Acton Commentary

Teachers Need to be Taught, Too!


The Book of Proverbs provides much insight into the living of a virtuous life and its truths are as valid today as they were nearly three thousand years ago. In the verse above, the author of Proverbs warns us that the person who hates being corrected is a person who is not wise and not likely ever to become so. No one enjoys being criticized, but most recognize that criticism and correction are essential for learning and living a virtuous life.

Two years ago, five Californians, including two teachers, began a Web site designed to give students the opportunity to offer just that type of correction and criticism to their teachers. The site, Ratemyteachers.com , allows students to rate their teachers’ classroom performance, based on such criteria as “clarity” and “helpfulness”. Since its inception in 2001, students from 13,369 schools across the US and Canada have rated over 197,600 teachers.

Many teachers, no doubt, find this disturbing, as teachers at all levels tend to think tenure not only assures them a job, but protects them from criticism and evaluation as well. Already, over 100 schools and/or districts have blocked student access to the site via school computers. Sadly, a large share of private and parochial schools have joined their government school colleagues in restricting student access to the site. The fact that many private and parochial schools discourage this type of evaluation is a further indication that government school groupthink has spilled over into the private school culture.

To be sure, there are a vast number of teachers—the unsung heroes of education—who do their job with great devotion, skill, and love. These are the teachers whose influence on young lives is lasting, first and foremost, because they bear witness to the love and discipline of learning. For teachers such as these, feedback and evaluation from their students has never been a cause for concern. However, for those teachers for whom mediocrity is the highest virtue, the fact that they might receive a report card from their students is simply more than they can bear.

Other teachers see Ratemyteachers.com as a platform for angry or mischievous students to attack teachers and damage reputations. Although the Web site is designed to filter out inappropriate language and to prevent students from making multiple entries, this can never be completely ruled out. Gordon Williams, a teacher at Brooklyn Tech High School, who was given a failing grade by the student-raters dismissed the ratings, telling the New York Post: “It’s geared to the student who’s got a beef. It’s unfair.”

This particular rating system may indeed be unfair, although that has yet to be illustrated. But it brings into the light a much larger and more important issue. Education should be governed, where appropriate, by market-based incentives, and people are beginning to realize this. For some years, school districts have been offering to parents a general and vague report card on their teaching staffs, but now student are demanding to have their own say. As Nancy Davis, co-founder of Ratemyteachers.com, told the New York Post , “Teachers haven’t come under this type of scrutiny (before). The students are the consumers.”

This simple point—the recognition that students are the recipients of a service, paid for by the taxes of their parents—represents a fundamental shift in thinking regarding education. It also places a moral demand on teachers, a demand that has always been present but which is finally being recognized for what it is. Teachers had grown accustomed to being the beneficiaries of taxpayer-funded educational entitlements, compliments of teacher unions and of tenure (a bond with greater protection in law than marriage these days). Given the crisis-level failure of contemporary educational institutions and methods, teachers no longer find themselves immune from the forces of today’s meritocratic market. More and more, teachers are required to demonstrate merit and competence—in other words, to know their subject matter, to be able to teach it effectively with clarity and precision, and to live up to the appropriate expectations of the parents and students that they serve.

Teachers today are called to do what the author of the Book of Proverbs attempted to do so many years ago: to pass on to students, not merely information, but understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. The correction that comes from students evaluating their teachers can be an indispensable source of information to educators as they attempt to live out their vocation of service to students—a vocation that requires competence in the practice of instilling a love of truth and a desire for wisdom.“Stop listening to the words of instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge” (Proverbs 19: 27). Learning never ends and the person who loves truth enough to chance imparting it understands that, in some instances, the teacher should become the taught.