That is how the bible puts it. Chris Brown updated it to ‘please don’t judge me, and I won’t judge you’. But what’s so wrong with judging people, anyway? The term tends to be used in a pejorative sense: ‘he’s so judgmental’. We all make judgments on people all the time, from the outfit a friend is wearing today to the helpfulness of the faceless representative on the end of the ‘phone to the competence of the waiter serving us dinner. We are quick to label people as kind, pleasant, friendly, a jobsworth, officious or rude -these are often the result of interactions lasting minutes. There is no record of the judgments made, but try going a whole day without making a judgment on anyone – it’s impossible.
Given that we are going to be judged in some sense by virtually everyone we meet, we may as well accept it as fact. We can hope that the judgments are fair, and in cases where the judgement matters, we should expect factual evidence to trump gut instinct. When the evidence is overwhelming, it’s hard to oppose a judgment, but it’s also easy to ignore the person who deems a candidate unsuitable for hiring because of their vice-like handshake or odd choice of socks.
One of the things on which all teachers seem to be unified is the pointlessness of grading individual lessons. Apart from the level of subjectivity that must be involved when only one person makes the judgment, each lesson is never taught in isolation. No-one ever picked up War and Peace, started at page 307, finished on page 308 and declared it a masterpiece/utter tripe as a result – at least no-one would be taken seriously if they did. I teach my Sixth Form classes for 7 lessons per fortnight, for about 55 weeks. That’s about 200 lessons – or if each lesson was a page, it’s a fairly short book (though I’m sure it feels more like War and Peace to them). How many pages of a book must one read before feeling able to make a valid judgment on the literary merit of the novel? I reckon you need to read them all – plenty of books set the scene wonderfully and introduce strong characters then tend to fizzle out for an inability to pull all the strands together. Some books are only possible to fully appreciate once you complete the final page.
It’s never possible to observe teachers for more than a slender fraction of their lessons with any one set, so can our judgments ever be valid? I think it’s all about piecing together the evidence. Listen to the pupils – teacher reputations are rarely far from the truth. You do need to listen to lots of pupils, however, just as you should be prepared to watch lots of lessons. It is also eminently fair to make judgments based on a teacher’s class results. But you need to scrutinise a lot of results, across different sets and different academic years. It is a fallacy that great teachers don’t get at least very good results, likewise the results achieved by pupils taught by poor teachers rarely rise above the ‘in line with ability’. ‘Teaching to the test’ doesn’t necessarily gain better results that teaching pupils in order they become first rate historians/physicists/hispanists – the first approach creates pupils who are good at exams, the second creates pupils who are good at subjects (hence good at exams). The best teachers are experts in their subject; have a genuine interest; are able to communicate this interest; care about the education of the pupils they teach; will make time when needed to assist their charges.
This much is probably obvious, but here are two characteristics of the best that sometimes go unnoticed: firstly, the greatest teachers tend to take full responsibility for the results they achieve (even though they know it’s a joint responsibility) – they realise that the pupils they teach are not adults, but they are. We must try to instill a sense of responsibility for one’s work and actions into our pupils, but there will inevitably some that will fail to do so, and that’s when we must be the safety net. The second point (and it’s the only part of great teaching that I believe is ‘born’) is that the best teachers have a sense of intuition about their teaching – they know when to slow down, or push the class harder, when they need to move off topic and when they need to keep drilling. It was said of ex-England cricket captain Mike Brearley that he ‘had a degree in people‘, and for all those teachers with more than one degree, that’s the most important second qualification.
I will continue to make judgments on my pupils, colleagues, Headmaster and pizza delivery boy, and I fully expect them to make judgments on me. A few years ago a pupil I taught to GCSE received the only ‘E’ grade in the School that year, across the entire year group and across every subject. One question required him to explain why magnesium blocks were strapped to the hull of a ship. He left the question blank, but chose instead to colour in the ship with a 4-way biro. It wasn’t even a particularly good piece of colouring, involving the going-over of many edges. Should I be judged on this grade? Absolutely, but it’s a single point, and I think it’s fair to say, an outlier. I can still learn from that experience and the day I start saying the pupils ‘get what they deserve’, it’s time to move on.