Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Teacher evaluation – with a cake of soap.

My school is in an unpleasant situation – due to a combination of falling enrolments and budget cuts we have to lose some staff.  Which leads to the unfortunate scenario of how to decide who is to leave the school. Judging a teacher by the results of their students is not as sound as it seems – given our socio-economic index some great teachers have results that might be considered mediocre in other contexts.  (After all, do we judge the quality of a dentist by the number of cavities in the teeth of his or her patients – or by the quality of the intervention he or she provides?) And then, we have those teachers who have pleasing results, but given the calibre of the students in their class, they should have.  So student results alone are not a reliable indicator of effective teaching.  How then do we evaluate a teacher?  What are the reliable indicators?  In short, there probably isn’t one single indicator that can be used in isolation reliably.
It reminded me of a conversation I had earlier in my career.

Bernard, one of the school cleaners, sat down beside me. “I reckon you’ll be a good teacher,” he said.
“Why,” I asked, flattered but a little bemused as I had only been in the school for a little while.
“Soap,” he said.
“Soap?” I echoed.
“Soap,” he said again. 
He stared at my blank expression and explained.
“Since you’ve come to the school I’ve had to replace the soap in the men’s toilet. You’re the only new male teacher this year.  That tells me that you wash your hands when you go to the toilet.”
“Well, yes of course I do.”
“Well, not everyone does – otherwise I’d have been replacing the soap more often before this."
“So how does that make me a good teacher?”
“Well, it shows me that you take care of yourself. It also tells me you do the right thing even without someone watching over your shoulder … so to speak.” 
He smiled at me again, as if I was being admitted into some conspiracy. Leaning forwards he continued.
“And I’ve been talking to the cleaner who does your area. She tells me you always leave your desk tidy. Tidy – not spotless, but tidy, like a workspace. And the classroom tidy. No mess on the floor. Shelves tidy. Resources away. Books on the shelves before the kids leave. That tells me you are organised, that you have structure.  So you put those things together – a person who uses soap and has a tidy desk – well, it makes you a well organised person who does the right thing without someone checking up on you.  Tells me you have pride – pride in yourself and pride in what you do.  Seems like a recipe for a good teacher to me,” he said and moved away.
Was he right? That’s not for me to say – but I was promoted twice within that school. 
Our profession is now so dominated by data, controlled by protocols, and prejudiced by procedures that we sometimes forget one of the quotations often attributed to Albert Einstein.
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

 (The attribution is likely to be wrong – researchers believe that the phrase may have originated with William Bruce Cameron in his 1963 text “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking”. But who wants to sacrifice star power for historical accuracy?)

Regardless of the origins of the quote there is no doubting the perception of its originator.
So what then makes a good teacher?  There is no end of research…perhaps none more user friendly than this list of effective teacher characteristics from Stanford. But ultimately, even this type of informed research does not necessarily capture the essence of a good teacher.  It is a bit like deconstructing the word count of a good book and saying that good books use the letters a, t, and e more than x, y and z – it misses the point.

A good teacher certainly has all the usual organisational and behavioural traits usually attributed to them. They certainly have the skills itemised above. But more than that - they care.

They care about their students. They take responsibility for their learning and work tirelessly to address their learning needs. Everything else is a bonus.

Oh, and they probably wash their hands.

Einstein / Cameron quote from Quote Investigator – here.
Image = Google images.

Did you find this post interesting? If so you might also enjoy “Do we blame dentists for tooth decay?” here.

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