Berkeley High School Recommendations

Discussion about Negative Teacher Recommendations

Advice and recommendations from the UCB Parents mailing list. This page is brought to you by UC Berkeley Parents Network
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Dear Parents of Teens,

I am a teacher at Berkeley High School who is very interested in improving the quality of education at our site. I am impressed with much of the discussion that I've seen on this mailing list and am grateful that teachers are welcome to participate in this forum. However, I feel the need to express my discomfort with the practice of individual parents posting their recommendations of which BHS teachers to choose and avoid.

I find this practice inappropriate due to the public nature of this forum. It makes me feel like I've accidentally listened in on someone's private conversation. This is a real morale-buster, whether or not one receives a good recommendation or the dreaded "avoid this teacher" label. One student's negative opinion posted here can easily tarnish a good teacher's reputation.

This is not to say that I believe that parents should not use this forum to explore the various course offerings and teacher options at BHS. Rather, I would like to suggest a more private and polite way for you to share your opinions. Perhaps you could merely send a message to "Parents of Teens" stating that you can be e-mailed for detailed information about your preferences and let the interested parties contact you. I realize that this would create a bit more work for everyone involved, but in the interest of good will between teachers and parents, I feel it would be well worth the effort.

Mary Patterson, BHS Spanish Department and New Teacher Mentor


Reminder from the Moderators:

We have a policy on negative recommendations for the newsletter that we've developed over the years. It's on the website at http://parents.berkeley.edu/FAQ.html#neg

The gist of the policy is that recommendations good or bad are meant to be helpful to parents. Criticism must be accompanied by concrete examples of why a bad review is being given. We try to be careful about weeding out mean-spirited letters or those that are really just complaining or venting. We continue to re-think our policy all the time, and maybe it will not always be as it is now, but our underlying goal is to give parents information that they could not get any other way.


Parents of Teens is, well, for ... parents of teens. Different perspectives from different parents on different teachers is exactly the kind of information that parents discuss. The quality of our children's teachers is very important to us. Yes, it would be great to have these discussions one-on-one, but as our kids move up through the grades the opportunities for us to mingle diminish. We are running all over the place and our offspring are, frankly, not so keen on having us hang out at THEIR schools.

We understand that as we read a comment (positive or negative) about a teacher that we are not reading some definitive study, but rather an opinion. I value gathering insight on the many different teaching styles discussed in this e-tree. As long as the discussions are constructive, I do not think that parents sharing their opinions should be censored. - Anonymous


I think you are going a great job on the website! I remember that at UCB in the late '60's the professors were being "reviewed" by the students in a critique booklet. It was very controversial. But it prevailed. Freedom of speech. Anonymous
I find the section in the newsletter re: Discussion - Teacher Recommendations-not really a discussion. It seems to be a forum to critique Berkeley High School teachers in a negative or positive manner and then put a biased label, perhaps by one individual, on that individual teacher's reputation. On the other hand, I think it would also be inappropriate if teachers used this forum to post their recommendations of which BHS students to choose and avoid. Please, let's avoid "labeling" people, and begin looking at other positive avenues of communication between parents and teachers. Anonymous
I wish to respond to Mary Patterson, the BHS teacher who finds the idea of teacher recommendations to be inappropriate for the newsletter. She mentions that a discussion of this type is a "real morale buster". I certainly feel for teachers that may get their feelings hurt by any negative comments they might read about themselves on the newsletter, however, one would hope that instead of getting hurt feelings, they might use the comments to look for ways to improve their quality of teaching, which would be a very positive effect of the newsletter. What would be ideal would be if the school department chairs would read the newsletter and then use the information posted about a teacher to help that teacher improve their teaching skills. I think it's an extremely powerful way for parents to help their children to get a good education, which is not an easy task.

There needs to be a way to communicate to other parents and teachers about the quality of the education their children are receiving. As another way for possibly improving the quality of teaching, I would also like the school to distribute evaluation sheets to the kids at the end of the year so that their comments can be heard, but there then needs to be a system in place for any needed corrective action to occur. In other words, the evaluations need to be compiled and used as part of a teacher's performance evaluation so that any problems can be solved. For several years now I've heard rumors about BHS doing this, but haven't seen anything concrete. Toby


Hello. I am a teacher at Berkeley High School, and I am writing to ask that the UC Berkeley Parents Network revise its policy regarding teacher recommendations from parents.

