Teachers view classroom appraisal visits with some scepticism, if not downright cynicism (and also, let it be said, with some trepidation.)
“How can a single visit measure my teaching!?” teachers ask scornfully. And then they say with impressive bravado, “Well, you won’t find me doing anything different just because of some inspection next week… I will teach as I’ve always taught – no window-dressing from me.” Brave words.
But then, of course, they promptly put every effort into prepping and polishing that special lesson designed to impress. (Not to mention also preparing the pupils, because the last thing you need is what happened to me. A precocious young villain pronounced to the visitor, “Don’t mind our teacher, sir – he’s not normally like this. Today he’s just showing off!”)
As a young teacher, I too trotted out the showy lesson for a visiting subject adviser. To my mind, it was a masterpiece worthy of at least an Academy nomination, if not an Oscar. It had it all: a dramatic demonstration with a working model, flashy visual props, charts… you name it. I looked forward expectantly to her report.
But her appearance should have warned me. She had a stern bearing, backed up by a severely pinned bun in her hair and a strict grey blouse-and-jacket outfit. And no make-up.
“A pretty performance,” she said dismissively. “But too flashy.” She continued, her lips in a thin line, “Consider this: Do you remember as a child being given presents from well-meaning relatives? Beautifully wrapped though they were, as a child you would simply tear off and cast aside the fancy paper without a thought. In the same way, your presentation was merely wrapping paper!” She pinned me with steely eyes as her briefcase closed with a snap. Her final command was: “Discard the wrapping paper! Get to the gift – the priceless gift – of knowledge!”
The next time I was inspected, a different official arrived. He was more flamboyant. His hair was shoulder-length and unkempt, and a flashy red tie with yellow daisies over a fancy shirt caught the eye.
But, having heeded the previous subject inspector’s advice, my lesson was a plain affair. No frills, no bells and whistles. Just down-to-earth teaching.
He, too, was not impressed. “An adequate lesson,” he said, in a (by now) familiar dismissive tone. With arms gesticulating expressively, he demanded rhetorically, “But where was the theatre?” He pointed a dramatic finger at me: “Consider this: what attracts children to educational toys in a shop? The colourful box in which the toy is packed! This is what was absent in your lesson today!” He made his exit with a parting shot: “Remember: the gift of knowledge is so precious, that to inspire, it must always be brightly wrapped!”
Naturally somewhat confused, I later consulted with old Mr Bicheno in the classroom next door. He had comforting words: “Classroom visits are really just a game. In other careers it’s called ‘Impressing the Boss’. Real education is much deeper. Tell me, what score would you have given yourself for the two appraisal lessons?”
This put things in a new light. “Six out of 10 for each,” I admitted, “but not for the reasons they gave. Rather, for not getting the balance right between teaching and learning.”
Bruce Pinnock recently retired from teaching at St Alban’s College in Gauteng.