another: parents trying to help us by cataloguing their child’s “characteristics.” (meaning what they consider to be their poor qualities). In my experience, these judgments often have nothing to do with reality. It’s very difficult for parents to be objective – they’re emotionally involved with their progeny, after all. And we all know that “love is blind.” Or better, love can obstruct our vision.

And this is why dispassionate observation is so important. I once had a brother and his two years younger sister both start studying with me at the same time. It became apparent after a few months that the little girl (Miss Perfect) was going to surpass her older brother. I had a chat with the parents as I could see they were worried about this and they wanted me to hold the little girl back so her brother wouldn’t feel bad – and I couldn’t blame them as this might normally be the case. However, I knew from observing these children that the brother didn’t care one way or the other and when I pointed this out to the parents, they agreed to let me handle the situation as I saw fit. The little girl quickly went way beyond her brother who wasn’t concerned in the least and happily continued to play and learn at his own pace. Every situation is different and we may not see this if we only listen to the parents (or even “conventional wisdom”). But by observing a situation for a short while, we may indeed see things parents and others do not.

I have one student who seems so meek, mild and even timid. Her mother appears to be that way, too, and she thought her daughter was just like her. I think it was in the very first few lessons that I told the mother, who seemed quite protective of her shy and retiring daughter, not to worry – that her daughter has a will of steel, a character to match and wasn’t so shy and retiring as she seemed. What looked like timid behavior was merely this little girl observing and sizing up a situation before acting. Turns out I was right, much to the mother’s shock. How did I figure this out? Just observing, never judging and observing some more. How did I find out I was right? First of all, they can’t get her to eat her greens, no matter what threats, imprecations, and bribes they use – and she’s now twelve years old. Secondly, this supposedly fragile little retiring flower just loves to play in public and volunteers for it at school. She has a nice big sound, too, and when she finishes playing, she puts away her violin and goes back to pretending she’s shy and retiring. Smart kid. Just because she puts on a show of being timid doesn’t mean she is timid. And, contrary to what you might think on casually observing her, she never minds or gets offended on the rare occasion I have to bawl her out (she’s an adolescent now). Her mother has learned to stop being surprised – or worried – by this.

Parents often assume that their children are just like them; that if a child finds himself in a certain situation, then his reaction would be what theirs was when they were little or would be now. An awful lot of potential harm or misunderstanding can happen because of this, but it’s even more dangerous when teachers do it. Here are a couple of examples.

Another student I had some years ago was not very smiley. He certainly didn’t seem or act unhappy to me, just a very serious but otherwise perfectly normal child. And some people’s facial conformations don’t lend themselves to a naturally cheerful demeanor, no matter how they actually feel. However, his school teachers called his mother in for a special conference to express their conviction that her child must be unhappy as he didn’t smile and laugh all the time as “normal” children do. You can imagine how the mother must have felt. How do you reassure anyone that your child is basically happy? Again, this had nothing to do with reality. They didn’t talk to him or observe him closely. They made their interpretation and judgment based on their own perception of how happiness manifests itself instead of observing the student in question and taking appropriate action. In this case, no action was necessary. They did succeed in upsetting the mother, however.

Another of my mothers got called on the carpet by her daughter’s fifth grade teachers who were worried that her child was a victim of abuse. Why? Because this child was so well mannered and such a good student that these teachers thought it was unnatural. Their own children and other students don’t behave this way so any child who does is obviously suffering from oppressive parents in their view. They accused this mother of beating her child! I knew this family well, having taught this little girl since she was five. Trust me. She wasn’t abused or oppressed, just a very nice girl from a very loving and close family. Again, observation plus interpretation and judgment = very unhappy and frightened mother who thought she might be turned in to the authorities on absolutely no evidence other than a few teachers’ misinterpretation of their observations and resulting judgments.

So if many teachers are measuring their students by their own yardsticks, you can imagine what parents do. My daughter made a comment to me the other day that illustrates the point. She told me that she and her husband were trying to figure out who their youngest son (a very powerful child) takes after. After discussing it for some time, they realized that they are different from their parents and siblings, that I (the grandmother) am completely different from my parents and relatives, so therefore their son must be, too. In other words, he takes after himself. This realization drove home to them that they have to look at their child for what he is in that moment and deal with that reality. Not with what they may think is a family characteristic or their interpretation of  what his thoughts, feelings, reactions would mean about them, so therefore must apply also to him. This was a real “aha!” moment for my daughter and her husband, something I’m afraid many parents and teachers never have.

And this is why it’s so important for us teachers to keep a level head, open mind and all our senses (including the sixth one) always on full blast. Our students not only need us to do this, they’re counting on it. We may be the only adults in their lives who see them for what they are in that moment – not what they were, should be, could be or projecting what they will become.

When I was young, all I wanted was for people to stop judging me and see me for what I was. Now that I’m in the last part of my life, I no longer care. But it was certainly important to me as a child and as an adolescent. I was lucky to have had a few teachers who I remember with great fondness who I felt really did try to understand me. And I remember with bitterness, the ones who didn’t – the ones who made snap judgments with little or no evidence (and wrong, too). The injustice and hopelessness of such a situation can be crippling to a young person. And believe me, a child knows when he is being judged, just as adults do. And I don’t think anyone of any age enjoys it.

Best thing to do is throw away the yardstick and live in the moment. It’s a lot less tiring, makes teaching easier and human relations a lot more joyful.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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31 May 2020

One thought on “Observation as a Superpower

  1. Douglas Kamholz

    Eloise, I certainly do hope I was among those in your adolescence trying to see your true (and wonderful) self. Also, you can say you have no superpower, but you sure could make my heart melt just by moving in down the block. Your friend and fan, Doug


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