In the short time that I have been a member of the Parents of Teens Mailing List, I have been very impressed with its quality. This mailing list and the larger UCB Parents Network are both powerful communication tools that give parents and teachers the ability to share with each other in ways that were literally unimaginable just a few years ago. The sense of community that this Network fosters is critical to Berkeley High School's development, and I applaud the efforts of everyone who contributes to and manages this resource.

I am VERY concerned, however, about one aspect of the Network: the posting of negative teacher reviews. Recently, the mailing list posted an anonymously authored critical review of one BHS teacher, and on the "Teachers of Berkeley High School" web page (at http://parents.berkeley.edu/recommend/schools/BHS/teachers.html), one finds anonymous postings critical of other BHS teachers. In these postings, teachers are listed by name under the categories "not so hot" or "avoid", and briefly given a short description, including: * "not very challenging" * "no sense of humor" * "vindictive" * "nice, but waiting out retirement" * "space cadet" Other teachers are vaguely listed as ones that someone's son had "a difficult experience with," or even listed as being bad teachers with no justification at all.

I strongly favor formal teacher evaluations, both by administrators and students, and I believe teachers, students, and parents are all partners in the learning process and should be held accountable for their participation in that process. But I, and many of the teachers and parents I've spoken with regarding these negative teacher reviews, find such comments of no real value, personally hurtful, and ultimately damaging to parent-teacher relations and the educational community.

Anonymous postings from a single parent that didn't happen to like my sense of humor, or who thought I didn't challenge his/her child enough, are not legitimate evaluations of my teaching or the educational environment in my classroom. Vague descriptions of a "difficult experience" that a student had with me might refer to practically anything, from a tardy detention that a student felt he or she didn't deserve to more serious problems in the classroom -- without any elaboration the description of a "difficult experience" is useless. And there is absolutely no excuse for maliciously referring to any teacher as a "space cadet."

The Network's policy, as stated in the "Frequently Asked Questions - Parents of Teens" section of the web site, requires "specific reasons" and "specific examples" of bad experiences that parents have had with teachers, and explicitly prohibits "name-calling." Clearly, that policy is not being followed. Even the gracious disclaimer from the Network and from parents that 'different children may have different experiences with a teacher' does nothing to repair the damage done to teachers who unexpectedly find themselves labeled as "not so hot" or "avoid." Sadly, the biggest losers in this game may be the students: there are several 'bad' teachers listed on the Teachers at Berkeley High School web page that are strong, competent, and generally well-liked by students. It's unfortunate that students might be discouraged from enrolling in these teachers' classes because of one vague, anonymous complaint, however well-intentioned that complaint was.

In the interest of encouraging communication in our educational community, and simultaneously strengthening that community, I strongly encourage a revision of the UCB Parents Network's policy regarding teacher recommendations. I suggest that: 1) positive teacher reviews continue to be allowed; 2) negative teacher reviews should NOT be published, either in the newsletter or on the UCB web site; 3) students and parents who have concerns regarding the performance of a teacher in the classroom bring those concerns to the teacher and, if necessary, to the school site administrators; 4) parents who wish to share their negative teacher experiences with each other do so privately.

I would like to see the UCB Parents Network continue to grow as an important means of parent-parent and teacher-parent communication, resulting in a stronger, more cohesive, and more effective educational community. Publishing negative teacher reviews puts that community at risk. It should be stopped.

Thank you for your consideration.
Richard White, Berkeley High School Science Department


Reply from the Moderator:

I have been very sloppy about enforcing our negative review policy. As Richard White points out in his letter, our web site had a message that included a string of one-liners about teachers, such as "space cadet", with no other explanation. This is not allowed for two reasons under our policy:
- negative statements must be backed up
- no name-calling

I apologize for this and I have removed the remarks from the web site. They never should have made it into the newsletter and certainly not on to the website. I promise to be more vigilant in the future and I hope others will call other gaffes to my attention.

