A Principal’s Evaluation of My Teaching Basic French, or: How to Oppress a Worker Through Performance Evaluation, Part One

The following is the first of several posts that provide a verbatim reply (with a somewhat different order) to a “clinical evaluation” (a performance evaluation of my teaching) made by the principal of Ashern Central School (Ashern, Manitoba, Canada), Neil MacNeil, in the fall of 2011 when I was teaching grades 6, 7 and 8 French. It also includes my “Teacher’s response” to that evaluation.  

For the context of the “clinical evaluation,” see the post  A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and Its Representatives, Part Eight.

As a teacher, I was earning around $85,000 a year at the time. Undoubtedly, according to the social-democratic or social-reformist left, it was a “good job,” “decent work,” and other such clichés. Being under clinical evaluation or supervision, however, was in effect legal torture–and I could not grieve the continued harassment by the principal since it was within management’s rights to “evaluate” a teacher’s performance.

I responded to Mr. MacNeil’s clinical evaluation with an initial 43-page reply, with the then Manitoba Teachers Society  (MTS) staff officer Roland Stankevicius (later General Secretary of the MTS) providing edited suggestions that reduced it to about 30 pages.

Mr. Stankevicius remarked that the evaluation reflected negatively–on Mr. MacNeil:

You have provided a very scholarly response but it needs to be shortened.  I hope you agree with my suggestions. …

You have made your points here.  NM [Neil MacNeil] does not look good in a lot of how he states his observations (in my opinion).

I provide Mr. MacNeil’s assessment grade by grade in separate posts (followed by my reflections (response) that I provided). In other words, the performance evaluation of the three grades is distributed over three posts. Four further posts follow that include Domain I, Professional Responsibilities), with Mr. MacNeil’s comments and my reflections (response), Domains II (Educational Environments), Domain III (Teaching and Learning) and Domain IV (Professional Relationships).

The radical left should expose both what management does and how it does it. Discussion of the situation that various kinds of employees face need to be openly discussed, but to do that it is necessary to expose, in a transparent way, managerial behaviour.

Lakeshore School Division

Teacher Clinical Evaluation Report

Teacher: Fred Harris
School: Ashern Central School
Subject/Grade: MY French; ELA Trans. Focus 30S; SY Support

The teacher and administrator will review Administrative Regulations and Procedures Evaluation Process-Professional Staff (2.3)

  1. Date and Focus of Teacher/Administrator Pre-Conferences and Post Conferences

1. Grade 6 French 2011 11 10 12:45 – 1:25

Pre-conference: “Fred will be asking the class questions; Au Camp de Vacances. Class is working toward eventually creating a vacation camp brochure. Class will work on pages having to do with this topic.

To highlight: Nothing identified. Matthew M. is an issue re: his focus/obsession with certain topics. Fred pointed out the poverty of some of the students, and that this manifests in their behaviours.

Post-conference: Fred was asked about the learning goals of this class, which had not been identified spontaneously in the pre-conference, and were not identified during the class. In conversation with me, it was pointed out that there were several:

– lessening the antagonism students feel toward French as a second language;

– having students learn more about Fred through the questioning of Fred by students about himself during the first 15 minutes of the class;

– encouraging students to hypothesize about the meaning of words and phrases, rather than just “telling” them;

– having students learn that they can take meaning from the images on pp. 4-5 of the “Au Camp de Vacances” handout they have, which is written in French at a level which the students presumably are unable to understand on their own.

We discussed whether students should have learning goals identified for them. I pointed out the research backing doing so; Fred characterized this as unnecessary and counterproductive to the “inductive” methods he is utilizing with them. I also encouraged Fred to at least ensure that the learning goals were clarified in future preconference meetings.

