In praise of data

“I cannot recall ever having an intelligent conversation in a smart room.” – John Thackara

Just as our language might be appropriated by the corporate education deform movement, so we might reappropriate our language. This essay critically examines what we mean when we use the phrase “teacher effectiveness.” In three parts.

I write out of despair, despairing for my country, for the sickness of the current state of our world, for the state of education and the status of intellectual pursuit. I write out of memory, remembering being a student, being a teacher. Remembering being in that place in between, a graduate student and teaching assistant, both a student and a teacher, a place of measuring and being measured. I write from a place of urgency, writing impelled by recent communications with an academic colleague, who described the situation as desperate and only getting worse, as well as his fear of publicly speaking his opinions. I write out of his fear, writing the fear of a colleague and friend who is white, male, tenured, and afraid to speak. I write from only one of these positions of privilege, and even that position is mutable. I write in fear, but write it anyway. If we live in a state where our intellectuals are afraid to speak, then our country is not free.

First we must define the terms. What do we mean by teacher effectiveness? That your students have learned? That you have had an effect on their lives? That your students have had an effect on the lives of others? What do we mean by effectiveness? What does it mean to be an effective human being? What is the measure of a human being? What does it mean to be free?

I write out of memory, remembering the end of my first semester of graduate school and my first experience facing online data evaluations, a virtual wall of checkboxes to click, and not enough time to click through them. Not enough time as a student, and not enough time as a teacher. An entire semester’s worth of teaching and learning, of reading and writing, of human interaction and sharing of ideas, reduced to nothing more than a numeric rating system and a wall of questions that, more often than not, bore little resemblance to my experiences in the classroom, neither as a student, nor as a teacher. Questions that I, as a teacher and a technologically literate end user, could neither more specifically tailor to my department’s curricula nor edit from my observations of my students’ learning experiences in my classroom to help me better prepare for the following semester; the user interface was not designed to take into consideration all the subtleties of human interaction, the nuances of human communication and human discernment.

Fortunately, at the start of the semester, I had listened to the wisdom of an emeritus professor of education: “Get to know your students,” he implored an auditorium packed with incoming graduate teaching assistants, wisdom repeated by a military interrogator interviewed not long ago on National Public Radio, speaking in favor of communication and empathy as effective means of eliciting reliable intelligence, “Get to know your detainees.”

Getting to know my students meant watching them, listening to them, asking questions, hearing their responses, observing their interactions with each other, observing myself as if from outside of myself in my interactions with them, empathizing with their learning process, critiquing their work, teaching them how to critique their own work and the work of their peers, teaching them how to think critically, which, coincidentally, also involves listening, paying attention, the human ability to discern. So much more subtle and nuanced than simply delivering information, getting to know my students meant paying attention to them as human beings, from one human being to another.

One such interaction involved a young man fresh from high school, a first year college student, who showed up in my drawing studio classroom but never on time, missing my introductions, missing the writing warm up that I used to focus my students’ attention away from their outside distractions as well as to give them practice for writing specific to our field, very often missing my demonstration of the session’s drawing assignment; in other words, he showed up to class, but 15-30 minutes late for the first several weeks of school, and his class participation seemed sullen at best, if not openly hostile, as he struggled with drawing skills, his learning comprehension lagging behind his peers.

One session, as he again sidled into class in the midst of my lecture, I paused, looked at the clock, looked back at him, and spoke to him directly, “You need to get to class on time. You are missing too much, and you’re not going to catch up if this continues,” and then continued on with my lecture addressing the whole of the class, while he scowled and spluttered defensively under his breath. After my drawing demo and as I made my rounds of my students’ easels for one-on-one instruction, I paid attention to be especially gentle with him that day, but still he slipped out early, and I worried that I had ruptured any connection I might have hoped to make with this individual student.

As I made my way home that evening, reflecting on my teaching and remembering my own learning, remembering my own experiences as a first year college student, I shook my head with the rueful laughter of self-recognition, realizing that we despise in others those weaknesses we recognize in ourselves, and remembering, in my struggles to adapt to the rigors of the academic system while juggling two and sometimes three jobs, rarely was I able to extricate myself from the demands of work to make it to class on time. I began to show up when I decided I wanted to learn. Still, I troubled over how to help this student, as no amount of stern lecturing on the importance of attendance from my professors ever inspired me to show up on time.

This student solved that problem for me.

The very next session, waylaid by a question from another student on my way to class, I was nearly late myself. In the midst of arranging objects for still life drawing practice as he raced into the classroom and slid into a seat, sweating profusely, I looked at the clock (two minutes early), looked back at him, and rewarded him with my warmest, most welcoming smile, “Nice to see you.” His facial expression shifted from anxiety and resentment to relief, and he responded with a shy, angelic smile of his own.

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