By way of introduction to what comes next, consider the following articles:
1. An in-depth examination of what makes a great teacher;
3. The suspension of students after the online ‘bullying’ of a teacher;
4. A warning to teachers not to ‘friend’ students online for fear of said bullying; and
5. The Rate My Teachers website.
Are we all familiar with the relevant materials?
But before I begin, a relevant disclaimer:
I hated high school. Not to begin with, certainly, but by the end, I loathed it with a furious vengeance that would cheerfully have seen me set fire to the place. I went to two high schools, since you ask, both of them co-educational. The first was a public school; the second, private. I spent three years at each. It is important to note that my hatred does not stem from these differences, nor from a desire to have studied under a same-sex regime. In both instances, I had access to teachers who were engaged, intelligent, interesting and committed to my education. One school had more money and resources than the other, and when it came time to choose my final year subjects, that was certainly a boon, but it didn’t cancel out my hatred. Neither was I an indifferent student. By choice, I studied 14 units in Year 12, when the normal maximum was 13, and I continued to play school sport on the weekend when it was no longer mandatory. I even won a couple of prizes, at both a school and state level. I had friends, and boyfriends, and kind, loving, intelligent parents. I was bullied early on in school, but not in a way that dominated my life, and it wasn’t an issue after I turned 15. In short, I was a good student, the kind who cared about knowledge and who, despite the necessary teenage resentments and problems, wanted to do well. But I hated high school. I felt trapped there as I have never felt trapped before or since. I cried myself to sleep at night, those nights when I did sleep, because past the age of 15, my insomnia was all-encompassing. I was depressed, melancholy, self-hating, self-destructive, angry, a cutter, frustrated and, at times, near catatonic with helplessness. More than anything, I wanted to get out. And now I have, and there’s not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for having held on. But the outrage has never left me. High school, as is, is not a good place. In six years, I never met a bright student who hadn’t considered suicide at some point or other, an observation which has held true even when recalling those years among new adult acquaintances. Think about that for a moment: a place supposedly dedicated to education where the majority of smart people end up wanting to kill themselves. The high school system is rotten. I remain convinced of this fact. Yes, it has its virtues. But I cannot bear to make myself their advocate. That is my bias, for now and for the foreseeable future. Be warned of it.
Are you up to speed?
Then let us begin.
Of late, there has been a lot of furore about the problem of how to evaluate teachers. Educational unions are strong, and arguably with good reason, especially when one considers how little high school teachers are actually paid, and how miniscule their prospects of financial advancement. It is not a good status quo, and if it were possible to snap my fingers and eradicate the regrettable social assumption than teaching is a low-prestige job worthy only of a similarly low salary, I would gladly trade the flesh of my left hand to do so. But that is not the case: change is never so easy, particularly when it impinges on politics and tradition, and instead, we are stuck with the slow road. I am deeply sympathetic to the plight of underpaid teachers, harried educaters who work long hours for little recompense, dedicating their holidays to marking and the creation of lesson plans, struggling to earn a higher wage, and who find themselves thwarted by poor resourcing on behalf of their attendent governments. These are all problems which deserve redress, and soon.
There is such a thing as a bad teacher. More to the point, there is such a thing as bad teachers, plural, meaning that they are among us, and many, and largely undetected. This is not a desierable situation. Nor is it easily fixed. I will not pretend that creating league tables to measure the performance of schools will automatically solve all the problems parents face when deciding where to send their children. The difference in resources available between the public and private systems is still mindboggling; and I should know, having been in a position to gauge it from both sides. But there is something obvious to the idea that good teachers make a positive difference in the lives of their students, and – correspondingly – that bad teachers can have the opposite effect. The problem, as in all subjective matters, lies in determining what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the context. Especially when endeavouring to craft new legislation, rather than merely supporting laws which already exist, the desire is to improve, adapt, mend: we see the problem, and therefore strive to fix it. But which person, or what body, has either the right or expertise to draw such a contentious line in the sand – to declare that X breed of teacher is good, while the practices of Y are intolerable?
As painful as it is to admit, there surely comes a point when we must pass such a judgement, not because we believe it to be inviolably true, but because we cannot rightfully function without some sort of acknowledgement that there is a judgement to be made at all, and what’s more, that it is worth making. Some teachers are better than others. In almost every other field of employ, we are willing to concede this point, and yet teaching remains a battleground. Elsewhere, the idea that good results be rewarded with higher pay is a logical sort of system, and one that some teachers, at least, are eager to embrace. But where to start? With all the accepted variances in syllabi, school resources and – though more controversial – the socio/economic data of particular school catchment areas, it seems intuitively wrongheaded to suppose that all teachers are striving towards greatness from a position of equal footing. How, therefore, might one reasonably craft the defining qualities of educational success, if the starting assumption denies that all teachers begin with a common set of resources and an equally well-equipped student populace? It is impossible; but then, if we look at the corporate sphere, nobody has ever claimed that all lawyers begin their careers with the same number and type of cases, or that all doctors must successfully diagnose from an equal pool of patients. In that sense, there is always going to be inequality: the point, however, is in trying to establish standards for success that transcend that fact in a visible majority of instances.
