Who will watch the watchers, who will guard the guards?

Nearly all professions have some sort of performance review.  I am told that, in some industries, they can come very frequently: sometimes at the conclusion of each project.  Online survey applications like SurveyMonkey allow frequent (and sometimes meaningful) feedback from our superiors and our clients alike.  And in an enlightened world, those critiques are understood with a reasonable outlook: while there might be room for improvement, feedback shouldn’t be a noose to hang you.

In teaching, though, there is remarkably little oversight.  In most public boards, once you’ve cleared the probation period, you can more or less be guaranteed a job.  You are subject to periodic teaching appraisals, but if you get less than satisfactory the union will grieve it.  You can imagine how few teachers receive less than satisfactory appraisals.

Teachers can be quite defensive about their practice.  Even the act of stepping into another teacher’s classroom can be perceived as an affront – “who are you to snoop?”  Why are we like this – why so defensive?

I think this can be explained with a few things in mind.  First, teachers receive less affirmation from adult peers than any profession I can think of – you could go a year or two without anyone saying “Good job.”  So when people come snooping by, our first reaction can be out of fear.  And second, because the craft is so damn mysterious.  As a nurse, you are expected to follow protocol; as a doctor, even more so.  Most professions are quite mechanical, if I can be forgiven for the term.  If I walk into an emergency room complaining of chest pains, the staff will do the same thing no matter which western hospital I’m in.  Can the same be said of teaching?  And if not, if teaching is less mechanical and standardized than some would have it, what should I be doing at any given moment?

The New York Times recently profiled a technique that would possibly allow for more objective teacher evaluations (though it seems unlikely).  As Sam Dillon reports:

Bill Gates, who in recent years has turned his attention and considerable fortune to improving American education, is investing $335 million through his foundation to overhaul the personnel departments of several big school systems. A big chunk of that money is financing research by dozens of social scientists and thousands of teachers to develop a better system for evaluating classroom instruction. The effort will have enormous consequences for the movement to hold schools and educators more accountable for student achievement.”

I suggest something bold: teachers and all school administrators should be evaluated once per year by those above them and below (by whatever means, technological or conventional, we can agree on).  In addition to the usual power relationships, teachers should be evaluated by students, and principals by teachers.  Not maybe with the intention to fire, but possibly – and even if not, the exercise provides a tremendous amount of insight into our practice.  My school has every student complete a course evaluation in every single section of the senior school – more than 150 in total – in December so teachers can improve their practice.  Student-generated data isn’t everything, but it is a key component of how we understand the successes and failures of our methods.  (It should be noted that I teach in a private school – we are all on one-year contracts.  While it is not for everyone, I am certain such an arrangement improves the quality of teaching.)

When we compare teaching with other public goods, however, it does strike me how teachers might not get a fair shake.  I have never been able to provide meaningful feedback to my doctor (who, as most doctors in Canada, runs a partly-entrepreneurial practice: if you don’t like it, find another doctor), or a nurse in a hospital, or really any other public provider.  (There are exception, I suppose, for certain kinds of civil servants, those especially close to elected officials hoping to return to office).  And while we might gripe about nurses or doctors, we wouldn’t dream of instituting a meaningful, 360-degree evaluation scheme for them.

Scrutiny for all.  At worst, we suffer a little more job anxiety.  At best, we improve a whole range of performances.  Sure, criticism stings: but even in a world where we received frequent and honest criticism, we wouldn’t all get fired.  But we might, if we can get over ourselves, improve.

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