Big Brother cameras inhibit teacher performance


Classroom'Teaching runs in the family like wooden legs,' my mother used to remark. And it was true. My parents, assorted uncles and aunts, and my paternal grandfather were all teachers. The latter started it all, taking an escape route from his publican father and the hated world of hotels.

When I was young, girls could be wives and mothers, nurses or teachers. Marriage did not appeal to me at that stage. As for nursing, I couldn't stand the sight of blood, let alone other messes. In any case, the life of teaching was the only one I knew.

It was a very sheltered and circumscribed one way back then, and the world at large bore an attitude of faint scorn towards teachers. Cushy job. All those holidays. But during the holidays, conscientious people prepared for another term of a job that was far from cushy.

Sad to relate, the information I receive these days indicates that teachers are working harder and more thanklessly than ever.

Grandfather began work with the Education Department of Victoria in 1908 as a pupil-teacher. He was 15, and schools were his life until he was 70. In 1908 the system of teaching inspection was one of Payment by Results, but 55 years later teachers were being inspected and graded. Their salaries no longer depended on examination results. Rather, their prospects of promotion depended on the all-important 'mark'.

I began teaching at 21, at a school in what is now a posh beach resort. Those were the days of external examinations, and it was absolutely no fun teaching The Merchant of Venice to a group of tow-headed surfies who could check the waves from the schoolroom window.

Because I taught in both primary and secondary sections, I was inspected twice that first year. The representatives of the Board of Secondary Inspectors were less fearsome than the despotic District Inspector, who ruled his primary schools with a rod of iron.

I received a good mark, but I was a gibbering wreck for a week, and can still remember, a good 40 years later, the recurring nightmare in which the DI lights a cigarette, stalks up the aisle between the desks, and then stubs the fag out on my upper arm. What Freud would have said I didn't like to imagine.

In Australia last week, Federal and State ministers agreed to a performance-related pay structure for teachers. The idea, an American one, is that short videos will be made of teachers in the classroom. I'm not sure how I feel about this, and I cannot know, either, how Australian teachers feel about it. But educational research these days being as sophisticated as it is, presumably changes in dynamic have been considered.

I once had a very weak and inadequate senior history teacher. His preferred method was to sit in his chair with his feet on the desk and dictate passages from a text-book, underlining what he deemed relevant passages along the way. When the dread Board appeared, he got to his feet, picked up a piece of chalk, and tried to engage us in question-and-answer. Unaccustomed as we were, we gazed at him in consternation.

Needless to say, the lesson was an utter disaster. But it could have been that the Board blamed us rather than him.

What effect will cameras have? The Hellenic American Union, for which I work on occasion, has a practice of making videos of examiners on a random basis. So far I have been lucky, but (you guessed it) I become a gibbering wreck at the mere thought.

Perhaps, in this more media-conscious age, both teachers and pupils will take the whole experience in their stride. Perhaps experienced teachers will be able to pretend the camera is not there. But what are the criteria? Will those individuals with a more flamboyant style be deemed better performers/teachers? The world is geared to the extrovert, after all, and there is no such thing as cosmic justice.

A teacher can never know where his or her influence ends. How sad it would be if such influence was inhibited or changed for the worse by the Big Brother eye of the camera.

'Cameras in classrooms too much: Nelson' (Sydney Morning Herald)


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer based in Greece for 27 years. She has had eight books published, including six for adults published by Penguin Australia. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. She has also worked as a journalist since 1980 and has been published in five countries.


Flickr image by Inx




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Existing comments

Don't worry Gillian. The bar is set very low. Only look at our politicians talking on TV, to see how low.

richard mullins | 29 April 2008  

Law of second best would suggest that when one parameter is absent or altered all parameters have to be altered to achieve second best. Best is an accurate measure performance over a substantial period. This gimic does not even come close to best, second best or any other best else for that matter. It judges a performance without actually measuring performance if you get my gist.

The average student over life at school has basically the average teacher. It is not a popular thought but almost all the differences in student outcomes can be attributed to conditions outside school and even inside school there is a suggestion that good teachers are the ones who get the good students. Better value for money lies elsewhere.

Richard Pickup | 29 April 2008  

Gillian, like you I come from a long line of teachers. Great grandparents, grandparents, fathers and uncles.

Having attempted to 'train' graduates for 20 years in how to teach mathematics I find the current discussion about performance pay stupid. I taught in North America for three years. In all that time I was paid more than my school principal, because I had a decent degree, 12 years experience and knew what I was doing: professional knowledge!

I still see this in many of the teachers of my grandchildren.
Heaven help us if we do the 'American Idyll' teacher as proposed!

Jock McQualter | 30 April 2008  

When I was young I had no idea what I wanted to be when I left school; I did realise though, that I did not want to be a teacher or a nurse. Mainly because I did not have the necessary patience and dedication. I still believe teachers can have a profound influence on the lives of those they teach, but in these days of mounds of administrative paperwork more personal contact becomes so much harder - and the knowledge that judgment is being made by means of a short video would surely influence performance (and not necessarily for the better) - would the students be aware of the camera also? - in which case the unfortunate teacher could hardly try to ignore the same.
One more reason to be glad I did not become a teacher!

Coral Petkovich | 30 April 2008  

Gillian, you make an important point: 'the world is geared to the extrovert'. Today's politicians do not get elected on the substance of their speeches, but the style of performance; their ability to persuade. We elect performing actors who play politicians; who perform on the stage rather than reform the stage itself. We in fact elect speech writers who act as script writers. How else could we explain the election of Ronald Reagan?

david akenson | 01 July 2008  

I am sick and tired to see the teaching profession singled out by a lot of ignorant civil servants telling us how to do our job. I wonder if we should use video to monitor the activities and decisions of so-called financial gurus who have caused so much distress and angst for ordinary people around the world.

Terry Stavridis | 26 November 2008  

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