Sunday, February 16, 2014

All Kinds of Kinds: Evaluating a Teacher

Evaluating a teacher demands nuance, not numbers.

The Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter, Don Henry, has a song with a refrain that says, “Ever since the beginning to keep the world spinning, it takes all kinds of kinds.” I think the same is true when we look at the teaching profession.  

As a student in elementary school, secondary school, college and graduate school, I have had a few great teachers, many good teachers, and a poor teacher or two. I remember my third grade teacher, Ms. Miyamoto. Ms. Miyamoto was from Hawaii. She taught us to dance the Hula, how to prepare and eat poi, and other basics of Hawaiian language and culture. I remember mostly how she was unfailingly kind. For an 8 year-old-boy in 1955, her classroom was a valuable lesson in diversity and respect for other cultures. Ms. Miyamoto was a new teacher and she had her challenges with what we now call “classroom management.” I am not sure how she would be rated as a teacher today, but for me she was a good teacher indeed.

In sixth grade I had Mrs. Stout. I can say without equivocation that Mrs. Stout was a great teacher. I don’t know how she did it, but Mrs. Stout made every child in the classroom, including the class clown (moi), believe that s/he was intelligent and destined for great success. The one thing I remember that Mrs. Stout taught us was how to outline. She said we would need it in high school and college. She always assumed we were going to college, even in this working class suburban neighborhood in 1958 where college was far from a bygone conclusion. She made us all feel good about our potential.

In eighth grade history, I had Mr. Laidacker. I doubt that Mr. Laidacker was any administrator’s idea of a great teacher, but he was for me. Mr. Laidacker was strict (some said mean), aloof and totally involved with himself. He ignored the 8th grade curriculum (American History) and spent nearly the entire year teaching about his passion, The Civil War. And I mean passion. Mr. Laidacker knew more about the Civil War than Abraham Lincoln. And he could tell stories about the war that lit up the mind of at least one 13 year-old in that class. I can still remember in detail the report I did for him on Civil War medicine. Mr. Laidacker was not liked by most of the students in the school, but he is one major reason I became a history teacher. That passion was infectious for me.

I am sure that anyone reading this can name teachers who had similar effects on them. The point is that teachers who were good for us, as individuals, may not have been good for other kids. But it takes all kinds of kinds in this world and all kinds of teachers to educate a child. Because of this evaluating a teacher demands nuance, not numbers.

The current mania for weeding out “bad teachers” and evaluating teacher effectiveness through student standardized test scores is wrong headed in the extreme. Teaching is one part art, one part science, and one part mystery. One child’s favorite teacher may be the wrong teacher for another child. Evaluating a teacher is a complex process, that certainly includes evidence of student learning, but it also includes many, many more things. This evaluation cannot be reduced to a number on a standardized test or on a rubric. This type of reductionism does a disservice to the complexity of the enterprise.

The evaluation of a teacher requires a knowledge of and sensitivity to this complexity. That is why I consider teacher evaluation to itself be part science, part art, and part mystery. The science is the easy part. Was the lesson well planned? Were the students engaged? Did the teacher answer questions thoughtfully? Was the objective achieved? Did the students learn?

The art is more difficult. Was the lesson made relevant? Was it differentiated appropriately? Did children feel safe taking risks in this classroom? Did small groups function well? Were routine matters handled briskly? How effectively were problems handled? What is being learned in this classroom beyond the subject of the instruction?

The mystery is even more difficult. Did magic happen in this class? Did students feel cared for in this classroom? Was there an atmosphere of mutual respect? Does the teacher’s passion come through? What students might be inspired by this teacher? Was the joy of leaning evident?

I like to think of the act of evaluating a teacher as informed impressionism. Just as the impressionist painter, Claude Monet, used thousands of brush strokes to form the whole of a painting of a garden, so the skilled evaluator looks through multiple lenses to gain an impression of the whole of a teacher. This evaluation should be informed by student learning data, but that data is only one part of multi-faceted picture. It must also be informed by multiple observations of teachers working with children and working with colleagues. It is the product of the review of lesson plans, but also of conversations with the teacher that probe decision making and the ability to improve through reflection.

In other words, teacher evaluation is not easy and it requires considerable resources in personnel, time and money. The current calls for judging the complex act of teaching through reductionist and faulty value added models and theoretical rubrics are an insult to the complexity of the profession. If we are really serious about understanding and improving the evaluation of teachers, then let’s get serious about just how difficult that task is.