We discussed student engagement and classroom management. I pointed out that a large segment of the class seemed unengaged for much of the class – speaking inappropriately, getting up and moving about the class, braiding hair, etc. Fred characterized this as being due to their being “forced” to learn a second language, something that he believes is inappropriate, and to their own personal struggles in school, at home, etc. Some of the behaviours which concerned me as being very inappropriate – e.g. throwing a paper airplane, getting up and walking around others’ desks for no reason, using a pencil sharpener (which was very noisy, so that hearing the lesson was not possible) when no writing was taking place – Fred in turn did not believe were serious.

I asked how Fred would know what students learned in this class. Fred responded that this would be evident in their quiz marks, or in other ways (unspecified). It was not clear to me what “French” would have been learned in this class, or how one would know whether any learning had taken place.”

Teacher’s Reflections

Grade 6

Re: “Fred was asked about the learning goals of this class, which had not been identified spontaneously in the pre-conference, and were not identified during the class. “

What the administrator calls learning goals was unclear to me at first. It eventually became clearer that he meant the means by which students realize a goal, that is to say, that my understanding of means to a goal or end is what the administrator calls learning goals.

Re: “Post-conference: Fred was asked about the learning goals of this class, which had not been identified spontaneously in the pre-conference, and was not identified during the class. In conversation with me, it was pointed out that there were several: … – having students learn more about Fred through the questioning of Fred by students about himself during the first 15 minutes of the class;”

This statement is a one-sided view. In fact, I asked them if they had any questions about me, and then I would ask them questions about themselves. I took notes (based on a suggestion from a facilitator at a French workshop). I have incorporated such notes in a game, Bataille, that we play (see attachment).

Re: “I pointed out the research backing doing so;”

If there is indeed research, I am certainly willing to read up on the issue. In fact, I indicated during one of the conferences that I would appreciate references so that I could read such research (especially articles since I do not have the time to read many books these days). He claimed that the specification of learning goals was the single most important variable in determining learning. As a philosopher of education, I am skeptical of such wide-sweeping assertions. My understanding of the learning process is that it is much more complicated than that. However, I am certainly open to such a claim and would enjoy reading up on the matter. I wanted to know more.

I did search for an hour at the resources on learning goals that the administrator provided me the day before I received the clinical evaluation report. I found no specific research that justifies the assertion that the specification of learning goals is the most important determinant of learning. Attached is a copy of evidence that I did go on the sites referenced by the administrator. I received the sites for resources only the evening before I received the clinical evaluation, and in effect only read them a little while before receiving the clinical evaluation.

Re: “Fred characterized this as unnecessary and counterproductive to the “inductive” methods he is utilizing with them.”

The use of “ ” marks in this observation may be a sign of a lack of respect for my ideas. The administrator has shown little empathy for my ideas.

See below about reading strategies, the inquiry process and the image or goal.

Re: “I also encouraged Fred to at least ensure that the learning goals were clarified in future preconference meetings.”

I will continue to comply with that request in further lessons.

Re: “The pedagogy to which Fred ascribes (at least as according to our conversations) presupposes a level of motivation to learn and pursue a second language which he identifies as being lacking in most of his students. This has repeatedly been identified by Fred as an issue – that his students do not value the learning of French, and that it is therefore almost futile to be attempting to force them to learn the language.”

The workshops that I have attended have emphasized a pedagogy of asking and answering questions, among other things. I have tried to incorporate that into the process. I will gradually stop translating, when appropriate. For example, when asking certain questions to the students (such as Quel est ton film préféré?=What is your favourite movie?), I do not translate anymore.

