Friday, July 24, 2009

Grading Teachers

I was a secondary school inspector based in Hamilton from 1972 to 1977. The primary inspectors were located in the Board offices in the central city. The secondary inspectors were on the outskirts of the city, an old block of prefabs inherited from defence after the war. Both sets of inspectors graded teachers - a gate-keeping function over advancement and promotion. They controlled the funds for in-service training. They registered teachers. A 19th Century hangover, they wielded tremendous power. They were resented and respected.

Grading proved a barrier in relationships with teachers. Not only did we have to do it, we also had to fit grades into a curve laid down by our Wellington masters. During my interview for the job I checked to see if the policy decision to remove it from the secondary service would be honoured. Assured it would be I proceeded. It did mean that teachers were on their guard in your presence. It made your advice too authoritative. It meant they mistrusted you for you might say "well done" but did not lift their grading. There was many a donnybrook in the principal's office as he or she fought for a higher grade for one of their teachers. Going to Tauranga Girls to face the formidable Joy Drayton was preparation for battle. She saw personal failure in every refusal to up the mark. We always knew we would be late leaving her office.

My heart warmed to Miss Duff at Gisborne Girls. After a particularly stressful grading meeting I commented on the thrush singing in the oak tree outside her office. She replied, “that bird has provided solace to me through many a long meeting.” “Like this one I said.” “Like this one”, she responded. My colleagues glared. Spreading my hands, the age-old act of appeal I said ‘we do our best.’ “So do I,” she replied.

The hardest thing to explain to teachers was that grading actually on the whole was fair - in a paternalistic way. The research evidence is that on the whole teachers rank students reasonably consistently. They might be hard markers or soft markers, but twenty teachers given the same assignment to check will approximately rank them in the same order. So with grading. The more teachers one saw the more one could fit them into a mental slot. One sensed that slot fairly early in the lesson and then spent much of the rest of the time wondering about how to assist the teacher - what comment to make, what advice would be useful, was confidence in need of support. There were always two inspectors grading each teacher. We usually coincided, even conservative sceptic Joe Neale and radical idealist Harvey McQueen. If we didn't we went back to the drawing board.

The presence of the principal also meant an extra witness. "He's not his best at present, new child at home." "She's the best netball coach we've ever had." We knew that on the whole they practised a rule, if we got it wrong in terms of lifting a grade they shut up - if they thought we'd been too harsh they'd argue. My final argument with teachers was always, "until you stop ranking kids, you really can't complain about us ranking you." Thankfully, the scheme disappeared. Teachers took a further step towards being truly professional. An anachronism, I was pleased to see it go.

At the time the inspectorate also was a male club. We had Miss Anderson, the Home Economics inspector whose hats were a subject of teacher gossip, a very fair and discriminating woman, underestimated by her peers. But all the chief inspectors were male, our travelling conversations and jokes were male, our decisions were male. Principals would say “well if you’re only to give one grading up then she’ll be getting married shortly and he’s got his career to think of.” It was a career conspiracy that was then on the verge of collapse. Quite a number of young women teachers I inspected became principals of co-educational secondary schools. That has been one of our quiet revolutions.

When I went to Head Office of the old Department of Education it was equally a male reserve. All the directors were men. Now there are many women senior managers.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post, Harvey, as I didn't know about grading. I like 'Crikey' too.