Friday, May 10, 2013

The Ninety Second Evaluation

So an “enlightened” student calls out a “terrible” teacher and the nation takes notice. It doesn’t bother me so much that a “terrible” teacher, teaching by packet may finally be getting his/her comeuppance so much as the belief that a minute and thirty seconds is all that we need to make a judgment.

Does context matter?

I worry about context in my classroom regularly. When students in my class learn about Sigmund Freud and the Oedipus complex, a minute of class taken out of context could lead to serious questions about my fitness for the classroom.

Pulling situations out of context takes me back to my Fundamentalist Baptist upbringings where I learned that you would go to hell for drinking beer or growing long hair. All you’ve got to do is lift a few obscure verses from the Bible and you can support about any argument you want.

So, for the teacher haters, here’s another verse to add to your arsenal. Nevermind the hundreds of minutes in that classroom outside of the minute+ clip. Now you have proof. Teachers are lazy because most of them just sit at their desks and watch students do worksheets.

We are primed for this.

The narrative of the bad teacher has taken a foothold, so strongly that even educational leaders are willing to propagate the story even when they make little serious effort to “right the wrong” they perceive in the classroom outside of dreaming dreams about how it should be done.

I think some people want this to happen. In the nineteen-eighties, the “welfare queen” imagery changed the dialogue on public assistance. Today, even progressive educators propagate the “lazy teacher” taking advantage of the cognitive shortcut to real critical thinking as a way to promote themselves or their agenda. In a different era or culture, the immediate critique would point to the student’s lack of respect and discipline. I’m not saying that’s where we should go, but we’re creating a culture primed to find the fault in the educator.

What’s fair to judge?

Walk a mile… I teach highly motivated 11th and 12th graders an AP curriculum. I have a hard time thinking I’m a better teacher than my colleagues teaching younger students who aren’t inherently engaged in the activities of school. It’s hard work, and just because my students are engaged and I don’t write discipline referrals doesn’t mean I know how everyone else should do it. I can humbly offer suggestions, but too often they get bravado from the all star educator or the professional thinkers in education that have the nerve to suggest that lack of engagement is 100% a teacher problem.

I don’t teach by packet. I’ve asked students to learn on their own from time to time with paper and pencil and technology, but I recognize as the young man in the video that not everyone learns that way. If they did, I’d be irrelevant.

If every word from the kid was true, if the teacher engages the class the majority of the time in the manner we see in the video, then yes, there is a problem. Perhaps some other questions should be asked:

Is the teacher held fully accountable for student knowledge of numerous discreet facts they will have to know for a standardized test?

Does the teacher receive adequate time to plan engaging activities for the classroom?

Does the teacher receive adequate time to evaluate student learning well enough to allow it to inform instruction?

Does the school create an appropriate schedule and provide time for the teacher to collaborate with other teachers to share ideas and keep each other informed (and accountable) of what’s working and what is not in the classroom?

Is the teacher encouraged to share success and failures, to take risks, or has she learned that as long as you lay low and don’t make waves they’ll assume you’re doing a good job and overlook you?

I know this much is true. A teacher in Texas had a bad minute and a half.

If that’s an accurate representation of her professional accomplishments I hate it for the young man in the video and every student who’s suffered under her instruction.

If we saw the culmination of a strained relationship between an obstinate young man and his exhausted teacher then shame on everyone who thinks they’d do a better job.


  1. He asked some questions. She replied "quit bitching"" District will not punish the student, teacher on paid leave. Still your insights I think are especially relevant. About time we wrote a good post. Too bad we work so hard now we can't even write a decent blog. Well...I can;t anyway.

  2. My initial snap judgment is that she's not a great teacher: a packet of work, Garfield posters, sitting behind her desk the whole time. But then I thought about the times I've yelled at kids or I had lessons bomb or I had kids get under my skin.

    It's in that moment that I thought, "We need to cut her some slack. We don't know the whole story. We're best viewing this through a lens of humility."

  3. I totally agree. I don't get a chance to use Twitter too often, but I "spied" on #rechat this morning. Someone mentioned that so many people are ready to rip on teachers and teacher colleges because they think teaching is easy. Or at least they want it to be. Like good performers, good teachers make it look easy, perhaps even effortless, but few will know time and practice required to get there.

  4. A fellow teacher and friend of mine directed me to your blog after I commented on my Facebook(yes!) page about it. I appreciate your mention of the "narrative of the bad teacher". No reasonable person would argue that all teachers are perfect or that all districts have perfect teachers. It just seems so easy to take swipes at educators--especially if you imbue them with an emotional and youthful appeal. Thank you for your well-written and thoughtful post.