There are several goals of having them ask me questions and my asking them questions. Firstly, it is to establish a personal relation between them and myself. The principal, when he informed me that I would no longer be teaching senior-high French, contended that I may lack a personal approach to teaching. I tried to address this contention through this method. When talking with special education teachers and educational assistants time and again the issue of establishing a working relationship with such students was emphasized. I am by nature a rather private person (I did, after all, obtain a doctorate because I like to do independent study), but I have decided to open up more in order to achieve that goal. Secondly, it is a way of learning about their interests, and for their learning about my interests. It is also to learn about them and how I may be able to incorporate such information into my teaching. For example, from the questions that the students have asked me, I can infer that they do not see me as having a history; there have been only two questions about my childhood, one having to do with where I was born and the other having to do with my favourite video games when I was a child. I may have the students personalize a conversation and then have them imagine themselves as adults and how the conversation might change as a result. Thirdly, I am concerned with the attitude of the students towards the French language; I want to avoid their developing a negative attitude. Attitude is important in learning any subject. Fourthly, I have also gained an insight into the daily interests of some of the grade 6 students. For example, both Joseph and Draizen play PS-3 at home. Matthew Riley likes to play tag and help his foster father; he also likes to watch television, in particular CSI: New York. Emily likes to go horseback riding and play with her dogs and cats. As I indicated above, I have incorporated some of this knowledge into the game Bataille.

At a more philosophical level, the purpose of my asking questions is to link the everyday experiences (common-sense experience—something which Dewey emphasizes) of the students to the French language. That they are not learning “French” per se is not the point. The point is that they are learning that French, like English, is a way of communicating our experiences and lives in this world—a way of sharing our experiences—something which only human beings can do; human beings are social beings (one of the most constant experiences that people have in their lives is—other human beings). It is also to demystify the French (or, for that matter, any other language). The fact that all the students in the classroom already are capable of conversing in a language, and that fact is something which they share with all other human beings on this planet, needs to be recognized. It is a cultural issue. Being able to speak French is something similar to what they are already capable of doing—speaking a language. On the other hand, the fact that their experiences (and mine) can be expressed in another language is designed to decrease the distance between their lives and the French language, even if in terms of an attitude.

In addition to the use of questions, I have used other strategies to teach “reading across the curriculum.” There are certain techniques or strategies that are useful regardless of the language or subject. I have taken two full courses in reading strategies, one at the postbaccalaureate level and the other at the graduate level (one specifically for reading clinicians—which I thought of becoming at one point).

Pre-reading is a recognized strategy for the reading process. Looking at titles and pictures is a recognized pre-reading strategy.

Some students did use their inference skills to arrive at an understanding of the title. They also learned or practiced that the use of pictures can lead to a preliminary understanding about what the text is about. Perhaps the process could have been shortened somewhat, but learning a strategy requires time. Furthermore, it is appropriate to use part of the title, “L’arrivée,” to have them try to use their knowledge of the English language to come to a conclusion about the meaning of the “L’arrivée.” Another learning strategy for French is to use our own English background to learn more French. The English language does contain many French words.

I asked them how they knew (a bit of metacognitive recognition), and some indicated that they saw the pictures and guessed what it would be about.

In the second place, in addition to attempting to incorporate a declared goal of the Division of incorporating reading strategies into the lesson, I attempted to incorporate another strategy that is applicable across the curriculum: the method of inquiry.

From my dissertation:

Dewey defines inquiry thus: “Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole” (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, p. 108). An indeterminate situation arises objectively when the relation between people and their environment is undergoing change that disturbs the relation in some way. Dewey’s definition of inquiry implies that a problematic situation contains two essential elements that inquiry must address: an indeterminate situation and a disconnected situation. The situation requires both clarification and unification. It is this process of clarification and unification that constitutes the learning or educational process in general.”

The inquiry process was the process of inferring from the word “arrivée” what it might mean. The meaning had to make sense in the context of “L’arrivée au Camp Boisvert” and not just by itself. When one student said “arrived,” the context indicated that it did not make sense: “The arrived at Camp Boisvert.” So I pursued the issue until someone inferred that arrival made sense—meaning is, after all, what comprehension involves. Making sense (comprehension) is essential when learning a language (as it is when learning to read—that is why analysis of reading errors in such works as Jerry Johns’ Reading Inventory differentiates substitution errors, in part, as meaningful (they are substitutions which make sense in the context and indicate reading for meaning) from substitutions that do not make sense. Substitution errors that make sense are not counted as errors for the purpose of remediation since the reader is reading for meaning.

