The dawn of the New Year marked not only the close of the decade, but also an exchange of power in the Department of Education (DOE). Cathleen Black replaced Joel Klein as chancellor, and with this change came adjustments in teacher tenure guidelines, making the process of obtaining tenure more difficult and more transparent. The process now relies on a four point effectiveness rubric, from Very Effective to Ineffective, encompassing three criteria: instructional practice, impact on student learning and professional contributions. The scores from this rubric, combined with teacher observations by assistant principals, are given to the school principal to use when writing a Tenure Recommendation Form to the superintendent.
This new tenure policy, coupled with the DOE’s emphasis on progress (currently measured through standardized test grades and annual school surveys), seems to overshadow a significant question: How do the students feel about their teachers’ instructional techniques? The higher-ups do not seem to care about the voices of the people below them in the educational hierarchy. In a system that serves over 1.1 million students in over 1600 schools, the students themselves have almost no say in how teachers are evaluated. On a smaller scale, it is disconcerting that at Stuyvesant the process falls entirely on the administration, which fails to acknowledge the opinion of the 3,200 or so individuals that comprise the student body. Teachers have a duty to educate us, and they should value our perspective on how well we think they are doing.
Though certain Web sites exist exclusively for students to comment on their teachers, they are not legitimate sources for evaluation. On RateMyTeachers.com, for instance, instructors are ranked on a scale of one to five for Easiness, Helpfulness and Clarity. While this may help students get a general sense of what it is like to be in a certain teacher’s class, the criteria is not specific or serious enough to make it credible.
What we need is a systematized survey that can evaluate teachers’ performances both inside and outside of the classroom. While these critiques should not be the sole factor in deciding an instructor’s competence, they should be used as a guideline for improving classroom instruction. Here are some key points for any teacher evaluation:
Preparedness: Is the lesson material thoughtfully chosen and well prepared?
A teacher’s responsibility begins with preparation outside the classroom. It can be split into three key components: understanding of the material, clarity in the lesson plans and quality of the material presented.
When evaluating their understanding of the material, teachers should be rated on how knowledgeable they are on the topics they teach, as well as how familiar they are with content that may relate to their lessons. If there are areas they are unsure of, they should be able to provide students with sources to find the answers to their questions.
Teachers must not only be in command of the material, but also have a cohesive way of presenting it. While improvisation certainly adds spontaneity and variety, it more often than not creates muddled and aimless periods. Questions like “Does the instructor provide an outline or goal for the day’s lesson?” could be used to evaluate this area of teacher performance.
Finally, the quality of the course must be evaluated to ensure that it not only fulfills the curriculum but goes beyond it to illustrate the uses of the subject outside academia. By connecting the subject to something other than the next multiple choice test, teachers can show students the real point of education: application of the information learned.
Presentation: Are the lessons fresh, interesting, and clear?
A teacher’s presentation of the material is just as important as his or her preparation of it. A well-presented lesson should keep students’ attention and be smoothly paced, so that the material can be thoroughly explored and mastered.
While the lecture-orientated teaching style can be effective, it is not always suitable to different types of learners. Auditory learners, who learn best from listening to information, will thrive in a lecture environment. However, visual and tactile learners, who learn by seeing and doing respectively, will not receive the information as successfully. By varying the presentation of the material, in ways such as incorporating PowerPoint slides or encouraging active class participation in lessons, teachers can accommodate all types of students.
Similarly, teachers should be rated on their ability to pace the lessons. It is expected that different students will be at different levels in the class, yet teachers should not be teaching to the highest or lowest common denominators. Often, Stuyvesant hallways are filled with students commiserating with one another about “being lost” in a class: a clear indication that many teachers need to reevaluate the clarity and pacing of their instruction.
Environment: Does the instructor promote an unbiased and accepting atmosphere?
Classroom environment is vital in helping students absorb the information. A teacher’s effectiveness is demonstrated by how well he or she commands the room. The teacher should be able to gain the trust and respect of his or her students, and should be able to focus attention without seeming tyrannical.
To achieve this, it is important to maintain fairness inside the classroom and to give everyone the same opportunities during class discussions. To assume that a student who does not understand, or even who misbehaves, will continue to do so all year is to give up on that student completely. Every class should be started with a clean slate. This will create an encouraging atmosphere that will allow students to not fear making mistakes, thus allowing for greater improvement.
Accessibility: Are students able to approach the instructor for further explanations?
Teacher accessibility is another considerable concern for students. Teachers should provide students with an after class schedule (free periods, lunch, after school times) when they can meet one-on-one to further explain the day’s lesson. Students often have many issues that they need to discuss with teachers, including class participation, exam scores, essay grades, missed work and future assignments. The best teachers, those who care more about a student’s complete understanding of the material than his or her ability to memorize enough for the exam, are those who give up at least a portion of their professional or personal time to help students.
It is understandable that teachers will have obligations outside the classroom, and therefore, evaluating their accessibility will not be limited to how much time they have to help students. A teacher’s open-mindedness and flexibility will be invaluable for these outside-of-class sessions.
The survey given to students would incorporate the same four point effectiveness breakdown and have multiple questions in each section, plus an accompanying free-response section to garner more personal input. The questions should be written by a committee of students and given to department heads to be reviewed. Students, when creating the survey, should keep in mind the different aspects of teacher competence that they want to evaluate, and department heads, when approving it, should keep in mind the language of the survey so as not to offend any teachers who read it.
To ensure that these evaluations are effective, we request the cooperation of both the administration in distributing them and the students in honestly answering survey questions. It is paramount for the students themselves to take these evaluations seriously. Students should put thought into their answers and not be ashamed of expressing any concerns they might have with their teachers, because ultimately all of the facts and figures would be used to benefit their education. Completed surveys would then be used by the assistant principals to assist in deciding tenure or simply to keep track of individual teacher progress. Additionally, it would be beneficial for administrators to look for trends in the data and schedule meetings with teachers to discuss the survey findings. What the administration chooses to do with these evaluations is up to them, but we hope that teachers will be able to incorporate this student feedback when planning their next lessons.
If the people in power want tangible, quantifiable data, then that is what we will give them. It is time for the collective student voice to be heard.