Bugs in Teachers’ Ears? What We Should Be Doing Instead.

EdWeek re-ran a piece this week about teachers getting remote coaching via earpieces from ‘experts’–always the experts! –who were watching them teach via live video feed:

Virtual teacher-coaching services have become more popular in recent years—teachers record their lessons, and remote coaches review the videos and offer feedback. This approach has been especially popular in rural schools, or in districts that can’t afford to staff their own coaches.

But bug-in-ear coaching takes the approach one step further, happening in the moment. It’s a harder sell to both coaches and teachers, experts say, since it requires a level of vulnerability among both parties.

John Merrow responded with a hilarious send-up of what that might look like, in real life: Insect-based Teacher Training.  Once I stopped laughing, though, I started pondering just who would benefit from a Secret Agent Man earpiece, in any skill-based occupation that depends almost entirely on human communication.

A remote observer may be able to talk a novice plumber through fixing a leaky pipe– or teach someone to master a person-thing activity, like brushing teeth or scrambling an egg. For any consequential task involving human ethics, however, the idea is absurd.

Would an attorney be willing to argue a high-stakes case in court with a remote advisor providing nick-of-time legal precedents? Could a therapist ever learn to trust someone miles away sorting through pre-set responses to the pain happening in front of their eyes?

The very idea is ‘unnerving and demeaning declares Carol Burris. Diane Ravitch says it ‘assumes teachers know nothing.’ Aside from sales-cheerleaders and Education Week reporters who are always looking for controversy to boost their clicks, why should anyone pay attention to such obvious bait?

Well.

The question is not ‘Are ear bugs for teachers a good idea?’ They’re not. The question is why they’re being actively pursued in the field of K-12 education, to the evident great interest and approval of school administrators, researchers and education media.

What is it about teachers (as opposed to, say, dentists or insurance agents or plastic surgeons) that makes people think their practice can actually be improved by canned protocols, whispered into their ears when they’re in the thick of their professional work?

Clearly, this plays into what Audrey Watters brilliantly dissected last week—the seductive but false idea that Technology Will Save Education! Also, it reflects the now-widespread acceptance of the concept that test scores are reality, and anything done to improve them is worth the cost. It reinforces the media myth that’s been hanging around for a few decades: teachers are the bottom of the barrel, academically—those who can’t, teach, and they’re populating a large percentage of our classrooms.

But it goes much deeper than that. It’s worth dissecting, rather than just blowing the bugs off as another insulting joke.

Here’s the nub of it: Nobody (except bona fide educators) really gets what the work of teaching actually is. We had the perfect illustration of that in ‘Waiting for Superman’ as the little flip-top cartoon heads came down the conveyor belt, ready to be filled with knowledge.

Contrary to popular opinion and Davis Guggenheim, that’s not what good teachers do. Good teachers begin with knowing their students and caring about their learning. Until that essential step takes place, not much happens—no transmission of content, no application of skills, no regurgitation of knowledge as data. Good teaching is always, always about human connections, human judgment and context.

Go back to those paragraphs from the EdWeek article—where remote evaluators watch videos and prescribe fixes for teachers’ perceived technical weaknesses. This practice skips right over relationships, personal commitment and all-important context, focusing on discrete behaviors instead.

For a time, this video evaluation of teachers was all the rage in Gatesland. It was frequently compared to National Board Certification, a process that also uses videotaped lessons. The difference–and this was never made clear in the breathless excitement over the use of technology to grade teaching–is that candidates for National Board Certification watch and analyze themselves, using explicit standards for professional teaching. The National Board assesses teachers’ ability to analyze their own work—they do not tell teachers what they’re ‘doing wrong’ or how to ‘fix’ their weaknesses, in order to ‘pass’ the assessment.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has adapted their assessment recently, to better align with major national education initiatives—but the initial work on NB Certification was done to establish and support full-blown teacher professionalism, the idea that teachers, in their individual classrooms, are best positioned to know what their students need, design learning experiences to reach those goals, and evaluate whether their instruction has been successful—and determine what to do next.

Teaching involves hundreds of daily decisions made on the fly. Experienced teachers make better decisions, not because someone has murmured the ‘right’ tactic into their ear. Only a thoughtful teacher who is paying attention to live responses and results can build a sturdy set of protocols that work for them. Even then, the best veteran teachers are continuously learning from their miscues and bad choices, which are coming at them faster than anyone observing from afar can interpret.

Remote judgment is a misuse of timeless principles of assessment and evaluation. It dismisses trust as a core value in the teaching-learning relationship–are students going to trust the teacher who’s taking cues from an invisible wizard? It suggests that teachers can’t trust their own judgment. It ignores context–and context is everything in learning that sticks to brains.