In addition to the idea of incorporating reading strategies and inquiry into the process of learning French, I have tried, undoubtedly in an experimental form, to incorporate the notion of “psychologizing the subject matter.” (See attachment). The students know how to speak English and use it evidently on a daily basis—and they also, implicitly, know many French words even though they do not explicitly realize it. I was trying to have them learn, implicitly, what they might already know, even if in a vague way (a technique used since Socrates and exemplified in Plato’s dialogues). This does not mean that they do actually use French words; however, they do use many words which are similar if not identical in spelling in both languages. Since the English equivalent is part of their everyday (psychological) experience, the focus on such words may lead them into a realization that they already know many French words.

Telling students that they know many similar words in French does not, in my experience, have much effect in actually having the students use such knowledge to develop their vocabulary; only those inclined to the use of deduction favour this method (that is how I expanded my French and Spanish vocabulary). When, however, they discover for themselves that such words are similar, the point may well be driven home more effectively.

Once we finished going over pages 4 and 5, we went over explicitly the words that are similar in English and French. They came up with about 30 words.

We may also have a competition between two or three teams to see who can come up with the maximum number of words similar in English and French.

Re: “Fred has resisted the notion that specific learning goals for students should be clarified and shared with students, but has begun to take some steps in this direction.”

I have no problem with the idea of specifying the learning goals—now that I understand that they often are a listing of what the students are expected to learn (in my terms, the means to an end). For most people, as I argue in my dissertation, it is the ends that are considered to be more important than the means by which those ends are realized. People need to learn to focus more on the means, not by focusing on them at the beginning, but indirectly, by coming to realize that the goal without the means is nothing but a chimera—a vague image or goal.

John Lennon, in his song, Beautiful Boy, sang something analogously: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The idea is linked to the concept of the situated curriculum (see attached). Learning often occurs when you are busy doing other things. By creating a family tree, the students are learning to use the possessive adjectives (mon, ma and, in some cases, mes). They are not consciously doing that, but as they attempt to realize the vague goal (and it is vague because of a different environment—French—although it is not vague in relation to their native English language).

Re: “Fred has not indicated any significant understanding of either the importance of formative assessment [feedback by the teacher of a student’s learning, whether the feedback is verbal or written]  during a class, nor of how to effectively carry out the process. When I’ve questioned how Fred would know whether students are progressing effectively in their use of French, Fred has repeatedly referred to the subsequent use of summative assessments (at some future date) as indicating this progress.” [Summative assessments are marks or grades.] 

I certainly agree that my formative assessment skills can be honed—like any other skill. To claim, however, that I fail to understand the importance of formative assessment a complete lack of understanding of my position.

In the University Laboratory School (also known as the Dewey School), as far as I have been able to determine, there was nothing but formative assessment. This feature of the school caused some difficulties when the students were to prepare for college entrance, but provision was made for addressing the issue. Since the Dewey School was designed to be an experimental school, where hypotheses were formulated about the best conditions for learning, tested and modified, depending on the circumstances. Since no summative assessment was performed until the later years, and only then for the purpose of preparing the students for entry into college, it can be inferred that formative assessment was an ideal ground for learning.

Furthermore, the implied claim that I do not understand the importance of the present moment rather than the future misses entirely my position.

From my dissertation:

Dewey, by contrast, considers that the prehistoric pattern of mind still functions, though in modified form, in present conditions and that it has some positive attributes. One of the major positive attributes for Dewey is the capacity to focus on the present situation. For Dewey, the present is where the life process centers, and the past and future are relative to the living present. The past divorced from the present is dead, and the future divorced from the present is fantasy.1

Dewey gives the example of hunting in prehistoric times (1902/1976e). He outlines what differentiates it from other modes of living or acting. It is much less concerned with the mediation process or the objective side of the relationship between human beings and their environment. Its focus has more to do with the subjective side of the life process, and the subjective side, or the animate term of the life process, is always a living present. The concerns of prehistoric peoples are largely related to the personal side and not to the impersonal side of the life process. The rhythm of life is characterized by a tension that is personally felt; the stages of the life process focus on the personal at the expense of the objective. This mode of the life process is characterized by the drama, where superficiality in the treatment of phenomena is compensated by the degree of intensity of the emotions and the sharpness of attention in the use of the senses for the purpose of enhancing the personal side, such as increased acquisition and display of skills.