However I want to say why I think it's important to continue the practice of negative reviews, as long as they conform to our policy:

- This newsletter is for parents. While we welcome teachers and students and administrators, the function of the newsletter is to be a useful tool for parents.

- It is useful to hear about bad experiences other parents have had. How are we to learn otherwise? Wouldn't you like to know about a bad experience another person had with a doctor, so you can make a more informed choice?

- None of us is going to agree 100% with another's opinion, and we all have different tastes and needs. The more opinions we hear, the better informed we are, and the more likely we are to find the thing that best suits us.

- If you disagree with a review, please post your own opinion. If anything, you have a *better* chance of righting wrongs than with the traditional whisper-over-the-phone method.

- Utility is the goal, and hopefully the scale is tipped toward utility, even when criticism is in the balance. It's sometimes hard to find the line between constructive criticism that is helpful, and hurtful criticism that has no other purpose than venting or even maliciousness. But that is what we try to do.

An email newsletter makes it possible for everyone to be informed, no matter how busy they are, or how well connected. Traditionally, there is a group of parents at a school who are "in the know", plugged into the grapevine, who know which teachers to request and which to avoid. They do not have to learn the hard way, by trial and error, because they benefit from the advice of others on the grapevine. We owe a lot to those involved parents, and maybe they *should* get special perqs. But there are a lot of us out here who don't have time to be very involved, to build relationships with teachers and other parents, volunteer at the school, make phone calls, go to meetings. We aren't on the grapevine - we are on our own. For us, a wrong guess can be a very expensive mistake - maybe a year with a terrible teacher when there are only a few years of school left for our kid.

This newsletter gives the rest of us the chance to benefit from the wisdom (or folly) of others. Hopefully in another year or two, all parents will have email and everyone can participate. Even though it means that criticism becomes more public, it also means that informed decision-making is no longer restricted to a small group of people, and that it becomes possible for all of us to benefit from the biggest possible pool of experience.

Ginger Ogle


I wanted to say I AGREE with you completely about the teacher reviews. It must be painful for a teacher (or anyone) to read these reports. We recently instigated "reverse" performance evals in my department and now I receive reviews from the staff who report to me as part of my performance reviews from my boss (and she gets my eval and those of the others who report to her, etc.). These can be anonymous, and it can be a little scare-y. But, it also helps me to know if I have mending to do with someone who reports to me.
In re. to Mr. White's suggestion: "... students and parents who have concerns regarding the performance of a teacher in the classroom bring those concerns to the teacher and, if necessary, to the school site administrators" Right! Of course! Why didn't we think of this sooner?? Just take the problem to the teacher. Teachers aren't at ALL defensive, their teaching habits and personalities are flexible. They are completely open to suggestions about the way they teach and/or relate to students. And they love to hear from parents about their concerns. Oh, and of course, administrators are open to parents' concerns too, and have authority over teachers and work with them to improve their teaching.

NOT!

What Mr. White suggests is, of course, the official way to deal with problems, and in some cases it might even be worth a try. (I'd be interested in knowing if any parents on the list have EVER seen a change for the better after sharing a concern with a teacher). I've been watching the way the public schools work for eight years now and have observed that teachers simply don't listen to parents, and they don't change their teaching habits for anyone, including a parent. Yes, talk to the teacher when there is a problem. But don't be surprised if your concerns fall on deaf ears. And don't forget--administrators are former teachers.

The schools have always tried to keep parents from discussing teachers and problems. As if!! Long live freedom of expression! Our children are too important not to discuss what seriously affects their lives and futures. But we need to be smart consumers. Everyone's experiences are different and subjective, every student is different, so listen to other parents--but make up your own mind based on your child's needs.

If you read parents' stories on this list you know how scary and frustrating it can be to try to talk to teachers. It isn't like choosing a doctor or mechanic-- teachers don't have to answer to anyone, they're not running a business, they have a captive audience (our children for heaven's sake!), and there is very little, if any, evaluation of teachers.

There should definitely be a system for students to evaluate teachers. Why shouldn't teachers be accountable to the students they serve and to our community? Just because our kids go to public school doesn't mean we've abdicated our power or that we stop advocating for our kids. Surely teachers must understand that. Anonymous


I strongly support the Parents of Teens newsletter's policy of posting parents' negative or positive comments about teachers. I think Ginger Ogle outlined the reasons quite nicely.