Perhaps the worst thing is that this practice further paints teachers as both clueless and compliant.

The EdWeek piece, ironically, touches on something important in noting that teachers’ growth and improvement depends on vulnerability. It is this willingness to say ‘I can do better’ that starts the process of real growth.

The informal practice of teachers voluntarily opening their doors to observe and be observed is how we could all become better. So simple! Why isn’t that the cornerstone of all professional learning?

We could also admit that teaching takes years to master, so routinely giving novice teachers fewer responsibilities, more buddies and partner teachers, plus friendly on-site feedback, assuring them that one size never fits all, would help enormously. Deming says ‘remove all threats and fear’—and he’s right.

We could embrace reflection and journaling by everyone, newbie and vet, and provide time for deep, purposeful conversations about our work and our students. We could use established models for what accomplished teaching looks like or invent our own. We could develop the habit of never being satisfied.

None of these would cost more, in terms of time, resource allocation and capital outlay, than putting bugs in teachers’ ears. So why aren’t we doing them?

Until teachers can define, defend and control their own professional work, we will be vulnerable to junk ideas.

Eastern-boxelder-bug

2 Comments

  1. My peers and I are so fortunate to have grown up when we did, while America education was still number one in the world, and as a teacher, I sought to improve upon what I had learned as any good teacher will do, but also utilize the wonderful experiences and insights of my former teachers. They taught reading and writing well, my mathematics was encouraged, and we learned responsibility if we didn’t wish to keep visiting the principal’s office or remain in the same grade, some going to summer school to finish what they hadn’t completed. Having gone to several schools, having a variety of committed teachers, I learned, but also learned to think for myself, for it would be through my efforts, sometimes with friends, that I would get better grades. And in middle school, when I finally earned honor rolls, I knew I had done it. Putting in the work, I set myself for the future, for I knew I could learn anything if I put my mind to it. After a few years of working in different fields, as some of my peers, returning to college with an understanding was very helpful.
    As a teacher, I knew the importance of teaching writing, but also the importance of challenging the kids in both grammar and thinking. In their essays, I would ask how they arrived at conclusions. Was it through personal experiences, which they need to relate, from other authors, which they need to cite, but also what it their understanding. With projects and both history and science, I sought to teach them cause and effect. Reasoning. And if the realized something I hadn’t, I wanted them to share. Discussion in classes, as I see it, is very important, both to open the lines of honest conversations, but to teach debate in a civil environment. Sometimes I challenged, sometimes I didn’t to encourage the quieter kids to participate.
    As I see it, school encompasses teachers who have both an education but also practical experiences. Teachers are the ones who think for themselves, want the kids to be responsible and also think for themselves, and hope the little ones grow up as fine young men and ladies, ready to take on responsibilities for the next generation. Some of the more interesting conversations, though I taught the higher grades in elementary and middle school, was with the little ones (siblings and those who wandered our way, even on the bus) who already knew what they wanted to do. Delightful conversations. A couple were very insightful at such a young age, and I could only imagine the conversations they had with their parents.
    Life is good. But there was something magical while growing up. Playing outdoors, getting into trouble, digging through the dumpsters for bicycle parts and carpets for our tree forts, creating games. Our teachers sometimes had inventive projects, and we had vocational electives, and they left it up to us to find what we wanted to be, though we had a few career people show us other options. Like my father said, he never knew what I would do but figured I would figure it out (In the mean time, I had chores, mowed neighbors’ lawns, and took on a few part-time jobs.). Perhaps, that was a great gift. Letting me figure it all out while he worked and provided, my parents always there.
    With time, we read more and more, learning about history and the difficulties of the past. There’s an old saying, that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Many of those lessons are here, today. The difficulties we see were demonstrated by countries past and present, but also predicted by the founding fathers, both federalists and anti-federalists discussing their concerns as well. We can learn so much from many who endured those difficult times, those who endured the world wars and cold wars, and those who experience first-hand the grueling experiences of a people who don’t understand cause and effect and the search for real understanding. Theory is always good to discuss, but practical experiences and lessons are perhaps more important.
    For students in my class, I would always encourage them to think for themselves. With some things, that’s easy. In others research. And in still others, a lifetime of research. But in this, thinking for themselves, they learn to question what they read and hear, but also to encourage the same in their own future children after they grow up and get married. Then, the next generation continues learning and discussions within families and friends, even neighbors, and this becomes a dynamic for improvements. We are what we do and what we set as an example.

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