This personal aspect of the life process is preserved in the modern life process in the form of the “pursuit of truth, plot interest, business adventure and speculation, to all intense and active forms of amusement, to gambling and the `sporting life’” (1902/1976e, 45). Educationally, Dewey uses the hunting occupation as a model by which to criticize various theories and practices that purport to be educational but which violate the principle of the life process centering on the present and its potentialities and possibilities. In chapter five of Democracy and education (1916/1980a), for example, Dewey refers to education as preparation. This way of defining education is still prevalent in modern schools—preparation for obtaining a job, for further studies and so forth. The activity engaged in by the child is supposed to be useful in the future rather than functional now. Since the use of a structure is an integral part in the formation of the structure—function mediates structure—then the separation of the formation of the structure from its use in the vague future leads to ineffective and distorted structures that do not effectively contribute to the living present, either now or in the future.

Education needs to be preparation for confrontation of the present situation, which includes the past as relevant to the identification of the nature of the present problematic situation and to the future as the hypothesized solution to the present situation. The present, however, is still the focus since it is only the tension within the present life process that converts the past into something relevant or meaningful to the present, and the future potentialities of present conditions are likewise only meaningful in relation to the present life process:

Men are engaged neither in mechanical transposition of the conditions they have inherited, nor yet in simply preparing for something to come after. They have their own problems to solve; their own adaptations to make. They face the future, but for the sake of the present, not the future. In using what has come to them as an inheritance from the past they are compelled to modify it to meet their own needs, and this process creates a new present in which the process continues. (1938/1986, 238)

When the potentialities of the present situation are divorced from the formation of structures, then something external to the present must be attached to present behaviour—rewards and punishment. There is little wonder that Skinner’s concept of reinforcement, which focuses on the provision of an external reward having little to do with the activity, forms an essential component of the school system—the latter operates on an impoverished notion of education as preparation.

For Dewey, then, prehistoric life has something to teach us—the importance of the present as the locus for the relevance of the past and the future. Education is not preparation for some possible experience in the vague future. Freire’s philosophy, it is true, escapes some of the problems associated with defining education as preparation by incorporating some of the present problems of the peasants into the curriculum, but Freire’s abstraction from the life process a such prevents him from appreciating the positive aspect of prehistoric life and from incorporating those positive aspects into his educational philosophy and practice.

The Deweyan educational model incorporates the appreciation for the present living process whereas the Freirean model, though not excluding it, does not integrate it in the form of an appreciation of prehistoric life. Freire’s model, despite the emphasis on subjectivity, ironically, veers more towards the objective moment by treating prehistoric life as a stage to be overcome rather than a stage that is one-sided and that hence requires to be balanced by a more stable process of control of the objective conditions for human experience.”

On the other hand, I do recognize that there is often a sharp conflict between formative and summative assessment. Summative assessment is important at the public level, for other institutions, for example, as well as for scholarships; it is much more future oriented and divorced from present conditions. There is a conflict between the importance of formative assessment, which is designed for improving learning, and summative assessment, which is designed for other purposes. The different purposes easily come into conflict.

I am in total agreement with the administrator concerning the importance of formative assessment in the process of learning. Ideally, there should be nothing but formative assessment. [For a critique of grades, see the post   The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services. That post also contains a short description of a meeting between the principal, the superintendent Janet Martell,  and Mr. Stankeviciuse concerning the issue of formative versus summative assessment.] 

