Saturday, March 17, 2012


Almost all teachers think that they are good to great teachers. When I designed and directed a teacher fellow training program in The University of Michigan’s Department of English nearly 40 years ago, most TF’s had exalted opinions of their teaching, though few of them had prior experience. I never thought that I taught particularly well until my wife finally got mad at me for doubting myself and reminded me of the praise which I had received from students, colleagues, and administrators in high school, prep school, community college, and college classes in more than half a dozen states. Only then, after years of doubt, did I let myself take pride in being in the first group of ten out of 1500 TF’s to receive a UM award for distinguished teaching.

My modesty or lack thereof is not the issue. The real issue is evaluating teachers—why and how. The fact of the matter—at least, the traditional fact of the matter—is really a simple one: opinions about teachers have a lot to do with parent or student choices of teachers. Opinions about teachers—good, bad, or indifferent—vary widely, even in a single class. I have never had uniformly high scores from all students, for what to some is an asset is to others a liability. Some thought me close-minded, unfair, unfeeling, and disorganized; most thought me open-minded, fair, compassionate, and organized; all thought me expert in my subject.

Opinions by teachers also vary. When one teacher enters a class to observe and evaluate another teacher, what guides the evaluator—personal responses, prior convictions, a pre-determined checklist? What circumstances influence the evaluation? When I was a TF, a supervising professor coming unannounced to my class, as I had requested, watched and listened to the discussion of a Shakespeare play, and debriefed me afterwards. He said that he was stunned. He thought that my questions were excellent and prompted good responses, admired that I got every student involved, but admitted that, until the last two minutes, he had no idea where the discussion was going because it seemed to meander. Then my wrap-up showed him that I had known exactly where I was going and had got there, and, most important, the students had got there too. But his evaluation would have been very different if he had left two minutes before class ended.

I asked questions; challenged answers, whether I thought them right or wrong, or asked other students to respond to them; and added a few points along the way. I had a few notes but no detailed lesson plan to guide me. I made some use of the blackboard, none of audio-visual aids; did not divide the students into discussion groups; did not require journal writing—did none of the things important in teacher evaluations today. I taught well in my way, but I know that others teach well in their ways—or poorly or indifferently.

Teacher evaluations are not, and should be made, a big deal. First, students, parents, colleagues, and administrators know who are the good, bad, or indifferent teachers. Even support staff know; some high-school janitors know as much about the teachers as anyone else. Of course, there is no unanimity, but the consensus is almost never wrong. Many people over many years do not misjudge teachers.

Second, the bases of judgments vary, and they should. Teachers are not robots, but people (nor schools, production lines); teaching is not a science, but an art. Interactions of personality, competence, subject matter, grade level—all enter into the “equation,” one which cannot fully account for a teacher’s quality. Depending on the mix of these conditions, student demographics, and classroom or school circumstances, one teacher’s “effectiveness” may be very different from another’s, and different among students—also people, not robots—in the same class. One teacher may be valued by one restless, unhappy student for giving sympathetic guidance for a year; for teaching English, math, science, or history, not so much; by another, differently. Taken together, teachers can provide for students needs, including subject knowledge and skills. Students need to learn to deal with teachers just as they have to deal with other adults, and learn from their human differences. However, what always comes first is teacher mastery of, and commitment to, the subject matter taught to and for students.

The ignoramuses of New Mexico public education in the executive and legislative branches—Martinez and Skandera have now had nearly two years to demonstrate their bliss; solons like John Arthur Smith many years more—model themselves on accountants and inspectors, not educators or even friends of education, when they advocate test data on student performance or checklists of teaching techniques as fair and objective measures of teacher performance. They disclose their ignorance, their fear of decisions exposing it, and their indifference to remedying it, by seeking refuge in numerical or tabulated data. Such measures cannot be fair because they are incomplete or objective because they have inherent biases. These pretenders have never learned that not everything which can be counted counts, and that not everything which counts can be counted.

If you must evaluate teachers, do so, not to abuse, but to better, them. But start with yourselves; you are responsible for New Mexico’s consistent educational rating as 49th out of 50.

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