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Take Student Complaints With Caution

How much weight should be given to student complaints about their teachers? I ask that question because the evaluation of teachers in the years ahead is expected to include input from students in addition to input from principals, peers and parents ("Seeking Aid, School Districts Change Teacher Evaluations," The New York Times, Oct. 16). I welcome the change. But I have reservations about placing inordinate reliance on student comments.

Although students spend considerable face time with teachers, that doesn't necessarily mean they are able to judge their teachers fairly. Take the most familiar complaint that a teacher is boring. A study published in "Perspectives on Psychological Science" found that boredom often arises from stress ("Studies Link Students' Boredom to Stress, Education Week, Oct. 10). If so, then teachers are likely to be downgraded when they are not always to blame.

When I was teaching, the first period of the day frequently consisted of students who happened to come from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds. The roster indicated that many of them lived in one-parent homes. No matter how hard I tried to make the material interesting, they showed the classic signs of boredom. If they had been asked to rate my instruction, I'm quite certain they would have given me a low grade. Yet I was not responsible for the stress they were feeling because of their personal lives outside the classroom.

Reformers will hasten to point out that acknowledging that fact will be used by teachers as an excuse for their ineffectiveness. Fair enough. Nevertheless, stress cannot be denied. In the class I described above, I had one student who often asked me if he could go to the library. Ordinarily, I would have denied such a request. But I consented when he told me that he worked on the docks at night in order to bring home badly needed income for his mother and siblings. As a result, he was exhausted and used the library's back room to sleep. (I helped him with the work he missed.) If I had denied his plea, he would have likely told his counselor that my class was boring. That's because mental fog caused by lack of sleep makes it nearly impossible to process knowledge being taught.

Stress takes many forms, both subtle and overt. But dismissing stress as irrelevant is particularly risky today because of the increasing rate of childhood poverty, which is now 22 percent ("More than 1 in 5 kids live in poverty," USA Today, Jun. 08, 2010). When students go to school without a good night's sleep and nutritious breakfast, they can't properly learn what is being taught. Even the best teachers are not able to overcome these deficits. That's why I urge caution in considering student claims about boredom.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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