The Real Mr. Fitz: Tolstoy-ian Teacher Evaluation                                                  

Tolstoy-ian Teacher Evaluation

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (which I've read, thank you very much, but not in the original Russian) begins with the observation, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I've sometimes wondered if I really believed that to be the case, but the phrase has stuck with me. It recently occurred to me to turn it on its head and apply it to teaching.

I might start an epic, thousand page novel about the teaching profession with the line, "Ineffective teachers are all alike; every effective teacher is effective in his or her own way."

And I think this might be just as true as Tolstoy's observation. Ineffective teachers, and I have seen them and had them as a student, all seem like variations on a few weary themes: laziness, meanness, unconcern for his/her students, promoting actual hatred for a subject area instead of affection for it.

Effective teachers on the other hand... how different can they be? Very different. Just think about any effective teachers you had over the course of your schooling, and you'll find that their classrooms might just as well have existed in different universes, the contrast in teaching styles was so vast. My third grade teachers, Mrs. Bittel and Mrs. Gottung, were certainly different from each other, and from my high school English teachers, Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Jacobs. And Mr. Jacobs was certainly different from Mrs. Hughes. I got different things out of their classes because they were different teachers.

Mrs. Bittel was an older teacher with a red hair and a husky voice who I remember as being very caring and very encouraging. Mrs. Gottung, who later retired to become a semi-professional actress, was quite stern about the fact that I shouldn't be drawing cartoons in her Reading class. But after taking my cartoons away to teach me a lesson, she later let me create worksheets for the other students that taught them how to draw characters and create comic strips. I got to draw on the carbon ditto papers! This was an almost unheard of privilege, and I can't overestimate how being allowed to do it raised my self esteem.

Mrs. Hughes, my eleventh grade English teacher was very soft-spoken and somewhat formal, wore high collars, and talked to us about "taking poems apart and putting them back together." (I think these days we're pretty good at the dismantling of literature, but not so much at the putting it back together.) She was very encouraging of my writing.

Mr. Jacobs, who I took for a whopping four classes my senior year of high school, was encouraging but demanding, writing things like, "You deserve to be led around on a leash for a week for the spelling mistakes in this paper!" But he would also thoroughly read our essays not just for proofreading, but for content, and write things like, "You are very perceptive about adult relationships for someone your age." He also gave me scripts and cast recordings when he found out I liked theater and was trying to write plays of my own.

I didn't want my teachers to all be the same. It was their glorious differences that made them effective for me. Some were nicer, some were meaner. Some really good teachers came perilously close to looking like ineffective ones on the surface. Some teachers that looked pretty good on the surface were actually not very effective.

As we talk about ways to evaluate teachers effectively, we need to be truthful. It isn't going to be easy, because it's very, very complicated. We may not like that it's complicated, but it is; we may want it to be simple, but it's not. All of the testing and "value added" measures we are using to try to make teaching measurable are an attempt to make something complex into something simple.

The irony here is that we want our students be able to think critically, not simplistically, and to deal with complex issues in creative ways. Sadly, we seem to be shooting for this ideal by pretending that the complex acts of teaching and learning are simplistic, one dimensional issues instead of complex ones. If we really want education to be a simplistic, easy to pin down endeavour, we should heed Oscar Wilde-- be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

I'm not saying that evaluating teachers is not possible-- I'm saying it's complex. That's one of the reasons the dreaded "status quo" has stuck around for so long-- it was easier than dealing with the complexity. But what we are headed for is merely another way to avoid complexity. By saying that higher test scores are the only result that matters, we are losing an awful lot of what makes teachers great. I do not remember any of my teachers for what they did for my test scores. I remember them for the ways they changed my thinking, my writing, my life, ways that were uniquely their own.