National obsession with teacher evaluations is not the answer

I came to a realization this week that stopped me dead in my tracks: many outstanding teachers in our public schools suffer daily from deep feelings of inadequacy because they think they are failures at their jobs. I thought about what we all know about children and their learning – they don’t learn well when they feel like failures. It seems to me that this phenomenon of really excellent teachers denigrating themselves could help explain why so many of our schools are at best mediocre. If teachers are feeling inadequate, their students must be suffering.

What makes teachers feel so badly about themselves? Why do so many leave the profession after a few years? When I talked this over with a friend this week he reminded me that teacher-bashing has been practiced for decades in this country, and we agreed that this has had an effect on morale. In fact, the media offers two images of teachers. The first is of the miracle teacher who leads an unruly, disinterested class of students to the apex of achievement, seemingly turning around years of dysfunction and neglect single-handed. It’s the superhero image of teachers.

The second image is of the teacher who is all but asleep on the job, droning on and on from an outdated textbook, working exclusively for a paycheck rather than to help students. This is an incredibly cynical image: teacher as selfish sloth. In my thirty years of teaching I have never met either the true superhero or the truly selfish sloth. Certainly there are teachers at various points on the continuum, but the extremes we hear about over and over? These teachers are media creations.

Why does it matter if the media portrays teachers as either superhero or selfish sloth and nothing in between? Well, for one thing, only the toughest teachers have managed to dig deeper than the culture’s portrayal of who they are to see themselves as professionals working to the best of their considerable abilities to help students. Many teachers internalize the idea that they should perform heroically despite all odds and they feel inadequate when they cannot live up to the superhero model. Most teachers care a great deal about the work they do and are already personally aggrieved when a child in their care has needs they cannot meet. Asking teachers to be superheroes undermines self-esteem since the goal is unattainable – and therefore does not do anything to help them help their students.

The nation has seized on elaborate, unwieldy, and all-consuming teacher evaluation systems as the way to help teachers meet the needs of students. The implication is that teachers will not work hard unless they are forced to do so by outside pressures – therefore we must evaluate teachers relentlessly so they do a good job. Clearly this focus on evaluation systems was not created by career teachers. Unlike some fields, where there might be a benefit to the worker in avoiding work, teachers suffer heavily when they are unprepared, or when their curriculum is lacking. Children are singularly skilled at creating confusion and dissonance in classrooms where teachers are not doing their job. So yes – teachers, like all people, benefit from coaching to reach their potential. However, let’s keep things in proportion. Are we sure we need an entire evaluation industry that stands to benefit financially from the cumbersome new systems? Is it right that some people are getting rich off of the current evaluation industry?

As taxpayers we should all question the money that is spent on this industry: the publishing companies which produce the manuals that schools all across the USA use in the name of teacher evaluations; the authors of those manuals who must be compensated; the testing companies that produce the tools that provide the data for these evaluations. What about the consultants who must be called in to help teachers up their game so schools can earn better evaluations when they are graded by cities and states? The question is, is this the best use of our education dollars?

What if we spent all the money that is currently benefiting the evaluation industry another way? What if we spent it in training teachers thoroughly and to a high standard before they ever enter a classroom? What if we spent it in reducing class sizes so teachers could learn the names and interests and needs of their students? What if we spent it in creating physical space suitable for children and adults to spend their days in – space that conveyed the message ‘you are important’ rather than the opposite? What if we paid teachers well enough that they didn’t spend their careers wondering why they didn’t go into law or business? What if we spent our education dollars giving teachers adequate time in the day to do their work really well so that when they went home at the end of the day they could feel emotionally at ease with themselves. My belief is that such a sea change would produce a much better school system than we have now. Finland has tried it and Finland has the best education system in the world. Why not learn from a success story?

I do not think we can police our way to high-functioning schools. The money spent in the attempt is wasted. Instead let’s use that money to create the conditions that would enable teachers to do their best work. Then teachers could sleep peacefully at night and children could learn in schools filled with joy, rather than dread.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.