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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Measuring excellence in your child's teachers

There's a lot of hoo-ha going on in the press at present about Julia Gillard's intention to introduce financial rewards for excellence in teaching.  The main topic of debate seems to be how to measure excellence with any sort of accuracy.  Parents are constantly interested in the standard of their child's teachers, too, but the yardsticks they use are many and varied.

So for what it's worth, here are my views on getting a clear impression of a teacher's performance, along with some personal anecdotes about teachers I have known- excellent, and not-so-excellent!

Sadly, bureaucracies always seem to try to quantify excellence by looking at results in terms of numbers.  There are traps with this, and the following story illustrates some of those traps.

Through circumstances beyond my control (but partly due to bureaucratic stupidity), I started high school halfway through first term as a 'heathen' at a Christian school; not a great start.  Forget the religious issues, which were only a minor irritation- I landed in a peer group who hated me.  I was smart, pretty, knew no-one and lived in the 'wrong' suburb.  I may as well have had a target tattooed on my forehead.  (Oh, the joys of the North Shore private school- but that's a topic for another day.)

This is relevant only in the interests of pointing out that I was vulnerable, and the staff had every opportunity to know that I was vulnerable if they had the least understanding of the culture of their workplace.

In addition to the joys of my peer group, I was the 44th child in the class, and my desk was pushed right up against the blackboard. (Yes, heaven help me, those were the days of blackboard and chalk, so it's a wonder I didn't asphyxiate on chalk dust.)

I had a Maths teacher who would have rated as excellent, based solely on the marks gained by her students.  When she walked in the door and saw me- this was my first lesson on my first day at the school- her comment was 'Oh god, not ANOTHER one,' which was spat at me venomously, complete with rolling eyes and sneering mouth.  She didn't even ask me my name.

I was shattered. I'd spent the morning being bullied ruthlessly by the delightful daughters of the North Shore Mafia, and now I had to endure a teacher bullying me too?  I'd been a keen Maths student up till then.

So much for rating teachers by their students' results.  I was in a class of very clever girls who would probably have got 85% and above for the Year 7 Maths syllabus content if they were tied to a rock in the desert without a teacher in sight.  Does that teacher deserve more money? Draw your own conclusions. I wanted to bury her under a rock. I'd been home-schooling myself with a Maths textbook for eight weeks already and doing fine, thanks.

To judge a teacher's worth, the most important thing you need to do is NOT to look at their class results.  Put the numbers away and go and talk to that teacher's students- many of them, not just the few very vocal and opinionated ones.  Children know a good teacher when they experience one, and they smell a stinking rotten one a mile off.

Even very young children can sense authentic people; in fact they may be even better at it than older children, whose instincts have often been trained out of them- they haven't yet been 'taught' to accord their elders universal respect (a process I find extremely worrying, as it contributes to all sorts of problems in later life- from child abuse to the blind trust of dodgy internet postings and professional con men.  But that's also a topic for another day!). Listen to your children.

Do they talk about the teacher with respect? With admiration? With affection? In daycare or preschool, does your child rush to that person as soon as they arrive and give them a huge hug?  If so, then they are gaining something from that teacher that they think is worth having.  They are valuing something that teacher is doing.  And it's not necessarily educational in the mainstream sense of 'syllabus' and 'good marks', though it's certainly educational in the 'school of life'.  This child may still be struggling and failing with their actual schoolwork- but if they trust and respect the teacher, something good is happening there.  Be patient.

Find out what it is they value about this person. Maybe they do feel that this teacher is giving them an educational heads-up by teaching the syllabus in an interesting, accessible, competent way and giving struggling students extra help in their own time.  Great teachers value-add to every student, not just the smart ones or just the struggling ones.  Sure, you can glean something from studying exam marks if you don't just look at one set of raw results; a student who was getting 8% for Maths and after changing teachers starts to get 52% instead probably tells you that the teacher made a breakthrough- but it might also tell you that this child's parents divorced last year while having poisonous fights in front of him, and that life has now settled down.  Talk to the students, or you'll never know.

But maybe it isn't about book-learning and what happens in the classroom at all.  Maybe that teacher is someone they feel they can trust, who is honest with them, who treats them with respect, who listens when they talk. Maybe that teacher gives a lot of their own time to extra-curricular activities which the students value. You find that out by talking to the people who share the classroom with the teacher, not by asking the boss or studying exam results; only the students really know what happens when that teacher is the only adult in the room.  You might get a hint by talking to a child's parents, if that child is the type who talks honestly to mum and dad about how they feel about school- but for the full picture, ask the students themselves.

The next teacher I want to tell you about taught me Latin in Year 7.  She wore mini-skirts measured from the crotch down, including one memorable creation which featured a bare midriff with the skirt joined to the top by large curtain rings, accompanied my massive and eye-catching earrings.  The limp caused by childhood polio caused a decidedly sexy wiggle of the hips with every step she took.  She could barely see without contact lenses and squinted badly. She had a thick Polish-German accent and couldn't pronounce her 'R's clearly.  Her handwriting was completely illegible.

Have you judged her yet? She sounds completely unsuitable to be in charge of children... doesn't she?

She was NOT popular with the Cool Set amongst my peers, or with their parents, due to her rapier-like verbal responses to their nastiness and her amazing ability both to make the punishment fit the crime and to stick to what she said.  If she said you'd get a fatigue every time you talked irrelevant rubbish after three warnings, then you might indeed end up with half a dozen fatigues, ie half a dozen lost lunchtimes picking up rubbish (and you would shut up eventually and let the lesson continue without the distracting interjections). You want your lunchtimes back? Then learn to be quiet when you're told, and you might get some NEXT week.

