Why Are Our Teachers Taking It on the Chin?

Two headlines tell it all. The first, on the cover of the 3 November 2014 issue of Time, says, “Rotten Apples: It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher.” The second, on the front page of the October 2014 issue of The Baltimore Sun, says, “About 3 Percent of Teachers Rated Ineffective.” Teachers are under the gun as never before: instead of focusing on the 97% of teachers rated effective or highly effective in the state of Maryland, The Baltimore Sun chose to emphasize the negative results of an in-state survey. Worse, the implication of the Time headline is that we have a big problem with bad teachers. For some reason, the public’s attitude has turned against teaching and teachers.

In a local survey of Harford County, Maryland, public school teachers, 90% of the approximately 630 respondents indicated that they did not feel valued and respected by the school system, 67% said that they did not feel respected by the community, and 74% said that they were considering leaving the school system [5]. Although it is possible that only the most dissatisfied teachers were more likely to respond to the survey, one conclusion from this survey is that morale is suffering among public school teachers, and, given the public’s current attitudes toward teachers, this result is probably widespread in the nation.

Teachers and teaching at the grade school level have lately become a commodity, just so much expendable chattel that can be finagled at will. Teachers have been among the first targets of cost-cutting politicians eager to balance budgets and cut taxes. This has happened both at the grade school and college levels, but mostly at the grade school level. The result is larger class sizes and a greater likelihood of disciplinary problems leading to less effective teaching.

Why this has happened may be due to the teachers themselves forming unions and eroding the perception of teacher professionalism in the eyes of the public. It may also be due to the public impression of teaching as a cushy job, only at school for a few hours each day and on vacation during the summer. Whatever the reason, teachers have borne the brunt of zealous budget cutting.

I have a friend with a college-age daughter, good in math, who was considering her career choices. Her mother told her, “anything but a teacher; I don’t want you to be a teacher.” This advice, delivered very adamantly, says a lot about attitudes toward teaching.

A heartbreaking story appeared in The Baltimore Sun about the trauma that inner-city children of elementary school age experience when they witness murder, robberies, fights, and other acts of violence in their own neighborhoods [3]. Some have seen family, friends, or neighbors shot and killed on their streets or even closer to their homes. The sounds of gunshots and emergency vehicle sirens severely disturb their sleeping. They suffer from vitamin D deficiency because their parents or guardians compel them to stay inside where it is safer. Many are insecure; many suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. These kids misbehave, are irritable, cry suddenly, and otherwise act unpredictably. And who is expected to deal with all this, provide a safe environment, and comfort them when needed—their teachers, that’s who.

And then there came the Vergara vs. California court decision that struck down teacher tenure [1]. Whereas it is possible, yes, maybe even likely, that some ineffective teachers could be sheltered from dismissal by tenure systems, teacher tenure serves a very useful purpose. The 25 November 2014 National Public Radio news show All Things Considered featured a story about a Pakistani teacher who holds class for 150 students in a cowshed [4]. The story went on to explain that teaching jobs in Pakistan are sometimes given to individuals as political patronage. Sometimes, these appointees don’t show up for school, and sometimes they sleep in class. I don’t want these kinds of teachers in our schools. Although one might think that such a thing cannot happen here, consider how much political polarization has developed in this country. If some teacher somewhere becomes labeled as an ultraliberal, or another as a reactionary neoconservative, I think that it is not beyond belief that these teachers could be removed and replaced by others more compliant with those in political power. No, we need teacher tenure to protect the integrity of the student educational experience.

I have written before that I consider teaching to be the noblest of professions [2]. What other profession can claim the same influence over eager minds? Quoting from [2]:

The result of teaching is that the student is better able to be a valuable and productive citizen. The student learns how to channel energy and creativity in acceptable ways. Who else but a teacher has the nearly unfettered opportunity to urge young people to accomplish great things with their lives? To make a difference because they were here? To change history for the better? To become the best that they can possibly be? Teachers are in a position to influence entire generations of great scientists, engineers, humanitarians, poets, lawyers, politicians, artists, parents, and even the next generation of teachers. Teachers can urge and inspire, enable and encourage, and stimulate creative and imaginative endeavors. What could be a better lot in life than this?

When I think back on the roughly 20 teachers that I had during my 13 years (including kindergarten) of public school, I can only think of one teacher who was considered a poor teacher, and I cannot for the life of me remember why. Of the others, some were better in one respect or another, some had more interesting stories, some had better writing, some had better teaching styles, and some allowed me to be individually creative in my work, but all were good; all were effective.

I learned a lot during those formative years, and I still depend on that learning for a reserve of general or cultural knowledge that has not been significantly expanded or refreshed since then. I have read some poetry since high school, but not much. I have learned more music since high school, but that was on my own. I have witnessed geopolitical changes since then, but the foundational knowledge taught to me in public school is still with me. As with many engineers, I have spent my reading time and whatever formal learning I had trying to keep current with my technical abilities, so all the rest, including Shakespeare, Kipling, Whitman, and, of course, Elvis Presley, have stayed with me since high school. I even reached back to a lesson on heat conduction taught to me in fourth grade to include in my transport processes textbook, Biological Process Engineering. The point is that I had good and effective teachers, and I can’t imagine that teachers are so much worse these days.

