Last week in this space I took a poke or two at what I called “Insect-Based Teacher Training,” specifically the practice of wiring teachers so that remote observers can hear and see what they do in their classrooms. What they call “Bug in the Ear training” enables experts to interrupt teachers and tell them what they are doing wrong. In theory, that allows teachers to improve on the spot. You may remember that the expert I observed in action wasn’t particularly effective.
(Full disclosure: In last week’s essay I took a small liberty with the two veteran teachers whose opinions I cited: neither of them actually referenced ‘ants in underpants’ or ‘ticks on dicks.’ I owe my readers an apology because the teachers did not say that. I made that up, just for the fun of it.
Why would I do that? Well, after so many years of reporting for public broadcasting, where the emphasis is on truth, making stuff up gives me a huge adrenalin rush.
However, everything else in that essay is 100% accurate. You can take that to the bank.)
But I digress. What I want you to know is the morning after “Insect-Based Teacher Training” was published, I received a call from the School Superintendent whose district I had visited. He was upset about my portrayal of the process, saying that the observer had a bad day. Moreover, he said, I had failed to grasp the subtle, significant ways that technology improves education. Would I come back and learn more, he asked?
I rushed out the door, and a few hours later the Superintendent and I were in the school’s monitoring room, staring at the 30+ video screens that showed all the school’s classrooms.
I wanted to hear his defense of the “Bug in the Ear” approach. Would he have wanted to have a bug in his ear when he was teaching, I wanted to know?
“I actually never taught,” came his response. “I came up the ranks through coaching.”
Then he chuckled. “That’s an old joke, superintendents starting out as coaches. I was never a coach either.”
What was his background, I wanted to know?
“I studied organizational behavior in college, and then, for my MBA, I focused on management.”
He continued: “But that’s not why I asked you to come back,” he said. “I want you to see another way that monitoring and advanced technology improve teaching and learning.”
Go on, I said.
“From this control board, I can zoom in on any classroom. I can pump up the volume to allow me to hear much of what was going on.”
What exactly are you looking for, I asked?
“Look, every student deserves to be taught the same material in the same way. That’s what equality and equity mean, as far as I am concerned. We have a state curriculum, and this is a great way to monitor whether my teachers are where they are supposed to be.”
Tell me more, I said.
“OK, look at those three screens in upper right. Those are all 8th grade math classes. Now, today is Tuesday, and, according to the state syllabus, Tuesday’s assignment is learning to graph integers on vertical and horizontal lines. That means that all the students in all three classrooms should be doing worksheets right now. Otherwise they’re not getting an equal education.”
In two of the rooms we could see students working at their desks, but not in the third classroom. The superintendent zoomed in and turned up the sound. We could hear laughter but couldn’t discern what was being said.
“That’s unacceptable. I need to be able to hear clearly. I have to get my tech guys on this right away,” he muttered.
Why do you need to hear, I asked?
“I’m enrolled in an on-line PhD program,” he explained. “This is research for my dissertation, which is on the benefits that technology brings to education.”
But will you talk to that teacher, I asked?
“You bet your boots I will. I may even play the tapes for him so he can see his failures in living color.”
Do your teachers know that you can watch them at any time, I asked?
“We’ve never discussed it, but it shouldn’t bother them if they’re doing their jobs. It’s no big deal, unless, of course, they have something to hide,” he said.
I said that it seemed like the world of “Big Brother,” always watching.
He actually erupted when I said that. “That’s a pet peeve of mine, people criticizing Big Brother. I think the idea of Big Brother is a positive one. I mean, what kid wouldn’t want to have his Big Brother watching his back, protecting him? I sure would! But, no, everyone hates Big Brother….except me.”
He went on. “You know whose fault it is? It’s that writer, Orwell. Remember how in Animal Farm he makes Big Brother the bad guy? Well, everyone reads Animal Farm in school, and that’s what makes them biased against Big Brother.”
I wanted to ask him about the pigs, but instead I bit my lip and went home.