Target practice

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Assessment is not a threat to teachers - it's more of a safety net. By Esther Read

Mr Linden, our geography teacher, was the first real bully I ever encountered. Looking back, my reaction to him surprises me. Normally conscientious to a fault, I was careful never to open any chapter he set us for homework. Nonetheless, next day when the interrogation began, my hand would be among the first to be raised. Even at the age of 13 I had sussed out that what bullies feed on is fear. So long as I managed to stare him out he would pass me by. Only those who wavered in their gaze were belted. All this I remembered during a meeting with an old school friend the other day.

Of course, the next step was to recall the other awful teachers we had known - like Mr Hunter, the maths teacher whose trousers were held up by string and who would stand in front of us and cry. Nowadays he'd be surrounded by a team of counsellors faster than you could say, "There, there". Or would he?

Gradually, between us, we began to total the number of "hopeless" teachers to whom our children or our friends' children had been subjected. My friend recalled the Primary 5 teacher who'd taught for almost 30 years. Everyone knew she was a liability. Parents dreaded finding their child in her class.

Her son drew the short straw but, she reasoned, you can hardly complain about someone on the basis of hearsay. Then she realised that the new assistant headteacher appeared to be aware of the problem. There was "respite care" every Tuesday morning, during which he took charge of the class. She stood back and trusted that the teacher would at last be helped to mend her ways.

She lived to regret her decision. At the year's-end parents' meeting, none of the children's work was on display (they simply hadn't done enough) and the teacher clearly couldn't distinguish my friend's son from the others in the class. There was only one change. The teacher had switched from being stressed and defensive to being arrogant and aggressive. After all, she'd had to cope with the worst class in the school, hadn't she? The fact that she always ended up with the "worst" class in the school and that no one else ever complained about them seemed to have escaped her notice.

My friend happens to be married to a teacher herself so, as she pointed out, she knows that bad teachers are as much a problem to their colleagues as anyone else. She says her husband would encourage parents to complain - if only because, as head of department, it would make it easier for him to get something done.

As it is, he had a case where one of his staff was both lazy and incompetent. He tried to intervene and offer support only to be told that if this was a formal complaint, the teacher concerned wanted his union representative present.

The headmaster was reluctant to act. It ended by the teacher concerned being off work with "stress" just at the time of year when the folio pieces for the Standard grade exams had to be prepared. Of course, the others covered for him and he was back hale and hearty once the dust had settled to claim his fee for the task they'd performed.

In response to such a scenario, it's simply not enough to ask parents to complain more. On the whole, parents only find out things aren't as they should be once the damage has been done. What's in it for them then - except perhaps a lot of aggro?

Ultimately, the responsibility for ensuring that standards in the classroom don't fall below what is acceptable has to lie with the teaching profession itself - which is why I simply cannot understand the resistance of teachers to the notion that they should be assessed in some way.

In the world at large work-ers from managing director to shop floor level are assessed against a set of "performance" targets. In the best run organisations there is then an on-going programme of re-training to allow people to refine their skills. This isn't a threat to anyone - it's a security net.

Even the anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of truly "bad" teachers is small, singled out not so much by their inability to teach as by their unwillingness to learn, so what's everyone so afraid of? It should be in everyone's interests to root out the bad apples. Suffice to say that my maths mark plummeted, never to recover, during my year with tearful Mr Hunter - and the class average for geography was always way below that of other subjects.

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