Measuring the Value of a Teacher's Work
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How does a teacher determine his or her effectiveness?
The industrial revolution changed the nature of work for many Americans. Instead of having a large percentage of self-employed people working in small-scale farming, manufacturing, and business enterprises, we became a society of largely employees working in large businesses and corporations. People were selling their labor instead of a tangible commodity, and it became difficult for people to measure the value of their work.
People in the professions (like me) and service sector have never, by definition, produced anything tangible. We do things for people. We don’t make physical commodities for them. In my case, it’s a good thing that I am not required to make any kind of physical commodity. I have virtually no skills in the areas of manufacturing, repair, art, or anything else that requires creating or fixing anything physical. I do better in the world of concepts and ideas. If there were no demand for education in the world, I would most likely become another “Dilbert” in an office building or a beggar out on the streets trading facts about George Washington for food. Hopefully, there will continue to be schools out there that are willing to hire me. Sitting in a cubicle is one of my ultimate nightmares.
My work definitely involves a significant amount of creativity, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when a long workday has ended. I have to write Power Point outlines, create meaningful assignments, and put on a reasonably good show if I want to have any hope of keeping students conscious. When things go well, as they do more often than not, there is definitely a sense of satisfaction (and a good kind of fatigue). But still, to a certain degree, I have the same problem as the many disenchanted, frustrated workers in the modern world: how do I tangibly measure the value of my work? How do I determine the degree to which I have accomplished anything?
There are different ways that a teacher might measure the value of his or her work. Some teachers, who probably belong in a different profession, might measure the value of their work in the same way as many other Americans: the size of their paycheck. In teaching, of course, this method of measurement can be a bit depressing. The dollar amounts can look rather small, and like workers in other large organizations, we know on some level that we are not being paid what we are worth. In fact, we don’t really know how much wealth we are generating for our educational institution. It may be possible to figure this out, but I have little desire to do so. It will probably just piss me off, and I went into this line of work for more than a paycheck anyway (although I wouldn’t mind a slightly larger one).
For teachers looking for more than just an income, they might measure their work’s value by evaluating student achievement. If a student can demonstrate through testing or some other assignment that they have learned something covered in class, this is tangible proof of accomplishment. The only problem with this measure is that learning is an inherently cooperative activity. Students have as much (or more) to do with the learning process as an effective teacher. So if a student aces a test, it may be because he or she is very smart, studied hard, found a good tutor, or knew this stuff before the class started. Plus, if we are to be consistent, we have to take responsibility for failure as well. Of course, students may be primarily responsible for their own failure, a fact that we teachers are often happy to point out.
Evaluations from students, peers, and administrators can also be used in a hunt for evidence demonstrating that we are achieving something positive. We can visit “rateyourprofessor.com” to find out if more students like us than hate us (and if we are “hot”). We can pour over the results of the bubble forms periodically handed out to students at the end of the semester. We can carefully read the faculty evaluations filled out by either fellow teachers or our deans to see what another educator thinks of us. There are problems, however, with all of these methods. Student evaluations often tell you more about the students than about your performance. My classroom evaluations are usually pretty positive, but the occasionally bad overall results have come from classes that had particularly poor students. On the web site evaluations, the most common complaints are about my supposedly difficult grading procedures, not my ability to present the subject matter. Clearly, many students want an easy grade, not an informative class. Faculty evaluators, however, should have purer motivations when filling out their forms. The main problem, however, is that faculty evaluators have little information on which to base the evaluation. They only sit in on a class for 10-20 minutes. In addition, they probably have a tendency to be “too nice.” They know what it is like to be in a teacher’s shoes, and I doubt that they want to go through the trouble of defending a negative evaluation to both the teacher evaluated and to the higher school authorities.
So if all of these methods are imperfect, then how do I determine the degree to which I am accomplishing anything? How do I measure the value of my work? In the end, I am left with two simple observations. First, all that I can do is try my best. There is no flawless educational or motivational technique that will work for every student. If I am giving a legitimate effort, students will know it, and the ones who care enough to pass will both respond to me accordingly and usually make it. I can say with some confidence that any student who legitimately tries to learn will come away with something valuable in my class. Second, I look primarily for progress. If I set some arbitrary standard that every student must reach before I feel satisfied with my performance, then I will be disappointed. I cannot control the various academic and motivational levels of the students who will enter my class each semester. I can, however, push them higher than the level with which they entered. So instead of obsessing about student grades at the end of the semester, I focus on comparing where they finished with where they started. If I see progress from many of the students who have stuck around to the end, as I generally do, then something has apparently gotten across to them. If I were to notice that my students consistently failed to improve or actually regressed, then it would be back to the drawing board. Then, if this were to drag on too long, it might be time to join Dilbert.
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