As a teacher, I can sympathize with the discomfort one feels when being described as "without a sense of humor" or as "scattered." And yes, it would be wonderful if parent complaints about teachers were dealt with in a forthright manner by the teacher or department head. But in truth, this does not occur in many cases. Some department heads do not return phone calls (although others are quite good at a prompt call-back). However, my experience is that many times department heads respond with weak excuses and defensive postures when teachers in their department are criticized.

Negative comments can serve as a "wake-up call" to teachers that their style of interacting with students or their teaching method has its limitations. One would hope that a good teacher would try to improve, or if not possible, find a way to compensate for weaknesses. Certainly one can think of teachers one has had who, for example, lacked a sense of humor but showed their concern for students in other ways.

In the meanwhile it is most helpful for parents to be able to share this information about teachers, understanding that it represents only a single person's point of view. Having teachers' post their perspective or point of view would also be quite useful; that would enable parents to have a better idea of the teacher's perspective and how well it matches up with their student's learning style. Anonymous


The guidelines for teacher reviews are good ones so let's keep the feedback coming. For me, this forum is the (more efficient) equivalent of standing in the hall after a PTA meeting and getting personal experiences from other parents.
I've been reading some specific reviews of teachers (negative and the positive; some have taught my child). I particularly think it is far more helpful to get the positive reviews along with the name of the teacher. It's supportive if the teacher reads it and helps parents get to know what teachers are really with it. Negative reviews tend to go over the edge with a parent's comment so personalized because their child had such a bad experience with the teacher that there is just no fair or in-between way to evaluate, and therefore such negative reviews are not helpful oftentimes bordering on defamatory or libelous. I realize this discussion could go on for many newsletters. The one thing I've noticed is that the students themselves quickly get the word out about a really bad teacher that no student should take--and I would rely more on the students taking that initiative than the parents taking it on for them. Just a reminiscence as one who survived public school for many years--I had several very bad teachers and a couple of bad years academically (in high school I practically flunked out of Civics, as it was called back then, because there was so much animosity between me and my teacher), however, I was still accepted at several UC's, and it didn't ruin my college career or my life, at least I would never blame my bad teachers for ruining my life--I was able to do that on my own. I am, as always, more concerned about the overall curriculum--how to improve Math and the English curriculum, programs such as CAS which is relatively new and seems very dynamic--how to keep it going and improving each year, issues with teachers that the administration should handle (perhaps at this time more difficult because of a possible strike over salary). Also, issues brought up in this newsletter--absences, complaints about teaching styles (lacking a sense of humor doesn't really count)--should be taken into account by each academic department, and from the inside evaluate and critique their teachers. I hope this is being done, and wonder if a BHS administrator, teacher, or department head could write the e-tree and outline how teacher evaluations are handled from the inside.

To be honest, I don't know how high school teachers keep their energy and enthusiasm up over the course of a school year, handling approx. 30 high school teens, teaching approx. 4-5 classes a day. As a profession, they definitely don't get paid enough. The demands of teaching are incredibly weighted with the idealism teachers came out of college with and the realities they have to deal with on the job, a career that can be rewarding, exhilarating, and a total burnout. --Jahlee


On the debate over negative reviews of teachers: While I do find it somewhat unprofessional to print negative reviews of teacher (especially when the objections are not clearly explained and sometimes seem to reflect personal grudges), I do see how they can be helpful. My only problem is when these negative reviews are that they are usually unsigned. I find it almost childish the way some parents feel they can attack and criticize a teacher's performance, pass it off as a legitimate job evaluation, and not disclose who they are. It shows a lack of courage and makes me think: If these parents believed enough in what they were saying, and thought they had a well-developed, legitimate concern, why won't they take credit for it? It is extremly unprofessional and very unfair to the teachers for such anonymous postings. - Russell
Note from the moderator: Just want to repeat that ...
- we reject negative reviews that are not objective, that aren't explained, or that are just "venting"
- please let me know if you ever see any like that in the newsletter that slip by me
- please post your own opinion if you see a negative review you disagree with

RE: anonymous postings

We once had a policy that negative reviews could not be anonymous. However, people pointed out that identifying the reviewer can sometimes damage existing relationships with doctors, teachers, childcare providers, etc. Many people will not share their bad experiences if they must sign their names.

