Written by: Mitch Donat
The United States Department of Education’s mission statement includes “to encourage the involvement of the public, parents and students.” However, students tend to conceal themselves behind walls of shyness, limiting their own involvement in the system. This is especially true when it comes to expressing their approval, or more importantly disapproval, of teachers. Bad teachers are a part of life—most can concur with this statement. However, students have the ability and right to raise their voices about these bad teachers and flawed policies and make changes that better the school and their future.
According to the Palo Alto Educators Association’s (PAEA) Collective Bargaining Agreement with the district, all staff members are required to collect input from students in grades six through 12 while providing opportunities for student anonymity. Staff members may devise feedback forms in any way they like and then collect the feedback at the end of each semester. According to Principal Katya Villalobos, the collected feedback is shared with the teacher’s Instructional Supervisor (IS). However, how the teacher and IS deal with the students’ feedback is up to them. This system poses numerous problems. First, collecting feedback once a semester is not nearly enough to ensure maximum performance. Many classes at Gunn only last for one semester; therefore, by the time teachers collect feedback, the teacher’s students have already left for a different class. Once a semester is too infrequent. But if a student wishes to give a teacher feedback directly, this poses another problem: personal connections. Most students wouldn’t go face to face with their teacher to raise a complaint at the fear of losing this connection. And if they do, it has the potential to raise tensions between the student and teacher.
Another major issue the current student feedback system poses is that teachers aren’t consistent in their feedback questions. The contract states neither that teachers are required to have a certain number of questions, nor that the questions need to cover certain areas. For example, if a teacher’s homework policy is completely absurd to a student, he may not have the chance to raise his voice on the issue because the teacher’s feedback doesn’t list any questions about it. The same problem of teachers not listing certain questions on their feedback can be applied to numerous issues, not just homework policies. Teachers aren’t even required to include a critical miscellaneous comments section, where students could mention their concerns over certain areas not mentioned.
Finally, the student feedback system is ineffective because many teachers don’t respond to the feedback effectively. There is no solid method for how the teacher and his or her IS deal with the feedback. According to Villalobos, if there is an ongoing complaint in the feedback, there will be a meeting between the teacher, IS and administrator. However, the problem is that the IS and administrator have no way to enforce that the teacher responds to the feedback effectively. Punishment isn’t necessary, but enforcing that the teacher responds to the feedback effectively is. It’s apparent that students’ involvement in the course evaluation is minor and that many teachers’ responses to commonplace complaints are poor as well.
It’s clear that the amount of constructive criticism teachers receive and adjustments they make from the set feedback process is very low. To improve teachers’ methods and help the students and school, Gunn needs to adopt an open door, anonymous feedback system. This system should allow students to remain anonymous, in order to eliminate the fear of losing personal connections with the teacher. The system also needs to be open everyday, 24/7. To make sure teachers respond to the feedback, it will also go to their IS and an administrator. If a teacher is receiving far too many complaints on the same topic, the IS and administrator will meet with that teacher until the complaints are addressed. With this system, students will always have the option to give teachers constructive criticism that can help teachers improve and students succeed.
Instead of complaining to friends and parents, students need to take complaints about teachers to qualified admin who can deal with the issue professionally. To do so, Gunn needs to adapt an open, anonymous feedback system. In a district like the Palo Alto Unified School District, where education is of the highest priority, students should not have to settle for inadequate teachers who don’t improve their methods over the years. It is the students’ right and responsibility to speak up.