The author is a teacher. Joe Baron is a pseudonym.
Back in September 2004, during my first year of teaching, a senior member of staff politely rebuked me for pushing in front of a student in the lunch queue. ‘They don’t like it when you push in front of them,’ she said.
I, albeit in a state of bewilderment, begrudgingly acceded to her request before heading back to my classroom and ruminating on its implications. When I was at school, I thought, only nine years earlier, the teachers always pushed in front of us students. They even sat on a raised platform, overlooking us, their young deferential charges. We didn’t consider it to be inequitable. They were our teachers and that was that. Does this innovation, I pondered, represent a break from the traditional conception of teacher-student relations? I felt a tinge of discomfort as I considered the possible consequences of this new direction.
Ten years on, it is brutally clear why I was so exercised. My discomfort was indeed well founded. I now inhabit a world in which the adults openly exhibit a deep respect and reverence for the children; the children, in contrast, counter-intuitively and contrary to common sense, view the adults as little more than servile providers of a mundane service. My admonishment was certainly a harbinger of things to come.
According to the latest edition of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), 73 per cent of schools in the UK ask their students for written feedback on the performance of teachers and the quality of lessons. Furthermore, in a troubling extension of this relatively recent trend, many are now arguing that student feedback should be used to determine teachers’ pay. So teachers are being treated like restaurateurs and hoteliers, open to public criticism and, if Michael Gove’s Policy Exchange gets its way, salary determined by customer satisfaction – the students, of course, being the customers.
Honestly! Where do they think up this inane folly? I simply do not buy the assertion that student feedback improves educational outcomes. In fact, in my opinion, determined by ten years of experience, not only does it have a dramatic and detrimental impact on teacher morale; it also encourages student irresponsibility and a culture of excuses – two factors that contrive to ensure educational failure.
First, though, let’s consider the effect on teachers. Many disgruntled students, in my school at least, where the children are widely consulted, use it as an instrument of torture for the hapless staff member on the wrong end of their wrath. Moreover, they feel buoyed by a new found freedom, an intoxicating sense of power that inevitably leads to a combination of arrogance and smugness.
For us teachers, though, there is no such perverse pleasure. We are reduced to obsequiousness and desperate attempts to ingratiate ourselves with the children judging us. Often this manifests itself in the construction of ‘fun’ tasks that do nothing to help student progress; or teachers choosing not to sanction unruly behaviour, fearful of the child’s subsequent response. You can only imagine how demoralising and downright demeaning it is – negative feelings that will only worsen if ‘Student Voice’ is used as a determinant of teacher pay.
Secondly, however, and most importantly, we need to consider its impact on the children themselves. They are being given a responsibility for which they are unprepared and unqualified. Many cannot recognise, for example, the value of efficacious teaching methods that may be construed as boring. In short, although many of our students are intelligent and sensible, others lack the maturity to make judgements about a teacher’s ability, their vision clouded by petty disputes, perceived slights and the fickle nature of peer pressure.
On the odd occasion, it would indeed do schools no harm to consider why children are still living at home, cared for by parents and carers. This societal convention implies, quite rightly, that children cannot fend for themselves, make sensible, prudent decisions, or judge what is in their best interests. Adults, therefore, make the decisions for them. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t listen to their concerns. Of course we should. But we should do it with circumspection and careful thought. We should not, under any circumstances, institutionalise a system that gives children a decisive say in the appraisal, thus the lives, of teachers and their families. Giving them such an enormous responsibility is unfair on them, if nothing else.
Paradoxically, moreover, encouraging children to formally evaluate teacher performance divests them of any meaningful responsibility for their own progress. After all, they are being taught, albeit unintentionally, to search for excuses. It must be Mr Robinson’s fault. His lessons are boring. This misguided, interminable focus on the teacher can only lead to student fecklessness and, as an inevitable consequence, underachievement and failure. Regrettably the students have been led to believe, quite erroneously, that we – the teachers – have more to lose than them. It is incredibly sad to see.
The kids do the bare minimum; we, in contrast, run around like headless chickens, demoralised and exhausted, working 15-hour days, six days a week. It can only be described as perverse. Call me an old fashioned traditionalist, but shouldn’t the students be evaluating their own performances, and, rather than being taught to make excuses and denounce adults, be taught to accept their respective circumstances and work hard regardless? It is the Senior Leadership Team’s job to root out professional shortcomings, after all, not the children’s.
Back in 2004, when my career was in its infancy, I bore witness to an egalitarian phenomenon that has done enormous damage to our education system. ‘Student Voice’, its natural offshoot, should be renounced and discarded without delay. Children need to be given back their childhoods, and teachers, their pride.