When the inspector calls

Sunday June 10, 2012

http://thestar.com.my/education/story.asp?file=/2012/6/10/education/11414459&sec=education

TEACHER TALK
By MALLIKA VASUGI

While school inspectors play a serious role in keeping tabs on schools, teachers and administrators are known to go out of their way to impress them, with comical results.

IF you are a member of that exclusive board in the education field called the school inspectorate, or if you are related or married to one of those in this elite team, then please stop reading this right now and go and do something else like marking those mid-year examination scripts or keying in some student data for the fifth time.

If you have only recently started teaching or have been placed in a school that is accessible only through jungle paths and crocodile-infested rivers, then perhaps you have never experienced the interesting phenomenon of being observed by school inspectors. But don’t worry about it because with the recent developments in the education scene and the NKRA ( National Key Result Area) under the Government’s Transformation Programme for Education with high performing schools and new deals for school heads, being among the primary focus, you may yet get to witness the influx of school inspectors in the school you teach and the rather interesting series of events associated with this often hyped-up occasion.

There is definitely no question about the critical role of the school inspectorate in monitoring the performance of the education system in schools in order to ensure that high standards are maintained; periodic monitoring is absolutely necessary.

In other words these sometimes unannounced visits by school inspectors, which can cause panic attacks and send the entire school staff scurrying in many different directions to get things ready, are an essential part of the system.

In fact a certain level of anxiety when news of an impending visit from the inspectorate is received is normal, and may even be helpful in giving that little nudge or extra push for people to pull up their socks and get their act together. Such extra effort put into getting the necessary files in order and making sure that everything runs smoothly and according to schedule when the inspectors make their rounds is understandable.

We want things to be presentable and in order when someone is going to check or assess them. It is, after all, the same when visitors are expected at our homes. We want to make sure that things are neat and tidy. We don’t want people leaving our homes with terrible images of messy clutter and, worse still, stories about the state of your kitchen sink and bathroom floor to be the highlight of the next grand in-laws reunion.

What is not justified, however, and may be even a little disturbing is the way some schools handle the preparations when there is a mere rumour of approaching inspections. My friend Dilla says that she once worked in a school where any news or speculation of a forthcoming visit by the inspectorate was tantamount to the gods descending from Mount Olympus to walk among mortals.

According to Dilla (and this she claims to be the unadulterated truth) a whole school block was painted overnight, files and records were created for fictitious meetings and padded to look impressive. The previously “enter-only-if you can stand the smell” school toilets became veritable lavender infused gardens.

The school canteen, which was shunned even by the resident school cat, was instantly upgraded to a multiple-star cafeteria. Teachers were told to wear their best professional, executive-image clothes to appear brisk and efficient and walk around with a “I love my job” spring in their step. A hitherto barren patch of ground (apart from a few straggly, dying orchid plants) miraculously sprung to life with exotic blooms the very next day after the inspectorate visit was announced.

“When I asked the teacher in charge what magic baja (fertiliser) she used, she just frowned and told me to take a closer look. It was then that I realised that flower stalks had been very cleverly tied to the old plants to give them a ‘face-lift’. She told me that the ‘foster’ flowers were very cheap if you purchased them at the market after six in the evening. What do you think of that? Well they do go on and on about teachers having to be creative, imaginative, and innovative … I don’t know. Maybe the ends do justify the means,” Dilla recalls with a shrug.

That schools have to be subject to standard inspections is fair and necessary. There has to be some form of accountability and check and balance on the giant machinery of the national education system, but definitely there is something troubling about the contrived masterpieces and the false fronts we offer at times.

When teachers are told to memorise school mission statements or educational policies by heart in order to be able to regurgitate them to some school inspector who considers it a testimony of teaching commitment, it strikes a raw nerve somewhere and is reminiscent of the times students are asked to mindlessly memorise facts for examination purposes.

When a lesson in class is orchestrated and staged for the benefit of school inspectors it becomes nothing more than a stage play with pre-selected students-teacher casts and settings.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of all this play-acting is that sometimes we confuse what is real with what is not, and may even end up with a twisted sense of right and wrong, of honesty and deceit.

In the end it may be that what really rules the day is what impresses those who are judging, rather than wholesome integrity with dedication.

But who really is qualified to judge these things? There are those who hold on to the position that there is no right or wrong and that what is important is that it works. But then again there is a fine line between what really works and what seems to work, and it is easy for a blurring of boundaries to occur.

In one of her rare insightful moments, Dilla says that perhaps even those who are presented with not quite accurate representations of the state of a school may be fully aware of this and just play along.

After all, inspectors or not, they are also human and subject to the whims and wiles of humanity.

“Who knows, maybe some of them actually feel it is a privilege, or honour even, that school authorities have gone to such lengths to present a shining, spotless front in preparation for their visit.”

So as Dilla says, maybe they are acting out their roles too, knowing that to an extent, their reports do affect the upward mobility of the school’s ranking.

Human nature, though sometimes strange, is at other times entirely predictable. We all tend to act a little differently when we know we are being watched and evaluated.

Dilla seems to be on a roll . “So here’s my most brilliant idea so far. Why don’t we turn the tables a little? The next time inspectors land in your school, instead of sealing yourself away in a remote part of the school building and offering up fervent prayers that you will not be observed, why not turn the tables a little. We inspect them instead. Here’s how this will work,” she says ignoring the incredulous look on my face.

“As soon as the inspectors land, go up and introduce yourself to them. Then tell them how much you admire their work, their effort, and role in promoting improvements in school standards. Ask them for suggestions, advice if possible, and how they manage to be so successful in this field. Keep them talking, interested.

“Take notes, pretend to be thoroughly absorbed, as if every word from their mouths is a nugget of wisdom. Ask them what they recommend, what their opinions are and ask them if it is possible to accompany them as they do their inspection because you so very much want to benefit from their expertise. It won’t fail.”

Dilla has great hopes that she will be able to carry out her proposed plan successfully the next time her school is due for inspection. In fact she has even bought a black “file for recording inspectorate suggestions”.

She is convinced her plan will work and that she will bring glory to the school by being the model “teacher observed by inspectorate”, but somehow I have my doubts.