Do they mean me?;Talkback

12th March 1999 at 00:00
A teacher explains why she puts little store by a survey of student opinion on teaching styles.

Last week I was told I "flirt continually with the male members" of my class, "make frequent mistakes" in my comments and "don't appear to care". Moreover, I command "no respect" and am, in short, "a bad teacher". Have I just come through a particularly bad inspection? No. Personality clash with my line manager? Not at all. These destructive comments came from my students.

Kids I thought I knew well, thought I had established a good rapport with, have stabbed me in the back. At least, that's how it feels. Even worse, their comments were invited by management as part of a Survey of Student Perception. Students were asked to fill in a lengthy questionnaire on teaching methods, styles and "qualities". These responses were then turned into numeric "percentage scores". Finally, respondents were told: "Feel free to make any comments."

"Perception" is all about how an individual "sees" another. Like teaching, it is highly personal. How, then, can such personal, often biased, information be treated and presented as objective? And why do it anyway? If its aim is to make a school or college look more "accountable", and as if it is "listening" to its students, fine. But all schools and colleges are equally - if not more - accountable to their employees.

For example, we should have been better prepared for the dubious pleasure of opening a folded set of A4 sheets full of "constructive" comments. We also now need to be told what use the data will be put to, and by whom.

The responses were a joke. I teach a humanities subject, but 25 per cent of my students believe they have experienced "demonstrated practicals" this term. No they haven't! And an impressive 87.5 per cent said I was "enthusiastic about the subject". Tell that to the kid who accused me of "not appearing to care".

My "percentage scores" indicated I was doing fine, but 21 of the 40 comments were negative. The others said my lessons were "interesting" and "enjoyable" and I created a "good working atmosphere". In short, the data was too raw, too contradictory, and far too subjective to be treated seriously.

Except that's what the powers that be are doing. They are treating the written and numerical data gathered from personal opinions as objective statistics.

Students, like all of us, can get it wrong. They may find a topic boring, a teacher hard to get on with - and may also still get a grade A. They don't have to worry about covering all areas of the syllabus, however unpleasant. But apparently it is OK for them to tell us how to do it. We need to get the balance back.

Everyone's resigned to being unofficially judged by league table positions and percentage of A-C passes. I suppose exam results give a broad picture, but to start nit-picking over a teacher's style and character - that's dangerous. We wouldn't do it to any other public sector workers. So why lay ourselves open to students' criticism? It's too easy for them to be destructive - and that helps nobody.

A teacher who usually achieves good results could, if faced with damning comments, feel obliged to alter his or her strategies. This could end up making teachers less effective.

Many factors distort results. Does the anonymity of the replies have any bearing? The fact is, we don't know - so perhaps we should try a more reliable technique. Face-to-face discussions carried out alongside subject interviews could be an option.

So what did I learn from the survey? Little I did not already know. It confirmed that my students were challenged by me - and I certainly created a strong, mixed reaction. I'm not going to change my teaching methods much - they are working, and I want to use my skills to do the best for my students. That's ironic, considering half of them say they hate me. No wonder there's such a mass exodus from the profession.

The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, teaches in a sixth-form college in the south of England

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