Stop snoopervising teachers!

While assessment of student learning provides us with useful information about the amount of learning that takes place on a day-to-day basis, assessing teachers and their effectiveness as instructors remain a challenge. Often, it is taken for granted that student achievement level itself is a sufficient indicator of how well a teacher does his or her job. However, this is a misconception because students’ academic achievement level may be the result of various other factors in addition to the effectiveness of a teacher.

A widespread practice employed to tackle this issue is the use of performance review (usually a year-end exercise) where an administrator evaluates a teacher on a set of pre-determined criteria. This is often a one-time task. But how does one judge the quality of teaching from a single performance measure?

Inadequate evaluation

The year-end, one-time performance review may work well in a factory setting, where superiors could rely on production rate, attendance, and other concrete data to decide on the effectiveness of a worker. However, it does not apply well to teachers who do more than production. Teachers build, empower, engage, stimulate, motivate and inspire students to learn and to reflect on living a good life. Teachers also constantly connect with students through positive and warm relationships. Thus, assessing the quality of teaching demands a more formative, on-going authentic measurement of teacher performances.

Unwanted effects

Teachers experience high levels of anxiety during inspection and evaluation by an administrator. They feel unfairly judged on a single observation and on standards that they themselves are not fully aware of. Many argue that anxiety, nervousness, bad luck, and a variety of other factors ruin the lesson that is being observed. Some teachers say, “He (the supervisor) should have come when I was doing this other lesson earlier in the month; it went so well; today, I blew it all up! I am definitely going to get a bad performance review (sigh).”

Another outcome of a limited observation of a teacher’s teaching capability is the “observer effect” where the teacher and students become unnatural in their behavioral responses on the account of the novelty of being observed by a third person, especially an authoritative figure. Hence, true teaching and learning are rarely observed and evaluated. In the end, the whole process becomes another ritual and requirement to complete paper work and get on with other routines.

Detached observer

Usually, an administrator or a supervisor observing a teacher does it by assuming a non-participatory, completely-detached observer role (e.g. sitting in a corner with an evaluation sheet). What this means is that the supervisor does not take into consideration and/or understand the overall context or processes, relational dynamics, classroom history, socio-cultural experiences of the people, environment, and events being observed. Because of all these and many other flaws, performance reviews fail to accomplish what they were meant to do. At the end of the day, the question of whether or not a teacher is truly effective still remains unanswered.

Paradigm shift

Having identified the weaknesses of performance reviews, it only makes sense for us to think of and utilize a more creative and constructive approach to teacher evaluation. This could be done by employing “clinical supervision.” Clinical supervision is an approach that began in the medical and health fields and is now being widely used in counseling and business sectors to allow for a more genuine and supportive evaluation of personnel.

Unlike the “snoopervision” approach taken in a one-time performance review, clinical supervision requires extensive conferencing between a supervisor (observer) and the personnel being evaluated. Conferencing implies that the observation and evaluation is done over a period of time, with opportunities for both the parties to talk about and listen to each other’s perceptions about the evaluation process and its eventual outcomes.

Steps involved

Stage 1: Pre-conference – informal interview of the teacher; exploration of his/her educational philosophy, classroom management styles, use of teaching methods, use of assessment, etc.; identification of strengths, weaknesses; discussion about a particular lesson that would be observed by the supervisor; discussion about different ways to teach the lesson; supervisor and teacher collaboratively work on a lesson plan.

Stage 2: Observation – once the date and time are set, the supervisor observes the lesson (prepared in stage 1) with minimal or no interruption. Instead of using a rubric to evaluate the teacher, the supervisor takes an anecdotal record of all that goes on in the class during the period of observation – lending to the collection of a qualitative/narrative data, which is more authentic.

Stage 3: Post-conference – after the observation, the teacher and supervisor sit down to talk about the lesson and how it was delivered. The supervisor leads the teacher through a series of self-reflection questions about the teaching experience and presents his feedback in the direction of improving instruction in the classroom.

Mastery learning: Alternative to test anxiety

It’s amazing to see the kind of impact the word “test” has on people. The word has mystical powers that even scientist cannot completely understand and explain – the kind that could take people for a ride of their lives – the feelings that accompany it is many and invariably negative. Along with emotional chaos like fear, insecurity, acute feeling of uncertainty and hopelessness, it brings with it a host of other physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath, stomach aches, or headaches.

Surprise!

As a student, I witnessed many classmates experiencing despair during exams. Some so severe that they suffered from diarrhea, panic attacks, insomnia, loss of appetite, and other related conditions. The worst case scenario was when a student fainted and lost consciousness for a couple of minutes. This person needed immediate medical attention and was not allowed to sit for exams for the next couple of months.

What surprises me is that most students who experience severe forms of test anxiety are the ones who prepare way ahead of their tests and show average to above average performance in academic subjects. They are not under-performers as many would assume. Many who suffer from test anxiety eventually score low on tests because of the accompanying anxiety, and not necessarily because they don’t have the required intelligence or subject-specific aptitude.

Test anxiety affects everyone equally without differentiating students’ age, color, socio-economic status, or ability level. Often, students simply yield to its deadly grip by developing negative self-image about themselves as learners. They label themselves as “not smart” or “not good enough.” Repeated negative internal dialogues such as these soon dictate how individuals define themselves. This is a cycle that needs to be broken!

Wonder why?

More puzzling than the mystical, damaging powers of test anxiety is the needless persistence of our society to be exam-centric and perpetuate a tradition that has brought more harm than good (how many young students have ended their lives merely because they couldn’t meet their parents’ expectation for As?). It’s baffling to know that despite having numerous empirical evidences about the ill-effects of test-anxiety, schools still use tests to measure students’ learning.

