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Devaluating teaching

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Is our evaluation of teachers any better than our evaluation of learners?

Of course, the first thing to say is that no teacher would ever agree to be evaluated in the same way as they evaluate their learners. Every school has in place some form of teacher assessment, but few, if any, are based on a true/false or multiple-choice test the Head produced last night before they went to bed.

No, teachers expect more respect in valuing their skills. The problem is that teachers don't really like to be evaluated. There are a number of reasons why:

1) They don't trust the testing system

However the evaluation is done, or whoever does the evaluation, teachers will doubt the system. They will be suspicious of the motive (Promotion? Down-sizing? Getting those horrible Year 7s next year?). They will be suspicious of the method (favouritism; observing an unrepresentative class; missing the lesson start, which was good, and seeing the end, which was bad; drawing loads of arrows on a piece of paper! - what does that prove?). They will be suspicious of the evaluator (She's never liked me. Hasn't been in a classroom for years. What does she know about teaching? Just out of school herself!).

2) No one agrees what a good teacher is

One person's class of free spirits is another person's noisy rabble. Some teachers believe in helping students to achieve known outcomes like exams. Others think that they should develop people as learners and see exam-passing as simply a waystage on a journey. Some teachers are technicians and have lesson plans that work like stage directions and lead to a magical dénouement. Others are people-people and watch as their learners develop like flowers. Others… well, there are as many definitions of "good teacher" as there are teachers. Because most teachers think they are pretty good. It's the others who need development.

3) The difference between development and experience

People teach for many years. Some people get better at teaching the longer they do it. Others get lazy or get worse as they get bored or cynical. Some treat their pre-service training as a model, and see deviation from this model as being bad or lazy, and thus see not changing their teaching as a success. Changes in teaching behaviours can therefore be seen as progressive, regressive or simply backsliding.

In other words, all the problems with reliability and validity that often tend to get overlooked when we evaluate our learners.


So, to avoid the word "assessment", we have traditionally labelled our evaluation systems as "Development". Now, teachers can't object to being developed, can they? And so people give workshops and observe each other not to assess, no. But to "help them to become better teachers".

Firstly, we'd better clarify "help" and "better teacher". The word "help" implies that some form of cooperative development is being undertaken. And this may be true. And we have already seen that the concept of "better teacher" is open to interpretation. 


The problem is that this melding of "development" and "evaluation" has gone on for so long that it has become "devaluation". In many places, neither the development nor the assessment is being done with much success. Development has become a list of issues that the developer/knower thinks they know more about than the developee/knowee. The problem here is that in many cases they don't. Not only is there the possible confusion of talent and experience that we described above, but also the developee may need a different approach to some Officially Recognised Superior informing them how their teaching behaviour deviates from the school's official norm. There are many ways to help people other then telling. 

For example, less experienced teachers may benefit from a voyage of joint discovery: the superiors might set them a teaching target, ask them to set a form of evaluation which would "prove" their learning, and then ask them to do it. However, one of the problems with "development" is that it means you have to let go of control, as development can only be development if it may lead to an unspecified or unanticipated outcome. Asking people to develop along preordained paths isn't really development. It's called "training". But that's another article.

And suppose these two teachers come up with a brilliant and original idea, but one that falls outside the current fields of experience or political desirability – what then? Can a person responsible for helping someone to develop then turn round and tell them "I'm sorry, but we don't develop that way here"? Not really.

Separate out the roles of development and accountability 

This is why we have to end the rule of devaluation and separate out once again the roles of development and accountability. We have to stop pretending that they are the same thing. We need to (re-)introduce the role of a Head Teacher who can say things like "I'm sorry, but school policy is …". And we need to have a Head of Development who can set tasks, isn't professionally threatened by novel ideas, who can argue with School Policy, argue with "not invented here", argue with school tradition. Someone who is interested in developing ideas and seeing where they lead.

And the teacher? How does this affect them? Well, they work with a colleague to produce their portfolio of the year's work. It might contain observations they have done, samples of students' work, handouts they have made, handouts they have found online, sites they like to visit, books they have read, notes on how their outside interests have influenced their teaching. In other words, a picture of their teaching that year and what has changed and what has caused it to change.

(Of course, if there is no change, we have found the difference between development and experience.)

They might then present this portfolio to the Head Developer, who would read it and later discuss what seems important to them and ask what seemed most important to the teacher. And after speaking to as many of the teachers as possible, surely this developer would have an excellent idea of the collective staff, and would not only be able to inform the Head and other educational officials of what the staff is like, but would also be able to draft more suitable training programmes, developmental tasks, discussion forums, school aims, appropriate sources of material to read or view. 

The Head would also have a meeting with the individual teacher, in which they could discuss whatever seems salient to the Head after reading the portfolio and having discussed the case with the Developer. This might include discussing grants for study, warning about deviations from policies in force, asking what resources the school might require, answering questions about mixed ability systems in the school, the awarding or withholding of increments, and so on. 

In other words, separating out the admin function - which every school has, from the developmental function - which every school should aspire to.

By Andy Baxter