Education Opinion

‘Snoopervisors,’ Critics, and Mentors: The Plight of Beginning Teachers

By Paul Woodring — August 29, 1984 5 min read

It has long been part of the conventional wisdom of educators that the work of teachers-- especially beginning teachers--should be supervised, and that the supervisors should play a major role in determining who is qualified to teach and who should be retained and promoted. I once accepted this view and believed that a carefully supervised internship is an essential part of teacher education. But after thinking it over for many years, and having reviewed my own experience with supervisors, I have begun to have some doubts.

There are several inherent problems with supervisors. In a successful classroom, a mutual understanding has developed that is significantly altered, if not destroyed, by the presence of an outsider. This is especially true if the visitor is known to be there for the purpose of making judgments and recommending changes.

A second problem is that judging teaching ability on the basis of an hour’s visit is similar to judging the quality of a novel by reading a page or two from the middle of the book. An observer or reader cannot make a sound judgment without knowing what has come before and what will come after, because a class or course of study, like a novel, must be judged as a whole.

A third difficulty is that many teachers, including some very good ones, stand so in awe of administrators or supervisors that they cannot function normally under supervision. Their reaction is similar to that of an actor suffering stage fright--the quality of the performance declines sharply.

This is true even at the college level. When I was an undergraduate in the late 1920’s, the best teacher at Bowling Green State University was C. C. Kohl, who taught European history. He was a shy man with less self-confidence than was justified by his talents, but when he was before a class he rose to the occasion. My classmates agreed that he was a brilliant teacher and a wise man.

One day, the college president came in and sat down near the door. This, of course, was most unusual-almost unheard of in higher education. I think it unlikely, however, that the president had come to evaluate-- it’s more likely that he knew Mr. Kohl was a great teacher and wanted to see him in action. But the minute he saw the president, Mr. Kohl became flustered, stammered, could not remember what he was about to say, and was barely able to continue. The embarrassed president got up and left. The students were sympathetic but puzzled because we considered Mr. Kohl a much greater man than the president.

Teachers, of course, are not alike. I doubt that I would be greatly troubled today if the president of the university, the provost, and a bevy of deans walked in. But the fact that some excellent ones react as Mr. Kohl did makes it unwise to judge a teacher by what a supervisor sees on a brief visit.

Supervisors are also not likely to see the class in its normal state. When I was teaching in a high school many years ago, a supervisor came in once a month, pad and pencil in hand, and sat frowning while taking notes throughout the hour. Students called him “the snoopervisor.” One hot September day, he came into my English literature class. The class had not been going well; the heat was oppressive and students were looking forward to a football game to be played that afternoon. Their interest in Chaucer was at a low ebb.

But the minute the supervisor appeared they sat up straight, tried to look interested, and eagerly asked questions that they knew I could answer because I had already answered them. After the supervisor left, they slumped back in their chairs with broad grins as though to say, “We sure put one over on them, didn’t we?” And they had. I became very fond of that class.

Today’s supervisors, I am told, are far more humane, considerate, and understanding than those that I recall from many years ago. They assure me (and their student teachers) that they are there not to criticize but to assist. It is true that an effort has been made to move in that direction.

Those who supervise are no longer called “critic teachers,” as they once were. Now we call them “cooperating teachers,” or use some other newer euphemism to conceal the fact that one of their responsibilities is to make judgments concerning a student teacher’s competence. But whatever the label, many teachers still fear supervisors and know that their visits to the classroom destroy whatever symbiosis has developed between the students and the struggling young teacher.

Yet judgments must be made. We cannot give teaching certificates to everyone who wants to teach, nor should we promote every teacher who has been on the job for a specified number of years if some are still incompetent. Because there is no possible way of judging the art of teaching objectively (we have made a fetish of objectivity), the judgments must be made subjectively, just as they are when we judge the work of a poet, novelist, artist, or symphony conductor.

The best solution probably lies in a form of team-teaching that permits the neophyte to work in close conjunction with a master teacher. If both the master and the beginner are present every day, if each takes the lead for some portion of the time, and if they share the work of counseling students and assigning grades, both will be perceived by students simply as “teachers.” There will be no stranger in the room to disturb the symbiosis.

It would be unwise to offer a blueprint. The details of the relationship must be worked out in each specific situation and will depend on the grade level, the subjects taught, and available resources. But when the junior teacher comes up for certification or promotion, the senior teacher will be in an excellent position to offer recommendations based on observation of the junior teacher’s work throughout a course. No other supervisor is necessary.

Within his or her own field or grade level, an experienced master teacher is both a better judge of competence and better able to offer assistance than anyone else. No administrator is qualified to offer assistance or judge competence in the teaching of all subjects. Supervisors have all too often been selected on the basis of higher degrees in education rather than clear evidence I that they have mastered the fine art of teaching. But a Ph.D. or Ed.D. gives no assurance that one is really a master teacher, as any college student can testify.

Identification of the master teacher obviously is crucial and will be difficult because it must be largely subjective. But it’s not impossible-teachers qualified for this role can be found in almost any school system.