Have you judged her yet?  She's probably inflicting permanent psychological damage on those kids... isn't she?

The first time she walked into the room, she smiled at me, said a friendly 'hi' and asked my name and a little about my background.  She then set about teaching us all to understand different grammatical cases by getting us to translate the sentences 'the girl kicks the boy' and 'the boy kicks the girl' into Latin, which we did amongst much hilarity; the difference was imprinted on our minds immediately.  I was to find that her Latin lessons were never, EVER boring.  After that first class she called me aside and offered to help me catch up the work I'd missed in her own time- the only teacher to offer this service.  And was as good as her word, offering me constant assistance which enabled me to pass the half-yearly exam in a subject I'd never studied in my life barely a month later.

Do you have enough evidence to judge her yet?

We finished the syllabus before the final term began.  Instead of wasting our (and her) time revising, and given that she wasn't allowed by the Head of Languages to teach us the next year's work for fear of causing trouble for our next teacher, she spent the whole final term teaching us to perform various well-known songs which she'd translated into Latin.  She was no singer, so she taught us the songs using a recorder, blushing furiously every time she made an error but pushing onwards through the difficulties.

At the end of the year we put on a Latin concert, invited the parents and gave the proceeds to charity.

I think there were only two or three girls in the class who scored less than 85% in the final Latin exam- and many of us, including me, scored over 99%.

I discovered many years later that she'd never actually learned Latin herself; she swore she was only a chapter ahead of us in the textbook.

That was the only year I was ever taught by her, but the next year she decided to start a Poetry Club at lunchtime.  Without this stimulus and safe environment to test my poetry writing skills and have my work critiqued dispassionately but kindly by an expert, I doubt that I would ever have achieved the expertise to write the poems that have won me several prizes and given me so much joy.

She also began making recordings of the set texts from the English syllabus for blind students, inviting us to come and read parts of the plays into the tape recorder in another lunchtime; what a smart way to increase our social conscience, as well as familiarising us with those texts too.

I would have doubled her pay.  Would you?  She's a large part of the reason I became a teacher.

Excellence is a very subjective thing, and subject to enormous prejudice.  Be very afraid of judging a teacher on what she wears, how she looks, how she maintains control.  Look at the big picture- you need to see everything she does for the children.

How would you rate this next teacher? I'm not quite sure myself. Try not to judge her just on the first paragraph, won't you?

My English teacher drank too much, stank to high heaven and had the worst teeth I've ever seen in my life.  When she bent over us to correct something or read our work, we'd hold our breath and lean away.

She taught me much of what I know today about how to write creative but incisive prose and essays.  She encouraged me to be imaginative by marking me at the top of the class when I wrote something that went around the edges of the question but contained original thought, and she reined me in when I went over the top and wrote stuff that didn't make much sense by failing me dismally.  Boy, did I learn from that.  She had no preconceptions and no fear, and she never lied to me to placate me or to curry favour with my parents.  She was as blunt as a rubber mallet, but she was completely fair.

I didn't exactly like her, but hell, I respected her opinion.  I know I owe her.

Does that teacher deserve more money? Discuss...

And a final counter-example or two, just to ensure that you understand the complexity of the issue.  Even asking the children isn't completely foolproof- pay attention!

Sometimes the children will give positive feedback about a teacher who isn't doing the right thing at all.  I once taught alongside a smoker who used to allow the senior students out of class, quite openly,  to go and have a puff in the bushes.  That creates positive feedback from those kids, yes- but it's a different type of response if you listen to the nuances; the children will talk about this teacher using the matey slang they use with their peers, and probably with a bit of peer-like joking disrespect.  They do know that the teacher is buying their affection and cooperation. It'll show if you know what to look for. Being the students' 'mate' is a really bad sign.  Look for respect.

And sometimes children will give very negative feedback because they've been on the wrong end of some well-deserved discipline.  A LOT of parents get sucked in by this one, because they don't see their own child clearly and overlook some pretty shocking faults of character (like the ability to manipulate the facts to squirm out of trouble).  I know of one case where a male teacher who caught some female students wagging school, to their cost, was then accused of sexual harassment as pay-back.

It pays to know a bit of back-history before you judge a teacher, and it pays to know the personality of the child you're asking.  Parents are sometimes not very good judges of their child when there's trouble- many get too emotionally involved and too defensive.

So, would I recommend basing teachers' pay on a bureaucratic judgment of excellence? Don't be a bloody fool- of course not.  There aren't enough hours in a month of Sundays to judge every teacher correctly by asking enough of that teacher's students for feedback, even if all bureaucrats had the talent of recognising excellence when they saw it through a child's eyes (which is extremely doubtful).

And to our dear well-meaning (?) Prime Minister- the problem isn't that we need to motivate poor teachers to be good ones with money, and the solution isn't that we need to divide the profession with a subjective, discriminatory judgment-based pay scale like that.

The problem, financially speaking, is that after you've been promoted to the top of the classroom teacher's pay scale, which happens quite quickly, there's nowhere else to go except out of the classroom if you want a pay rise. So great teachers do go- to pay the mortgage, to put the kids through a good school, whatever.

It's the Peter Principle gone mad.  We only give our top teachers more money if they get a job that means less contact with the students.  The solution?  Increase the number of steps, and then work out a system of recommendation within the whole individual school community for teachers to be promoted to a higher pay level.

It's not foolproof, but it's way better than basing everything on marks and superficial appearances.

LATE MAIL: Have a read of this post from the USA by Teacher Tom. It shows what has come to pass over there through the belief that standardised testing of students is a way of measuring teaching prowess.  Teacher Tom

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