Teachers Helping Teachers - A Proposal
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
iano and music teachers, as far as I can determine from personal experience and extensive searching of the Internet, often have little means of getting knowledgeable feedback and constructive criticism on their private studio teaching. If the teacher doesn't put students in competitions, where other informed educators and pianists can rate the abilities of students, and doesn't actively seek comments from students in a well-organized fashion like that discussed in our Acquiring and Using Student Feedback article, he/she may have almost no outside independent evaluation of his/her teaching. In this article, I'll put forth a proposal for a means by which teachers can help each other to get feedback and improve their teaching through a special type of "peer review". The proposed process is both voluntary and private, but provides a framework whereby teachers in a given locale can help each other to be better teachers.
Merely knowing that the teacher had subjected herself to voluntary evaluation would suggest to students that the teacher cared enough to do everything she could to be the best possible teacher.
In science, feedback is done regularly and is called "peer review". Scientific peer review is required whenever one submits a paper for publication or a proposal for grant funding. It typically involves a journal editor or granting agency sending the author's journal paper or grant proposal to three other scientists, knowledgeable in that scientific discipline, for reading and comment prior to publication of the paper or granting of money for the proposed research. A good reviewer will read the document at least three times before returning his comments, along with the paper or proposal, to the journal editor or funding agency. A careful review will typically take between 4 and 6 hours for an average length paper. Longer papers take longer to review. It's a tough job for the reviewer, but honesty and integrity are required if peer review is to work as it should to weed out error and misinterpretation in the scientific literature. Peer review has real consequences, in the sense that a paper can be rejected for publication or a grant proposal not funded as a result of review. Reviewers can also demand changes in the paper or proposal. Most editors of scientific journals and books listen to the reviewers' recommendations and demands.
Although I'm a supporter of peer review, the peer review process in science is imperfect. There are a number of uncommon, but discomforting, problems that occur in scientific peer review, precisely because scientists have something tangible to gain or lose in the process. Most scientists are honest and decent, but it only takes a few abusing peer review to shake confidence in it.
Music is not science and teaching is not research, but could some sort of modified peer review process be valuable for piano and music teachers? I believe the answer to that question is yes! I propose here an evaluation process for piano and music teachers which preserves some of the spirit of scientific peer review, but differs in about every other way: it is completely voluntary for all parties, nothing (except better teaching) is riding on the evaluation, the process is completely private (i.e. copies of the evaluations are provided only to the teacher and the evaluators), neither the teacher nor the teacher-evaluators are required to follow the recommendations or allowed to publicize the results of the evaluation, and any sanctioning organization cannot use the evaluation results to support a "certification" or "rank" teachers. It seems to me that there is an opportunity here for music teacher organizations really to help improve teaching by sanctioning and organizing such peer review evaluation sessions with their member teachers.
As I envision it, such piano (and music) teacher peer evaluations would be done by a three member committee of teachers, chosen, for example, from the membership of a local music teachers' organization. They would look at all aspects of studio operation, excepting business records and other private materials, by sitting in on a full or half day of lessons and evaluating the teacher's performance according to a standard set of agreed-upon criteria. The results of the evaluation would only be provided to the teacher and only used by the evaluated teacher to gain perspective upon and improve teaching. Evaluation committee members would be specifically prevented from sharing information specific to the evaluated teacher with others. The music teacher organization could not use the information to "rate" teachers, nor could it provide it to others. The evaluated teacher could not use the evaluation results in advertising nor could the teacher quote the results to others.
The teacher could choose to indicate to others that he/she had been evaluated by the organization, if the teacher so chose. To me, as a potential student of the teacher, merely knowing that the teacher had subjected herself/himself to voluntary evaluation would suggest that the teacher cared enough about teaching to do everything she could to be the best possible teacher. Evaluated teachers might be given a graphic or decal that they could post or use in ads to indicate that they had been reviewed. It might read something like, "[organization] Peer-Reviewed Teacher"
Every member of the music teacher's organization would be given the opportunity to participate both as evaluator and evaluated, so that all members would, at least at some point, have an opportunity to offer suggestions to those teachers whose evaluations they participated in. Also, and just as importantly, the evaluators would learn from the evaluated teachers. Only those teachers who had granted permission to perform such an evaluation would be visited and only those would be allowed to serve on evaluation committees for other teachers. Evaluators would be strongly encouraged to be both honest and constructive in their comments. They would be given guidelines for performing the evaluation and specifically asked to share tips and expertise in their comments.
Key aspects of the proposal are that every part of it is both voluntary and private, as is the teacher's response to the evaluation. Any participating teacher would be completely free to do nothing to change any part of their teaching as a result of such an evaluation, if they deemed that appropriate. If a given teacher did not want any new ideas or already knows absolutely everything there is to know about teaching piano, he or she can decline to participate at all, without any negative consequences (e.g. denial of a certification) whatsoever. This proposal is all about "dialogue and a free exchange of ideas"; it simply provides a formal, organized mechanism for that to occur efficiently.