In the UCB Parents newsletter a few years ago, a subscriber wrote a very mild negative review of a doctor who'd already received several other very critical reviews. This review ended up in the person's chart, and the next time she visited her doctor, she was shown her letter and told to find another doctor (thus confirming the criticism!)

This experience taught us two things: one, we should allow people to post anonymous reviews, two, we should all be very careful about what we say in email, because you never know where it will end up.

This newsletter tries to err on the side of usefulness - if the anonymous review follows the policy, then we print it on the theory that it will help more people than it hurts. Besides, as Russell points out, most readers will put more credence into a signed review rather than an anonymous one, good or bad.

Ginger


Please also post this about the teacher reviews: Just a comment on the latest ongoing discussion about positive/negative reviews of teachers, I find it interesting that so many people have commented on the pros and cons of this practice, but only a couple of people have actually posted teacher comments. Last year we had a nice exchange of this information with no controversy. Quite interesting.
My son was taught a very valuable lesson in second grade. Besides reading and math I think this is one of the most valuable things he has learned in school. His class was taught the difference between fact and opinion. It was explained to them and then they had to do exercises identifying facts and opinions and later stating facts and stating opinions. He is now in fourth grade and this lesson has never been forgotten and many incipient fights have been resolved by the children realizing they are discussing opinions not facts and it's OK to have different opinions!

All teacher reviews here are OPINIONS. They may be backed up by facts - or by interpretations of facts. They are still opinions. We would all like for everyone to share our opinions on things, but that's not the way it is. I've often loved a teacher no one else seems to like and though one of my children once got the teacher everyone was practically having fist fights over I was left at the end of the year wondering what all the fuss was about. I've also realized that what I consider a good teacher does not always match with the kind of teacher with whom my children do well.

My older daughter had what I considered a rotten English teacher who just went on and on about the five kids in her class that were into Shakespeare and how wonderful they were (this was at back to school night) and she said not one word about the rest of the kids in the class. (They were not studying Shakespear at the time) My daughter could not stand the teacher and hated Shakespear, at first I thought it was her, then I talked to the teacher and I could not stand her either and I realized that she really did not like my daughter- But you know what? The parents of those five Shakespeare lovers thought she was the best!

So, for those teachers whose feelings have been hurt, read the opinions with an open mind. If it's pointing out something about you, you don't agree with - then why worry about it? On the other hand if it's something that maybe needs improvement - then hopefully you can do that. All of us understand how hard it is to be a teacher these days, but you are dealing with our precious children and we will always try to find a way to give them the best. At least here on this list you know what is being said about you whereas in the halls.....?

Re: Kids giving the teacher recommendations to each other: -I've learned from my 16 year old that she considers one of her teachers great because they show movies in class. Another is rotten because he gives her detention if she's "just one little minute" late back from lunch. (Do you really want to trust her reviews of who's good and who is not?). I've picked this information up from the conversations that go on in the back of the car as she shares her wisdom with a friend that is one year behind her in school.


I've been increasingly uncomfortable with the notion that teachers who read the parent's newsletter are offended by our discussions. After all, this is the PARENT'S newsletter. I hardly think there's massive teacher bashing going on and what discussion there is seems pretty straight forward and slanted towards people's individual experience, i.e- anecdotal and based on their own child's experience.

I consider myself intelligent enough to read what someone says and fit it to my child's needs. Two of my children had one of the most feared and maligned teachers in the school and both liked him, and even THRIVED. I don't actually care if my child likes his teachers. I care if the teacher teaches. I care if there's a curriculum that's relevant, stimulating, useful and on-target (by on-target I mean learning history in history class). I want my child to finish the term having a wider and deeper understanding of the subject and not just have warmed a chair and gotten an A for it. I also look to see if the grading is fair and based on quantifiable and clearly defined expectations. Even a grumpy or uninspired teacher who teaches their subject with competence is, if not ideal, certainly just fine with me.