So: how do we go about evaluating the success of teachers? Grades, one assumes, must have something to do with it, although that is possibly the trickiest rubrick to establish, given the above concerns. Is there, then, an easier starting place? Yes, I would contend, and a fairly obvious one, though equally controversial. I can think of only two types of institution in our modern world where those in a position of authority are not noticably subject to the rights of those beneath them: prisons, and schools. In both instances, we believe the governed body to be too deeply invested in the dismantling of the whole system to bother with their opinions, not least because they are, by and large, resentful of being held somewhere against their will. But that does not mean abuses do not take place, and it certainly does not mean, in the case of students, that they are comparable to inmates: that is to say, innately untrustworthy by dint of sitting on the far side of the desk. Yes, there is a worry that students will play favourites; that they will lie about their teachers, and desire only the sort of cheerful mediocrity which allows them to misbehave with the least amount of stress. But one might just as easily say the same of junior employees, resentful of the power of their bosses and wanting only to be paid exhorbitantly for the minimum amount of work. Regardless of age, this is always the dichotomy, and while we might acknowledge that some teenagers will abuse the privilege, or else prove unequal to the task of articulating their discontent in an intelligible and useful manner, I am not convinced that adults are any more noble.
Out of curiosity, I looked up one of my old schools on the Rate My Teachers website. Yes, there were some purely pejorative comments in evidence, but otherwise, I found that my own recollections bore out in the assigned scores: teachers I recalled as outstanding were roundly praised, while those I remembered with less fondness were frowned upon. Given my disclaimer about the extent to which I hated high school, I might well be biased, but it seems as though teenagers aren’t as misguided in their perception of teachers as is commonly made out, no matter how poorly those perceptions might be expressed. Since leaving school, I’ve worked for at least one employer whose neuroses and general unpleasantness made my skin crawl, and nobody I complained to about it ever made me feel as though my powers of observation were somehow deficient. Bad bosses are part of the adult world: we accept their existence almost by default. But bad teachers are a different kettle of fish. Even when reminiscing as adults, with all the powers of hindsight at our disposal, there is often a sense that we are being unjust in our perceptions of former teachers; that somehow, we are letting childish emotions cloud our judgement, clinging on to age-old resentments rather than electing to grow up. Even though the only difference between criticising an employer and a teacher might be a few months – or nothing at all, for those who hold down jobs during school – we are automatically inclined to treat the former complaint with greater gravity.
Why? A simple thing: choice.
Suppose I’m working an awful job. Should things turn really nasty, I have the option of leaving. Any resentment I feel towards my employer may therefore be reasonably viewed in this context, and gauged with a modicum of objectivity, depending on the listener’s knowledge of my personality and quirks. But students do not have such a choice. Their resentment is established as a matter of fact, such that any attempt to increase it – say, by complaning about a teacher – does not seem any different from this perceived background level of discontent. More importantly, the fact remains that, even if the teacher is genuinely bad, there is little to be done about it. Changing schools for the sake of a single person is hardly common, and certainly not smiled upon; never mind the fact that changing schools at all is difficult. The idea that a teacher might be dismissed or even reprimanded because of any one student’s say-so is equally unlikely. But in a situation where there is no established means of acknowledging good teachers or weeding out bad even among the educational hierarchy, what hope does any student have of making a valid complaint?
I am not trying to wrap teenagers in cotton wool. As in the case of teachers, some are better than others, smarter than others, kinder or more enthusiastic or honest than others. That cannot be changed, and I do not want to implement some unrealistic, lovely-dovey system wherein all teachers strive for the approval and popular adoration of their pupils. But surely, there must be some way, some viable genesis, wherein students can evaluate their teachers and be heard within the bounds of a legitimate system, and not just by venting on an unauthorised website. Here’s an idea that plays to biases, and which might work for exactly that reason: what if we took note of the type of student complaining about a particular teacher? If they’re all friends from the same group, or possessed of similar personalities, then it seems reasonable to assume that the teacher is either being directly targeted, or that their method of teaching jars with that teen-type. But if the complaints are coming from diverse corners of the student body, or from the type of pupil who normally refrains from rocking the boat, then perhaps schools should sit up and take notice, if only to be sure that nothing is amiss.
If you consider that a teacher is but one person faced with twenty or thirty rebellious subjects, then the idea of students bullying educators becomes less absurd, no matter the balance of power. I am not saying that students should have carte blanche to make their teachers fear for their jobs, or to ridicule them, or any such thing. But the crucial element of bullying is power, and the effect it has on the injured party. Someone might try and tease me, for instance, but if I do not fear them – if they have no tangible ability to make my life worse, and if I genuinely do not care what they say – then they are not bullying me; they are only failing to do so. And perhaps, for the sake of the attempt, that failure should be met with reprimand. Perhaps. But where there are more concrete examples to be getting on with – people who do fear their persecutors, who care what is said about them, and whose lives can be made worse by those on the attack – then spending breath and effort berating what hasn’t happened seems like a waste of time. Thus, in reference to the current concerns of schools re the bullying of teachers – particularly, as in the case of Leeming SHS, of teachers who are themselves feared by their students – I entreat you: look where the power is. If students have no valid outlet to complain about their teachers, and if those teachers are behaving aggressively, then do not be surprised if the internet takes up your shortfall. Don’t go calling it bullying for the sake of effect, or because you think the students shouldn’t have bad opinions in the first place: be an adult, and maybe wonder whether or not such vociferous complaints have merit.
I’m almost done, here. I’m running out of words. The hour is late. I don’t have an overriding solution; only a few scraps. But, please: the things that are wrong with high school aren’t just due to teenage angst. There is something broken in the system – a deep, treacherous wound that cannot mend itself, and which few enough adults even acknowledge exists. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: teenagers are not stupid. The lower your expectations for any group of people, the less likely they are to try and surprise you – why should they, when it doesn’t get them anywhere? We need to start thinking about how to make our schools better, and evaluating teachers is part of that. But until then, try and imagine what we can change. It’s the only way forward. And sooner or later, it’s where we’ll have to go.