Students on Teachers…

Let me start with a little anecdote…

As I was in charge of the newly qualified teachers and their assessment, I got to see a great many lessons. A particularly good one I once saw was in religious education, about the problem of God allowing evil. There were very clear learning objectives, which were shared with the students, a group of 16 year old boys. The lesson was fast-moving and well structured, providing appropriate challenges for all abilities, and the teacher always checked if her plan was working and students were making progress.

In short, I was impressed. I asked one of the students at the end what he thought of it and I got quite a surprise. The response was:

“I hate her. She stinks of fags.”

This comment sums up pretty well all the objections when we discuss the idea of rating teachers.

First, he did not comment on the lesson at all. He made a personal comment.

Does that mean it should be dismissed? If we were dealing with a rational or scientific debate, then of course this comment has no place. But is the comment useful? In my view it is immensely useful. Every teacher always looks for ways to get better at what they are doing. So, rather than getting mad at such a rude remark, it is better to listen carefully. If a lesson so carefully prepared, with love and effort, is dismissed so easily over such a trivial thing, then why not address that thing? A packet of chewing gum may do the trick or a bottle of Listerine in the office or handbag. If it really helps this student, surely it’s worth it?

Then some teachers are worried that asking students to rate them would undermine their authority, or make teachers act the clown to get good ratings.

Both are entirely false. Today, at least in the Western World, a teacher will get respect and authority not from his role, but from his expertise, and how well he teaches. And to suggest that even kids would give teachers a good rating because they make them laugh is simply not borne out by the facts. Kids, surprisingly, prefer a fairly strict teacher, one who makes them work and think. They want fairness and structure, clear borders for behaviour and above all, they want to see and feel that they are making progress. They are not really that different to adults in that respect.

In adult education courses, rating teachers has been around a long time. In schools, the idea is patchier.

“Rating” a teacher by giving him a “grade” from “awesome” to “awful” is quite a useless idea, just as a completely un-annotated assignment graded “62%” is pointless. A student wants to see what s/he did wrong, what to revise and how to do things better next time. The same applies to the teacher. He needs to know what went well, what didn’t and what to change next time.

As this little anecdote shows, not all aspects of teaching are preparation and delivery. Teaching is an inter-personal interaction. All sorts of things can affect the outcome; some may not even be under the teacher’s control. When a teacher evaluates a lesson, he will look at the teaching and the learning going on. When a student evaluates a lesson, he may well do the same but he may also use ideas and factors the teacher in his wildest dreams would not have thought of.  Cigarette smell can ruin things. Who would have thought it? I could make a list of dozens of such apparently unrelated things all affecting the outcome of a lesson, but maybe that is another topic.

So, instead of rating teachers, perhaps “giving teachers feedback” is a better way forward. In adult education courses, often there is an evaluation form at the end with specific questions about the course and its delivery. Maybe there should also always be a space for an open comment. So what if it is rude? If it is helpful, surely all teachers are adult enough to overlook that part of it? If it is not helpful, then we have a useful teaching point to follow up: what is the point of feedback and how to give effective feedback.






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