A lot of research-based literatures have been published on dealing with test-anxiety. Unfortunately, they only serve as a partial solution to a full-grown, all-destructive problem related to students’ learning experiences. The fact remains despite learning and using different coping strategies, test-anxiety exists and its presence is deeply felt by students.

Sadly, it is only in the school system that a crisis, when detected, studied, and systematically understood, is not completely uprooted. Educators would rather come up with ways to reduce the impact of the problem. They tend to pacify the issue hoping that it will soon become assimilated into an already fractured system, without hurting anyone’s existence. Why should we entertain and utilize a system that hurts more than mends or cures?

There is another way!

The alternative to anxiety provoking tests is an educational approach called Mastery Learning. Mastery Learning is founded on the proposition that 90% of students can learn what is normally taught in schools at an “A” level if they are given enough time and appropriate instruction. Enough time here means the time that is required to demonstrate mastery of a set of instructional objectives set by teachers, whereas appropriate instruction means the following:

  1. Break course into units of instruction
  2. Identify objectives of units
  3. Require students to demonstrate mastery of objectives for unit before moving on to other units

Example

A lesson on “writing formal letters” – the teacher could allow students to submit several drafts of the letter – progressively scaffolding mastery of formal letter writing by correcting every draft submitted and returning it with comments and feedback so that students could continue improving on it, until they could produce an almost perfect formal letter. By using Mastery Learning, the teacher has deliberately prevented students from failing or doing poorly on the lesson.

Anxiety-free test

When students are deliberately and systematically supported by teachers, they can and do learn much more effectively. Testing, using the mastery learning approach is exciting because it is determined by:

  1. Actual number of objectives mastered over time as opposed to random number of disconnected facts memorized and regurgitated in a test
  2. Number of units completed by an individual student as opposed to the number of units everyone was expected to complete whether they understood them or not
  3. Proficiency level reached on each unit as opposed to scores (that are highly dependent upon the construction of valid and reliable tests – which is a weakness of many teachers) obtained on a set of units deemed important to the teacher, hence highly teacher-directed rather than student-centered

Building them up

“It’s not as big as I thought it was.” This is what passes my mind every time I visit the place I grew up as a child. As I loiter in the playground, soccer field and drive around the neighborhood, I realize that there is a huge difference in the perception held between then and now. What I used to dread, be uncertain about and had little or no information for unravel themselves as an open book, eliminating fears, uncertainties, and ignorance – allowing me the feeling of complete control over the experiences of owning the place I had once inhabited. I feel the same about the national examination I took when I was seventeen, my first break-up, and loss of a loved one. All these were “not as big as I thought they were.” However, it took me some time before I understood the true nature and enormity of the issue.

A matter of time

If there is one thing that I am completely convinced about and passionately advocate as a teacher is that “things, circumstances and people do change – all I need to do is to allow some time for the change to take place, naturally.” Time and opportunity are the two most important ingredients to bringing out the best in others. When faced with a difficult student, it is easier for a teacher to give up on him and focus on other better performing and well behaved students. But an educator is called to go beyond his or her call of duty and look into and meet the needs of even an under performing, disruptive student.

For most students, especially the ones classified as liabilities to the school system, it’s just a matter of time till they turn around and make amendments. No one wants to continue being a failure. No one cherishes the idea of being an object of others’ mockery and disapproval. But the change is not automatic.

Countless research findings in the area of resiliency point to the fact that it takes only one person to believe in a “problematic” student to bring about positive changes – behavioral and academic. And research indicate that this person is often a teacher – someone who is willing to give the student time and opportunity to make cognitive, emotional, and behavioral commitment to explore and tap into the reservoir of his or her innate abilities and potential and use them for a better function at school and elsewhere.

Beware of him

When I started out as a lecturer in an international college, a few of my colleagues warned me about a particular student whose behavior and academic performance did not impress them. “Watch out for so and so; he doesn’t submit assignments on time, comes late to class, is often absent, and doesn’t do well in exams,” were some of the things I heard from them. Before they could go on, I told them to stop filling my mind with such information because I didn’t want to view students with pre-conceived ideas, especially negative ones.

Sure enough, I soon learned that this student was all that my colleagues said he would be. So one day, I called him to the office, looked at him and said, “You have great potential in you; the few times you answered some of the questions posed in the class were mind-boggling, and I see greatness in you. Do you see that in yourself?” He gently nodded and whispered, “Yes.” I continued, “It is only you who could put your acts together, realize what you really want in life, and move in the direction of your dreams.” The student instantly opened up and started sharing about his dreams.

What I heard from him thereafter was amazing. His parents are educators, who own a private Thai school in Bangkok. He went on saying that he wants to finish college, continue with his graduate studies in education, and help them at the school. No one knew about this. It was hidden from others who only saw him as a troubled student. But because I believed in him and communicated this hope in his potential and possibility of a changed him, he was willing to open up, re-prioritize his goals, and pursue his ambition.

The result

The months and years ahead were not smooth for him, but the positive changes were clearly evident. I focused on giving him more time and opportunity to prove to himself and others that he was serious about his dreams. He did just that. He graduated in May 2007 and started working as a learning support teacher in an international school in Bangkok. One day, as I was checking e-mail, I saw a mail from him that read: “Dear Dr. Roy, check this website out; it’s an article about homework and learning that might interest you. I am helping a boy with ADHD and he is gaining a significant improvement in his studies” I smiled and felt proud of the kind of person he had become just because he found one person who believed in his potential, and gave him the time and opportunity he needed to bloom into the better him.

As teachers, we fail when we give up without trying and in the process of trying to build a student, let us not forget that best gifts we can give our students are time and opportunity.