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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Motivating teachers through fear and reprisal does not work

By John Louis Meeks, Jr.
Thanks to CAST, the teachers are increasingly afraid of their pupils.
With apologies to Morrissey, who wrote a similarly titled song, I must point out how the teacher evaluation system in place is judging teachers based on student behaviors that are typical for their age, but can torpedo a teacher's evaluation score.

For example, I used to frequently doodle in class when I was a student.  I was paying attention, but I preferred to pass the time by making little drawings to pass the time.  Today, this would be evidence that my teacher failed to control my behavior.  What should my teacher have done?  Should he have intercepted my notes and demanded that I conform to the mandated student behavior?

When the observation day comes, teachers try to control every aspect of their lesson and their class, but end up falling prey to the feedback from administrators that focuses on the minor details that put the entire class in a negative light.  

"Mr. Smith, you gave a nice lesson but you failed to notice that a student was twiddling her thumbs.  This is proof that you did not engage that student in learning," goes the typical refrain.

And we wonder why we are creating a system in which we have teachers who are neurotic and insecure about their work.  The result in my opinion, is an increase in teachers who are demanding that students stop acting like students and that students become props in putting on shows that are designed to impress the adults in the room.

This is shameful because even the most eagle-eyed teacher cannot be expected to force children to become silent and still lambs who fit easily into a Stepford classroom filled with children who can be forced into perfect little learners who are devoid of any human element.

There, of course, is a price for many teachers who are literally begging their students to tow the line for administrators.  I know of quite a few teachers who ply their students with incentives (pizza, doughnuts, etc.) for making them look good for the folks with clipboards.  Yes, this is bribery, but it seems to be part of the game.  Others deliberately choose their 'best' classes for observation days with the hopes of limiting the potential damage of an observation.  
This supposedly foolproof observation and evaluation system is already being gamed for better results and we are fooling ourselves if we believe that it cannot be somehow manipulated to avoid failing marks.

The most frustrating aspect of this system, in my opinion, is that a teacher can have the entire class on the reservation, except for one or two who are not 'engaged.'  Those one or two students are the ones who receive the most attention from observers and are the ones who end up defining an entire class period.  It makes me wonder why teachers even bother to plan a decent lesson if their efforts are going to be discarded because CAST is training administrators to deliberately seek out ways that the teacher is not doing his or her job.

The most unintended consequence of the CAST evaluation system is that we are bringing out the aspects of teaching that made education a chore for students.  Ask any average layperson about their experience in school and they would quickly point out that public education is notorious for its treatment of students as mere parts of a larger machine.  The education establishment, however, fails to see the folly in this and continues to value collective conformity among students as a cherished virtue.  This is detrimental because every class is doomed to becoming a clinical clone of other classes for the sake of putting up the appearance of learning.

And what do we make of teaching and learning that is not part of the do-or-die CAST rubric?  Nothing.  I look back to earlier in my career when I was teaching U.S. history and encountered a student who wanted to learn about history beyond the learning schedule.  I crafted an independent study for her in which we discussed the turbulent year of 1968 and focused on the events leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  It was a highly instructive experience as we compared the political process of the late 1960s with the coming election year.  The result was a student who felt connected with learning and who eventually attended and graduated from Rutgers University.  Yes, I know I am a chronic failure as a teacher because I failed to document her reading scores and failed to pin data to a spreadsheet that made numbers dance across the computer screen.  Did I make a connection through encouraging learning?  Yes.  Did I manage to color between the lines?  No.

And, until we improve the way we evaluate our teachers, we will keep committing the grievous sin of using fear as the best motivator for teachers and we will continue to remove any real joy for teaching as the elements of teaching are reduced to being petty supervisors who are increasingly afraid of their charges acting their age.

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