Appraisal is a game where we all score;Platform;Opinion

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
Staffroom colleagues should not be afraid of working together to become better teachers, says Peter Dreghorn

WHY IS the teaching profession afraid of appraisal? Fear stems from the unknown and in teaching the collective "we" does not yet know what a good teacher is. Is it the strict, charismatic, didactic story-teller, or the one who promotes active learning, discovery techniques and is more of a facilitator, or do we need combinations of myriad methodologies? How much of each do we need?

Different styles can get good results and a glance at "My best teacher" in Friday magazine introduces other factors: the ability of the teacher to regard the children individually and a slight eccentricity which makes him or her intriguing and listenable are two regularly cited qualities, proving that the "customer" has a valid view that may be different to the establishment's. Pupil views are no longer disregarded.

The General Teaching Council has gone some way in defining good teaching in its checklist for probationers and England is adopting its ideas, but we must further define their definitions - "good classroom organisation" needs clarification so that we have common understanding. Educational professionals make basic assumptions based on their own intuitions rather than open and comparative discussion.

Once teachers know and agree the rules of the game they will play it with enthusiasm, compliance and rigour. This applies even to dealing with "bad teachers". Many colleagues feel that disciplinary procedures should not be linked to appraisal, but would the system be valid and reliable if they were not?

In the former Strathclyde Region the standard approach for teachers who were struggling was to keep it positive, offer support and write everything down. The teacher then suddenly became part of a new game and everything was monitored, resulting in many months and sometimes years of anxiety, forced diplomacy, unsettled children and - the most interesting aspect - the teacher dissatisfied.

With a strong appraisal system in place struggling teachers can improve or eventually themselves see clearly that they need to be doing something else. At present there is a baseline drawn at the extremities of behaviour - alcoholism, bullying, non-attendance, for example - rather than looking at basic teaching methodologies and work habits.

Pupil attainment is now a measurable facet of school life and how well the pupils are progressing is very much dependent on teacher skills. If this was ever to be linked to appraisal then it should be from point A to point B - that is, the improvement from when the teacher first began to teach the pupils.

Appraisal should also be linked to selection because current procedures rely too heavily on brief interviews which inform panels of teachers' abilities to think quickly, act pleasantly and answer questions, but do not show their competencies in school. A growing list of competencies built up through appraisal could be adduced as evidence for selection. Examples might be holding children's attention through story-telling skills and the ability to create a lively and pleasant classroom ethos.

Of course, for the teacher there are other worries. Who will appraise me?

Can they do it satisfactorily? Can I choose someone? How is it recorded?

What right of appeal do I have?

The human factor is perhaps the biggest stumbling block. Appraising another is a discrete skill separate from teaching, a management tool which needs thorough training. In the eighties, I was appraised by a manager from whom I would not have bought a used car. Being at the bottom of the power base, I had no recourse.

Guidance for the process has to be clear and comprehensive to reduce the amount of misinterpretation. Appraisal as an upwards process would enhance validity, with the pupils and parents commenting on teachers and teachers commenting on promoted staff.

Another problem is the enormous range of mitigating factors to be taken into account in trying to measure teacher performance. For example, a class which has had several supply teachers is bound to be more disruptive than one which has had continuity. The problem is that we have used mitigating factors so much that the possibility of measuring performance is excluded.

Appraisal cannot be done effectively without mutual understanding. One headteacher might regard a colleague as lively and enthusiastic, while another might complain about the noise level of the class. It took several years for colleagues to arrive at a common understanding of 5-14 language targets and with teacher competencies not even laid down in enough detail that will take longer.

In staffrooms and education service offices there is an assumption that we all know what a good teacher is, but when colleagues start defining a phrase such as "class discipline" there are many shades of meaning.

A starting point might be those factors which are measurable - timekeeping, completed lesson plans, monitoring of pupils' work, attendance at courses, and so on. Then it could move into more debatable areas such as classroom discipline.

So many complain about the time required for appraisal, but it is preventative time well spent and makes for building good relationships, reflective teaching and possibly even avoids hours of erroneous disciplinary procedure.

The advice in HMI's How Good is Our School? goes a long way to defining good general practice. We now need a document called How Good is My Teaching? In any event the teaching profession should call a spade a spade instead of avoiding digging the garden of quality performance.

Peter Dreghorn is a trainer and counsellor in emotional intelligence.

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