The truth is that no one really knows how to rate the quality of a teacher. Several years ago, I sat in on an education course on teaching methods in the classroom. No one at that time knew precisely how to rate teacher quality, nor do they now. The trouble is that there are so many ways to be a good teacher, many ways to instill learning in the heads of students. There is no single metric that can decisively compartmentalize teachers into the effective or ineffective categories. The latest attempt to do this is to base teaching evaluation on student test scores, but we can only guess as to its unfairness. Teachers with classrooms full of eager, highly motivated students would no doubt rate better than teachers who face a multitude of disciplinary problems. Who among these teachers is more effective? Can we really tell?

I interviewed a fifth-grade school teacher whom I admire and who has been nominated four times for Teacher of the Year and other awards. I asked her to name important characteristics of good teachers as she saw them. She mentioned the following: dedication, daily preparation, staying current, being a lifelong learner, good communication with parents, enjoying being a teacher, and seeing teaching more as a calling than as a job. When asked about what she thought characterized poor teachers, she listed poor classroom management (not establishing him- or herself as the class leader), bad communication with parents, being unprepared for class, unwillingness to spend all the extra time required, not being a team player, and not returning student work on time. A lot depends, she said, on experience; new teachers have a lot to learn and improve, and experienced teachers usually do much better. Then I asked her to estimate the percentage of teachers with whom she was acquainted who were good versus those were who poor. She elected to categorize them as poor (3%), average (30%), and good or excellent (the rest). It was interesting, if not coincidental, that her estimate of poor teacher percentage matched that in The Baltimore Sun headline.

Teaching at the college or university level faces the same evaluation problem. I had long suggested, with some success, that instructor evaluation be based on four elements:

  1. student course evaluations
  2. peer evaluation of classroom performance
  3. comments from alumni
  4. input from the instructor him- or herself.

The first of these, student evaluations, is used most often to measure instructor quality, but the problem with reliance solely on this criterion is that there is at least some evidence that instructors who grade easier usually receive the highest student scores. The second measure, peer evaluation, has a number of advantages in that it is good for faculty to know what other faculty are teaching and how they teach it, but, again, there are limitations, especially if the peer evaluators are not good instructors themselves. The third group, alumni, often have a better perspective about whether what was taught when they were in school was important and well taught, although some alumni comments may be outdated and not appropriate for current courses or instructors. The fourth element, input from the instructor, can be useful to explain particularly bad student evaluations. Whole classes have different collective personalities, something that is beyond the control of the instructor but can prevent effective teacher–student communication. The best time to obtain instructor feedback, however, is before student evaluations are revealed to the instructor to avoid this becoming a means for rebuttal or excuse. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology has incorporated some of these types of evaluations in its accreditation process.

All of us who have expended effort to improve our own instruction know that the best teachers are those who treat their classes as dramatic performances. Whether we feel good or bad on a particular teaching day, the show face must be put on. Enthusiasm, real or fake, must be projected, and energy must be pulled from one’s depths to keep the class interested and involved. There is no such thing as a morose good teacher. Good teachers draw interest from their students and constantly, yet unconsciously, evaluate subtle signs from their students that they are either attentive and involved or inattentive and disinterested. At the very first signs of student ennui, a good instructor adjusts his or her delivery to again draw out student interest.

I had been teaching for about 20 years when I had an epiphany. Before this, teaching was all about me and how much I could appear to be knowledgeable in front of the students. After this enlightenment, I realized that student learning was paramount. Teaching was not as important as learning, and I had to adjust to being a facilitator of learning rather than being a smart teacher. This required changes to my classroom technique. It was at this point that I improved my effectiveness greatly, and my students seemed to appreciate my classes much more.

So how do you measure all of this? It may not be possible. There are so many variables to consider. At the university level, this is not such a great problem because faculty evaluations are weighted much more strongly toward research accomplishments. Teaching doesn’t matter all that much. If teaching quality really mattered, then more people would be upset that the metrics are inadequate.

At the college level or in grade schools, there is much more of a problem with the evaluation of effectiveness. Times change, society changes, and student attitudes change. All of these affect the performance successes of teachers. The techniques and illustrations that were successful for past generations may no longer be relevant for the present generation of students. Still, teachers are necessary, and they must keep trying to instill knowledge in children who need this knowledge to become the useful and productive citizens of the future. No matter what the headlines say, teachers certainly deserve our support, and, even more, our respect.

References

  1. H. S. Edwards, “Taking on teacher tenure,” Time, vol. 184, no. 17, pp. 32–39, Nov. 3, 2014.
  2. A. T. Johnson, “The noblest profession,” ASEE-BIO Newsletter, pp. 1–4, 2012.
  3. A. K. McDaniels, “City’s violence can take hidden toll,” Baltimore Sun, p. 1, 20–22, Dec. 14, 2014.
  4. P. Reeves. (2014, 25 Nov.). In Pakistan, a self-styled teacher holds class for 150 in a cowshed. National Public Radio. All Things Considered. [Online].
  5. B. Zumer, “Teachers union survey provokes,” Aegis, pp. 1–3, Dec. 19, 2014.