Why is there such a fuss about teacher evaluations? Teacher performance isn't a secret. One parent already said: stand outside the PTA meeting or on the courtyard and whom to avoid and who's a great teacher are common knowledge. When kids used forum registration (running from department table to department table) it was clear as day whose cards were first to be grabbed up. People nearly came to blows over the last card for a certain beloved English teacher. My son's college has a student access only web site with set of teacher evaluations that go into great detail about grading, workload, interest, organization, curriculum, lecture style, amount of discussion, teacher accessibility, and general overall experience. It's very useful.

As we approach teacher choice time I'd like to see more people submit recommendations and caveats. The most helpful ones include specifics. "My child was bored" is way too vague and could have more to do with the student than the teacher. I'd love to hear from some kids, too, about who they recommend and why. It will add an additional element on top of calling around to the kids you or your kids know who are one grade up the night before the request forms are due.

Winifred


My stomach turns everytime I read parents judging teachers. I agree with the writers on today's newsletter regarding anonymity and the previous person's comments. Some of the things I have read about teachers are just down right inflammatory. Has anyone checked with lawyers about libel against this medium or those responsible for posting such nasty stuff? While this newsletter has been very helpful and useful, the negative teacher evaluations have tainted what is an outstanding way to communicate with parents. Let's keep it positive and give constructive criticism only PLEASE! Robert
Editor reply: I haven't seen anything inflammatory in the newsletter. What "nasty stuff"? I don't recall that either. About libel - as far as I know it is still OK for people to express their opinions, in email, in person, or anywhere. Ginger Ogle
Just to flog an issue to death: the students at UC Berkeley have put out an illustrative book evaluating professors who teacher undergrad courses, for 1999-2000, "Cal FACTS (Feedback and Course Tips for Students)." It's a very sophisticated guide (I believe they just use Word and PowerPoint software). Its presentation is very easy to read. I've excerpted an actual sample of a professor being evaluated (note the professor, Pedro Noguera, and the huge class size, with about half responding):
Class:  Education 40AC
Instructor:  Pedro Noguera
Class Size: 369
No. Responding: 177

Comments [they are all one-liners]:
* inspiring, good professor
* deeply fulfilling, eye-opening, engaging, and will change someone's career
* reading intensive
* invaluable
* thought provoking
* controversial
* very applicable to my life and other courses
At the bottom is a pie chart (a great way to see how the values are
disseminated (from 1-5, with 5 being the best) dividing up the results of
the five questions asked of the responding students:

1) Amount learned (the pie chart shows 72% with a 5 - learned a lot)
2) Difficulty of course (46% with a 3 - middling)
3) Recommend prof.?  (92% with a 5, a very strong recommendation)
4) Recommend course (83% with a 5)
5) Hours spent on course (43% with a 3-5 range - middling)
Of course, high school students will not have this level of sophistication and education along with the time and know-how in putting teacher evaluations in writing. Word of mouth works best for teenagers, but their opinions count, and if they show their intellectual immaturity, so what? When does intellectual maturity begin--it's very individualized. Teacher evaluations are useful and getting a representative sample of students' opinions would be more valuable because it's a first-hand look, not a second or third hand look. --jahlee

[Ed] In response to my questions about the evaluation, Jaylee replied:

it was free for as long as there were copies (they were handing them out in front of Sather Gate). The ASUC Academic Affairs Office and volunteers labored over 6,000 hours to put this out -- it is student-initiated and a student-run program under Academic Affairs (began last Spring). Survey questions are distributed to every departmental office on campus during the latter part of the semester, then distributed by departmental staff to individual professors, who then administer the Cal-FACTS Program and send the completed forms to the Cal-FACTS office. The editors note that they selectively do not publish inappropriately offensive comments that would disrespect or embarrass faculty members, but rather try to provide constructive yet honest feedback to help students make informed course choices, and it is put out in cooperation with faculty members, administrators and students. It's the first year and quite an undertaking. There's no mention of it being on-line, only hard copies were only available. The funding comes from the ASUC (student fees) and cost in exccess of $33,000. --jahlee


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