Why the work of great teachers is hard to quantify
Here we go again.
Just when teachers in Victoria thought they had dodged the "performance pay" bullet comes news that the Napthine Government has come up with a plan for principals to rate their teachers on a scale of one to five.
This is, of course, going on all around the country as governments fall over themselves in the rush to quantify what is a 'good' and what is a 'bad' teacher.
We know the federal government loves the idea of ranking teachers so they can weed out the "under-performing teachers". We know that other state governments including NSW and Queensland are on a similar path.
Those of us who actually know something about what goes on in schools find ourselves being drawn to the barricades once more.
Some sections of the media like to portray teacher disputes as being about teachers trying to avoid being held to account in the way all professionals are. That isn't what it's about at all.
It's about understanding and appreciating exactly what teachers do so that a sensible evaluation of who is a 'good' teacher and who is a 'bad' teacher can be made.
Therein lies the rub.
I might have said before that you can't weigh teacher's results in the same way you weigh tons of iron ore. You can't even look at exam results as an indicator of a teachers worth. How do you compare the results of someone teaching kids in a selective high school with those of teachers working their butts off in disadvantaged schools?
A case in point.
I have recently had the privilege of working with students at the Bendigo Senior Secondary College. We spent a couple of terms teaching playwriting to kids from a range of backgrounds.
More than 50 kids wrote and ultimately performed plays they had written at the Fire Station in Bendigo with a repeat performance at the MTC's Lawler Theatre.
Of these kids, 20 were Karen people, refugees from the Thai/Burmese border.
About a third of the others could be described as students who were struggling to find the relevance of schooling.
They certainly struggled to appreciate the relevance of playwriting until they performed their plays and experienced what is it is like to get a standing ovation.
The point of this isn't that the Finding Your Voice program was necessarily out of the box. This type of exercise is taking place in various forms and in various disciplines in schools throughout Australia.
What is important here is that it would never have happened without teachers who were prepared to go the extra yard for their students. Teachers who worked tirelessly because they wanted their kids to experience something special.
So: how do we rate the teacher who took hours of footage and mentored the schools media unit as its members documented the process?
How do you rate the drama teacher who shepherded the Karen kids from being too shy to even enter the rehearsal space to standing, arms raised in triumph, at the Lawler as the audience cheered wildly?
Was the principal, who facilitated the whole exercise, meant to sit in the audience with a mark sheet? He couldn't do that because he had an art exhibition to open at the same time.
How was he to assess the art teacher? On the quality of the work or by the fact that the exhibition got up at all?
And what about the lead teacher who was literally running from class to class trying to keep the whole project afloat? How does anyone assess his amazing commitment?
Finally, and crucially, what about the rest of the staff who covered classes, had classes interrupted and had to deal with the inevitable missed deadlines because kids were rehearsing?
Who is the arbiter of the educational value of this exercise?
Every person who was lucky enough to witness these kids telling their stories in their words would have given them 10 out of 10. And the teachers a rating, on this new scale, of five out of five.
Teaching isn't an Olympic event like diving or gymnastics where judges hold up score cards for performance.
A good percentage of 'good teaching' goes unnoticed and unheralded. Teachers get that. So do their principals. And this is the reason why the bulk of teachers oppose these absurd suggestions from the Victorian government.
What does Victoria's government mean when it says "we need to do better"?
Does it mean a good mark in the VCE or the HSC or does it mean a student who could hardly open their mouth has been given the confidence to stand on a stage and tell their incredible story to a captivated audience?
When someone can explain to me how this will be measured I will return to writing plays and books but until then I'm going to have to roll up the sleeves like everyone else really interested in helping teachers and take to the barricades once more.