Sunday 11 January 2015

The Many Ways that the Evaluations of Teachers Go Astray

The difficulty of arguing against the evaluating of teachers is that it seems so obvious, so common-sensical:  you evaluate the teachers and, as a result, the good ones get better, the incorrigibles move on, and education overall improves.  Despite the rock-solid logic of the abstract theory, in practice, they typically turn out to be half-baked, ill conceived, closed-minded, stifling, corrupt, vacuous, bluffing attempts at intimidation,  bureaucratic absurdities, and grounds for peevishness and petty jealousies.  Thanks to the good luck of the right chemistry and the generosity of my students I enjoyed favourable and gratifying evaluations throughout the last nineteen years of my teaching.  In terms of self interest, I should be strongly in favour, in fact, a defender of these evaluations.  I am in favour of some system, procedure or custom that would allow teachers’ work to be recognized, supported, encouraged, rewarded and improved, but the evaluations as they are carried out never seem to come close to these objectives.  I am only in favour of “some system” because without it good teaching would receive no recognition at all, but I remain ambivalent about whether this pursuit of recognition improves or undermines the quality of education overall.  

Prior to my being evaluated by students, my teaching was evaluated by a “Senior Teacher” who, despite the title, was a full-time administrator not a teacher, who would observe one class of my choosing every year.  I was a temporary Senior Teacher myself for a couple of years, and despite my determination to be conscientious in my observations, feedback and support, the tokenism of the process was beyond obvious, not to mention that every teacher’s objective was to get through the observation and not have to think about it for another year.  Tokenism, defensiveness and scapegoating replaced what should have been happening, such as regular meetings of teachers to discuss teaching, exchange ideas and offer invitations to observe each other’s classes.  These are the things that never happened at the university level and rarely in the other institutions where I taught.  To get at the real problems of evaluation you have to look at the details of specific cases.

For example, when I taught at a military college, the novelist Rock Carrier, who was Principal of the college, announced to the gathered faculty with an aporetic shrug that 80% of us had been evaluated as excellent the previous year.  “How could 80% of the faculty be excellent?” he asked rhetorically.  A directive had been received from Ottawa, the bureaucratic equivalent of “the word of God,” specifying that for the current year only 20% of teachers could be assessed as excellent.  I wondered how Rock Carrier would take it if the media decided that one of his novels could not receive a favourable review because the 20% quota of excellent novels had already been reached.  

For teachers of English like me, the situation was even worse because there were only four of us.  As our Senior Teacher pointed out, if he gave even one of the four of us an excellent assessment that would be 25% and in contravention of the directive from Ottawa.  He bravely suggested that since we had all been excellent teachers throughout our careers, he would be our Don Quixote and rebel against the regulations if we agreed to take turns being assessed as excellent teachers.  Each year, by mutual agreement, one of us would be excellent and the other three would volunteer to be something less.  The idea that teachers’ performances were actually being evaluated went out the window, and bureaucracy reigned. 

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