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September 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 1

What Our Teachers Should Know and Be Able to Do: A Student's View

Who, but students, know how teachers really perform in the classroom? Who else (besides other teachers) could really help teachers do better?

Jim Black is an English teacher. His American literature students read the books required of them by the English department standards. Each day, he allows half the class time for reading and every few days gives a quiz on plot and characters. Before each quiz, students beg to not have to take it. Even though most have completed the reading, they complain that there are too many details on which they could be tested.When the class completes a book, Mr. Black assigns an essay on it. He hands out sheets of paper with seven possible themes outlined, but suggests that students feel free to formulate their own theme ideas. He leads a half-hour discussion on possible themes. Students have three class days to work on their essays. The following Monday, as Mr. Black scans the finished essays, he notices that not a single student wrote on an original theme. He shrugs and chalks it up to a lack of creativity in this class.
Why did no students invent their own themes? Laziness was perhaps a factor, but the biggest reason is Mr. Black's teaching style. He never encouraged independent thought or in any way excited students about the work. To them, it was just another tedious assignment with no bearing on their lives, excluding the grades they must receive.
Let's look at two other classrooms. In math, Dan hardly tries at all. He's not disinterested in the subject and in fact is very good at it, but he ends up talking in math class and gets only a mediocre grade. The teacher spends most of the time lecturing, with his back to the class, then returns to his desk and answers questions. The students stay in their seats and do a large portion of their work in class.Dan's next class, chemistry, is different. He participates actively and has one of the highest grades. This teacher lectures a great deal of the time, but during the lectures, he banters happily with the students and allows for discussion and jokes. While students work on an assignment toward the end of class, the teacher wanders around the room inquiring of each student how he or she is doing. Dan is the type who is often unwilling to ask questions in front of the whole class, or even to seek individual help on a certain concept. When the teacher comes to him and shows that he cares, though, Dan willingly asks for any help he needs.
Both of these teachers exhibit intelligence, and the first teacher might even have more experience or know the material better than the second teacher. The important consideration, however, is which class lets Dan learn more? Which class does he care for? Which subject is he more apt to want to learn more about?

An Appetite for Learning

Essentially, the good teacher tells us what is out there to learn, shows an enthusiasm for acquiring knowledge for the purpose of understanding, and then turns us loose to learn at our own pace, all the while looking carefully over our shoulders. As a senior at Sheridan High School—a three-year, 1,000-student school in a rural Wyoming town of 15,000—I believe that if teachers can motivate themselves to teach, then the students will want to learn. Teacher motivation can make or break a learning situation.
Unfortunately, many of today's teachers believe that they are there to teach only a set amount of material. If the student takes an interest in the material, he or she must personally follow it further. Saying "Now we will have two weeks of library time for you to study a topic of interest" just doesn't cut it. The majority of library time usually ends up as less supervised talk time, and the report is completed at the last possible moment.
Some teachers are stuck teaching required courses, which students traditionally dislike, to classes of all manner of interested and uninterested folk. The teacher is in a quandary about how to pace the work and how much depth to go into. The solution is to motivate everyone to love the subject. Teachers who begin a course with a preconceived notion that half of the kids will show no interest at all are setting themselves up for a long year.
The teachers who love their material and teach with the goal of making the subject live for the students, whether the subject is English 101 or History of World Wars, will excel at their job. The recounting of a war in a textbook means nothing, but by allowing kids to read firsthand accounts of what really happened and what people really felt may help students understand why their friends go to foreign countries to stop such a thing from happening again. This is teaching.

Less than Great Expectations

Afraid of being overly tough on students, some teachers tend to ignore discipline problems. For example, in a classroom where cheating runs rampant during testing, the teacher has doubtless failed to indicate the consequences. If cheaters are dealt with solely after class on a personal basis, the offense may never go on their permanent record, they may suffer no grade consequences, and they probably will not stop cheating. The teacher also will have difficulty gaining the respect of students and peers.
A strong example must be set for those who would cheat. Simply threatening to take away a test and give a zero is not enough. A teacher must not only patrol the classroom, but must also have an excellent relationship with the students. A teacher who is well liked and respected will encounter less cheating. If students like a teacher—regardless of the grades they receive—they will want to perform to please the teacher, and this encourages honesty.
Many teachers today also seem almost afraid of failing students. When many students fail a class, it tells an administrator that the teacher does not teach well. However, a teacher who does know how to teach but chooses to pass students who do less than passing work helps no one. Before giving an essay a C or a D, the teacher should consider the letter grade the real world would give the essay. Would this essay get the applicant a job or gain the person the respect of the employer? If the answer is no, then the essay should not pass as being average. Accepting only the best work a student is capable of encourages a healthy work ethic.