Although some teacher organizations offer "certifications", these are not similar, in any significant way, to the evaluation I'm referring to here. The intent of the "peer review" I've have outlined here is not obtaining a "certification", nor is it to "rank" teachers against one another, nor is it to point out what the teacher might be doing "wrong" (or "right"), per se. Rather, it is to provide a formal process in which teachers can learn from each other. Local music teacher organizations are in an ideal position to sanction such evaluations, because their members generally know each other personally and are within easy travel distance of one another.
Although relatively new teachers or those lacking college training would probably benefit most from peer review, it's hard to imagine that even master teachers would find the evaluation of no value. Indeed, sometimes a new, unbiased view of one's own teaching can be tremendously valuable to those who have been teaching for many years. Since the entire process is private and voluntary, both evaluated and evaluators have much to gain and little to lose by the evaluation.
If you don't have a local music teacher organization to sanction and help set up such a peer review process, or if your local one is uninterested, there is nothing to prevent two or more teachers from sitting down, drawing up a set of evaluation criteria and then carrying out this peer review process amongst themselves. Since the peer review process is entirely voluntary on the part of all participants, it would not need sanction, though a sanctioned process in which a substantial number of teachers took part in drawing up the review criteria might result in a bit more thorough review.
A full day
evaluation would be best, although that would entail a bigger time commitment from the
evaluators than a half-day evaluation. The whole point of such a process is to see what the teacher
does with a variety of students having a variety of problems/issues in a
typical teaching day. For the evaluated teacher, ideally, there would be
nothing to do or prepare for. It would be self-defeating for the teacher to
put on a "dog-and-pony show" for the evaluators, since the evaluated teacher
would learn nothing valuable by doing that and would gain nothing either.
The evaluated teacher would want the evaluation day to be as representative
as possible of a normal teaching day. Most advantageously, the actual date
of evaluation would be known only to the evaluators. The evaluated teacher
would only be told that evaluators would like to visit during a certain
week and within certain time blocks, solely to verify that the teacher would be teaching that week during
The evaluators would sit quietly in the back of the studio and observe, neither making comments nor offering suggestions during the evaluation, but making copious notes with suggestions and comments on pre-prepared evaluation forms about how the evaluators view every aspect of the teaching they are seeing. Evaluators would not talk with students separately, except, perhaps, exchanging pleasantries when students came into the studio. Since the evaluators are sworn to secrecy in all aspects of the proposed process, there are no privacy issues with respect to students to deal with. The process specifically excludes matters that have privacy issues (studio and business records, for example) connected with them from consideration during the evaluation. Evaluators must realize that, just as the teacher can't be hurt in any tangible way by the evaluation done in accordance with the proposal, they can't be of much help unless they are serious and honest. An "I'm OK, You're OK" approach won't help. That doesn't mean that the evaluators should be nasty or offer thoughts that aren't pertinent, but it does require that the evaluation be candid. The evaluation is only about improving teaching by sharing ideas.
As I've already mentioned, the teachers themselves, either collectively through a music teachers organization or by themselves, would set the criteria for evaluation by mutual consent days or weeks prior to the evaluation. Preparing the criteria in advance allows the teachers to separate the criteria determination from the actual observation and evaluation. Although I believe strongly that the involved teachers should be responsible for determining what evaluation criteria are used, let me offer some suggestions of general areas that might be appropriate to cover in the assessment, as an aid to those who might be considering this proposal:
Ideally, these areas and others thought to be needed by the teachers involved would be phrased one-by-one on a pre-prepared form with a sizable area after each evaluation area for detailed comments. The comments would not be given to the teacher the day of the evaluation, but within one week thereof. This would allow the evaluators time to think more about what they saw and what they want to suggest to the evaluated teacher.
We have said all over The Piano Education Page that the best
teachers will tailor their teaching to the student, using the best and most
appropriate parts of one or more methods, combined with the teacher's own
knowledge and resources. However, some teachers might be concerned that
evaluating teachers who use different teaching methods might not evaluate
their teaching fairly. It's entirely possible that teachers will see things
somewhat differently, if they use different methods or feel differently
about relative priorities in piano teaching. However, I would argue that this is
a strength of the peer review proposal, in that it provides an incentive for
different teachers to see what others are doing and understand how they feel
about aspects of pedagogy. If the evaluated teacher doesn't want to put into
practice some comments in the evaluation because he/she doesn't agree or can't
use them, he can ignore them without tangible consequence. Yet, the teacher still
gets the benefit of the thinking of people with different views. Those who
serve as evaluators get a similar widening of viewpoint. All of this assumes
that evaluated and evaluators take their roles seriously, but this isn't
much of a problem in a purely voluntary process. Evaluators who misuse the
process in some way (e.g. violating privacy or failing to produce evaluation
results) could be subject to expulsion from the organization and denial of
review of their own studios. I suspect that abuses would be few, given that
there are few tangible incentives for abuse in the proposed process.
I hope that the evaluation process I've proposed for piano and music teachers will help all teachers involved to be better teachers. Done properly, this procedure eliminates incentives for abuse by specifically making all aspects of it both voluntary and private. The only benefit is better, more efficient, teaching and the only consequence is the time committed to doing it by the evaluators. Nobody can advertise the results for personal gain or misuse them to gain an advantage by making private information public. Such evaluations would depend on the honesty and integrity of both the evaluated and the evaluating teachers, but could be very helpful to all. I would be happy to hear comments from piano and music teachers about this proposal.