Teachers have been taking it on the chin a lot lately with calls for the abolishment of tenure, and its replacement with what have been called “value-added models” of teaching evaluation. Basically, what this means is that teachers are going to be increasingly assessed in terms of their ability to raise the standardized test scores of their students. This strikes me as a very ominous development. What it suggests is that we’re likely to see a different kind of teacher in the future – one who is a cold-blooded technician who will do virtually anything to get their students to achieve higher test scores. Gone will be the humanistic teacher who believed that everything worth teaching isn’t on a standardized test, and that sometimes you have to wander away from the standard curriculum to take a look at some of the fascinating extraneous things that happen in the course of investigating this amazing world of ours. I remember a number of outstanding teachers who did this from my own schooling. Teachers who would read to us simply for the pleasure of listening to beautiful literature being read. Teachers who would share with us artifacts and customs from their travels – even though these weren’t to be found anywhere in the syllabus. Teachers who had us dancing to the music of Saint-Saens, singing medieval music, looking at an eclipse through a pin-hole, and doing many other things that weren’t in those textbooks that pin-headed educators had created in their dusty dry ivory tower universities.
The teacher of the future won’t be caught dead being “off task” in such ways with their students. Instead, all sorts of glitzy state of-the-art tricks and tools will be used to efficiently deliver instruction that produces RESULTS (i.e. satisfactory test scores). Is that how we are to remember our teachers thirty years later? “Yes, I remember you, you were the teacher who took me from the 26th percentile to the 81st percentile in 3rd grade!” These aren’t the teachers that we remember from our own school experiences. We remember the teacher who told us stories, who had us doing plays, who sang to us, who took us outside to experience the wonders of nature, who had us questioning life’s imponderables.
I was just reading an essay on education by the early twentieth-century American journalist H.L. Mencken, and I really liked what he had to say about what makes for good teaching (please make allowances for his gender-blindness):
“It consists, first, of a natural talent for dealing with children, for getting into their minds, for putting things in a way that they can comprehend. And it consists, secondly, of a deep belief in the interest and importance of the thing taught, a concern about it amounting to a kind of passion. A man who knows a subject thoroughly, a man so soaked in it that he eats it, sleeps it, and dreams it — this man can almost always teach it, with success, no matter how little he knows of technical pedagogy. This is because there is enthusiasm in him, and because enthusiasm is as contagious as fear or the barber’s itch. An enthusiast is willing to go to any trouble to impart the glad news bubbling within. He thinks that it is important and valuable for to know; given the slightest glow of interest in a pupil to start with, he will fan that glow to a flame.” (from H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy, New York: Vintage, 1916, p. 303).
These are the criteria that should be utilized when evaluating whether a teacher is any good or not. What this means is that the people who are assessing the teachers should themselves be passionate individuals who have enlivened the worlds of students. It takes one to know one. And the way you do this is by observing the teacher in the course of teaching her students. You can’t get at teacher excellence by gathering objective data. This is the big error that is being made by former chancellor of the D.C. public schools, Michele Rhee and her coterie of adherents – the idea that teachers are accountable to the test scores of their students. Instead, we should be looking at how teachers inspire their students to make breakthroughs in their own learning – having “aha!” experiences during science experiments, writing powerfully affecting stories in writing class, asking interesting and unlikely questions in the literature classroom, and having wonderful ideas during history lessons. These sorts of events occur spontaneously throughout a school day – you cannot sit a child down in a desk with a stop watch and expect these miracles to happen.
Standardized tests are laughably inadequate in probing the inner depths of a child’s brain. We shouldn’t even be using them, let alone evaluating teachers by their data. Instead, we should be thinking about the great teachers of humanity – Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi – and how they inspired others to break through the bonds of narrowmindedness into a broader vision of life. Can you imagine any of these teachers being evaluated according to how well they improved the test scores of their students? (“Sorry, James, son of Zebedee, you missed item number two having to do with the kingdom of God,” “Wrong Sanjiv! When are you ever going to master the concept of satyagraha?”) If we’re not going to hold these great figures accountable to objective data, then let’s not expect this of our own school teachers either. Let’s look for that inner passion and love of children that cannot be encapsulated within the domain of some cold, dead test scores. Let’s look, instead, for inspiration, empathy, and compassion in our teachers!