Butterfly of good teaching too hard to catch
The Government wants to introduce performance pay for teachers. Good luck to it, writes Joe Bennett.
Yorkshire, England, 1981, and I am on the second floor of the gymnasium in a grim secondary school. I'm drinking coffee and looking idly out over the school and the hills beyond. Below me a rowdy fifth-form class is waiting outside the music room, the girls' legs pink in the cold air. The elderly head of music arrives, a ring of white hair at the back of his skull like a horse's noseband. He unlocks the door of the classroom. A few kids go in. Most don't.
He tries to corral them, spreading his arms, urging them like stock. Some ignore him, some duck around him. Others go in, cross the room then clamber out through a window on the other side, and come back round to the front. They are laughing.
Fifteen minutes later he has them all more or less seated and he puts on a record of classical music. Through a window I can see a slice of the class. Most chat or sleep. A boy and girl at the back are kissing.
At that school I was a student teacher of phys ed but I spent most of my time in the drama room. The teacher there was a wonder. He liked the kids and they, more or less in consequence, liked him. He made them laugh and think. He widened their eyes and their minds.
Back then there were two ways for a teacher to earn more money. One was to be promoted, the other to get older. The head of music had done both and earned plenty. Yet he was obviously doing a worse job than the drama teacher.
So performance pay sounds like a good thing and over my 20 years of teaching the subject was raised at every school I taught at. Yet nothing was ever done about it. The difficulty was how to measure teaching.
Teaching is an intuitive human business. The golden rule is that you must teach according to your nature. If you don't, the kids will see through you. There is no one way to do it. And though there are tricks to be learned there is no body of knowledge that can turn a bad teacher into a good one.
Most people can name one teacher who mattered to them. That teacher offered something into which the kid's mind fitted like a plug into a socket. Something in the teacher's enthusiasm, in their way of seeing the world, lit a bulb that is still burning. It had nothing to do with the syllabus or exams. It was the transmission of some sort of humanity. And for different kids it would be a different teacher, which is why every school should employ a range of characters, from the rigid sergeant major to the floppy hippy.
Good teaching, then, is easy to recognise. But it is hard to measure. Exam results are important but they are not the whole of education. And if you judged a teacher solely by exam results, then they would teach solely to the exams. Which would squeeze out the good stuff, the real stuff, the stuff that just happens. And that's often the stuff that sings home like a well-fired arrow.
What will happen, I suspect, is that the mandarins of education will try to do to teaching what they have already done to learning. With the NCEA they reduced a subject like English to thousands of discrete bits of knowledge, or skills, that they could then assess one by one. But that's not how English works. The NCEA brings down the net but misses the butterfly. And it will be the same with teaching. They will spend vast sums of money coming up with boxes to be ticked, boxes called Key Performance Indicators or some similar jargon, in a bid to define good teaching. And though any kid in the school will tell you instantly who the good teachers are, the Education Ministry won't manage it. The simple butterfly of human truth will elude them.
I don't have an answer to the problem. All I will say is that the drama teacher in Yorkshire loved what he did. Whereas the head of music was in torment. He must have walked through the school gates each morning with rising dread. His job was killing him. So perhaps, after all, it was right to pay him more. Money for suffering.
The Southland Times