Evaluations Produce Paperwork

How can we determine which teachers need help and how they can get it? Evaluations clearly are one way, but, unfortunately, not always effective. For example, at one school, both division chairs and the principal observe teachers. The evaluation process involves a lot of paperwork, but the teachers rarely benefit from what they are told. At most schools, administrators are concerned about the quality of teaching, but have little time to spend with individual teachers discussing their work. Then who else should do this? Other teachers could conduct peer reviews. And there is an often overlooked group who knows more about what constitutes good teaching than anyone else: the students.
Students see their teachers every day and know what really goes on. They can gauge the true level of enthusiasm a teacher imparts. All too often, when an administrator comes in to evaluate a teacher, the teacher's style changes in subtle ways. The teacher may make a much more concerted effort to maintain discipline or make sure no time is wasted. Some teachers may even bargain with the students to allow them a free day or an easy test if they behave and make the teacher look good.

A Modest Proposal

Here is a suggestion for structuring a student evaluation system. Students could volunteer, and a representative group of teachers could meet to choose students they deem most appropriate as teacher evaluators. The students would use their free hours or scheduled class time to go to classrooms and observe teachers. This may not be a position that many students would want—but you might be surprised. Many intelligent, caring students, if made to feel as though they could be of help, would gladly help their teachers become more effective.
During observations, the student would not only record teaching techniques, but also would try to get a feel for the enthusiasm of the class, the subject matter, the control the teacher has over the class, and the students' respect for the teacher (see fig. 1). Students can pick up details that adult observers don't detect. If time allows and it doesn't disrupt the class, the student evaluator could speak with class members and get their opinions.

Figure 1. How Students Can Evaluate Teachers

Sample Evaluation Form. Please comment on the following topics:

  • Does the teacher's approach to discipline help or hinder the learning atmosphere?

  • Does the teacher use time effectively?

  • Does the teacher treat students as adults? What maturity level is expected of the students?

  • Do students feel comfortable asking questions and receiving help?

  • Is the teacher sensitive to students' interests and needs? (For example, will the teacher spend extra time on a topic of special interest or need?)

  • Does what the teacher says get through to the students?

  • Are students actively interested or doing other work?

  • When the teacher gives students time in class to work on an assignment, does talking center on the topic at hand?


Student evaluators would speak with the teacher as soon as possible after the end of the class to clarify any confusion. Perhaps a group of two to three master teachers (not tenured teachers, master teachers—there's a difference!) could read the report. Then they could make suggestions for improvement. The teachers in the discussion group might even learn from what the students have observed. (Even good teachers can improve.)
These observations and evaluations would not have any bearing on job standing or anything else besides improvement. (Teachers would be more open to suggestions and more themselves during observations if they knew that their teaching style, and not their jobs, might be affected.)
For those who doubt that this method could work, consider this: If an administrator's children have gone through a particular teacher's program, enjoyed it, learned from it, and been inspired by it, that administrator knows that teacher is good. How? Certainly not from the results of a competency test that notes cheerlessly that a teacher does not know the state capitals!
Teachers are the crux of the entire educational system. There is no doubt that they experience a good deal of stress, and a change in evaluations may temporarily cause more. That cannot be a deterrent, however, to those who really believe that education is more than regular attendance and multiple-choice questions. Without the help of teachers, reform will go nowhere. Reform must start at the classroom level so that everyone sees the effects of efforts to improve.
Also, everyone, from the base of the system up, must be involved in positive change. Change rarely comes easily. All who share in the struggle at the start will share in the glory in the end.
End Notes

1 Names used in the examples are pseudonyms.

Lorien Belton has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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