Re: “We discussed student engagement and classroom management. I pointed out that a large segment of the class seemed unengaged for much of the class – speaking inappropriately, getting up and moving about the class, braiding hair, etc. Fred characterized this as being due to their being “forced” to learn a second language, something that he believes is inappropriate, and to their own personal struggles in school, at home, etc. Some of the behaviours which concerned me as being very inappropriate – e.g. throwing a paper airplane, getting up and walking around others’ desks for no reason, using a pencil sharpener (which was very noisy, so that hearing the lesson was not possible) when no writing was taking place – Fred in turn did not believe were serious.”

The administrator, during our first postconference, claimed that the throwing of an airplane by one of the students constituted outrageous behaviour (that is the adjective that he used). I indicated during the discussion that we undoubtedly had different definitions of what outrageous means. I saw what the student did, and addressed the issue by minimizing disruption of the class.

To use the adjective “outrageous” for the act of throwing an airplane in class certainly put me on the defensive. I was wondering why the administrator would use such an adjective for this situation.

I would reserve the adjective “outrageous” to the probable living conditions of several students in that class. Although I have never been inside one of the houses of my students, I did drive one student (not mine), during one cold winter night in the winter of 2008-2009 to his house in the countryside (he knocked on the door and wanted to warm up a bit). Although the exterior of a house need not characterize the interior, if the former did indeed characterize the latter, then the living conditions of that student probably approached what I had experienced as a child.

Ashern Central School probably has a level of poverty comparable to schools in the inner city of Winnipeg ]Manitoa, Canada]. I also have experience with those schools in two ways. I substitute taught for a number of years in inner-city schools (I had been taking special education courses since 2001); Finally, when I was teaching two grade ten geography classes in French immersion at Oak Park High School in Charleswood (Winnipeg), one of my students set off a stink bomb in the class. The vice principal, who was responsible for discipline issues, warned the student and threatened that if he did anything else silly, he would oblige him to transfer to the class with fewer students, but his friends were in the class with more students.) A stink bomb is certainly more serious than throwing a paper airplane (it disrupted several classes since students could not study there for awhile.)

I did not find the throwing of a paper airplane to be outrageous behaviour; it was inappropriate, but it was hardly outrageous. I addressed the issue quietly and without disturbing the rest of the class.

I disagree with the administrator’s use of the phrase “large segment” (I would use “some”), some of the administrator’s observations concerning classroom management are valid and useful. When I study, I have the fan on—it helps me concentrate. I was not even aware of the sharpening of the pencil. I need to be more “with it,” to use an expression during my bachelor of education days. In fact, I used such an observation in my grade 7 French class recently to call into question the act of a student who got up and started to sharpen his pencil while I was giving instructions. There was no need to sharpen a pencil when he did so. I also need to be more consistent in my application of rules. I also did not notice that one of the students had not opened the booklet. I have tried to rectify the situation by being more “with it.”

I asked the teacher of this class last year about this class, and the teacher indicated that it was a very challenging class.

In addition, there was another teacher present while I was teaching this class. I have talked to this teacher at other times, and she has indicated that many students did listen much more to the classroom teacher than they did to her. This does not mean that they should not have listened to her; however, it is necessary to contextualize the behaviour of this class and realize that behavioural issues in this class have a past that extends beyond my French class both temporally and spatially.

Re: “I asked how Fred would know what students learned in this class. Fred responded that this would be evident in their quiz marks, or in other ways (unspecified). It was not clear to me what “French” would have been learned in this class, or how one would know whether any learning had taken place.”

I have answered this issue in relation to the reading strategy and the inquiry process. In terms of the reading strategy, I thought that the use of the inquiry process was appropriate. There is more to learn than just the subject matter.

1 Calore (1989) claims that Dewey’s theory, unlike those of Bergson, Mead and Whitehead, involves “ontological parity” between the past, present and future; unlike those philosophers, here is no ontological privileging of the present. Such an interpretation runs counter to the tenor of Dewey’s philosophy, where the past and the future are always functions of present living conditions.