Sunday August 19, 2012
The truth of the matter
TEACHER TALK By MALLIKA VASUGI
While offering an honest opinion may be the righteous thing to do, we sometimes hold back for fear that it may adversely affect the other party.
I SOMETIMES wonder what life would be like if everybody speaks the entire truth, or tells it like it really is all the time.
Imagine waking up one day and deciding that from that day on, every single thing you say, write, record, or calculate as a teacher would be the total unadulterated truth with no padding or omissions. No more half-truths, half-lies or exaggerations. From now on it is going to be 100% honesty in school even if it is going to hurt.
You soon discover that there’s more to honesty than speaking the entire truth all the time.
Some things like making sure what you do in the classroom and what you write in your teaching record are an exact match, though inconvenient, is not impossible. However, there seems to be a larger struggle when others are involved.
For instance, how do you give minimum competency grades in a certain field to students as has been “advised” by your superiors when you know that they don’t come anywhere near minimum competency.
How do you record a student’s conduct as “satisfactory” or even “good” in their school-leaving certificate when he has been disruptive, rude, ill-mannered and lazy.
If you had to be entirely truthful, then it may mean that only 10% of your co-curriculum society members actually showed up regularly for their club or society meetings. But some manipulation of meetings and dates allow for attendance numbers to be inflated in order to make school records look good and not subject the school to unwanted scrutiny from the powers that be.
Deep inside, you may feel uncomfortable with the way the truth is somewhat twisted, but in the end you shrug it off and succumb to instructions because there simply seems to be no other way.
After all, we rationalise, we are not the ones making these decisions. We merely carry out what has been directed by those above us. And yet at the end of it all, we are left with an uneasy feeling that this is not the way it should be.
Our written records should reflect what really has gone on and not what we may have desired them to be.
Still, there are times when the decision is a really tough one. When do we tell it like it is and when do we hold back?
For instance when you are asked to give a genuine appraisal of a colleague’s performance, it may be really difficult to write any response that reflects badly on her teaching competence no matter how true it is.
We know that any negative comment we give may jeopardise her chances of moving ahead and we don’t want to be the ones responsible for holding her back.
Also, at the back of our minds, we think about what it would be like when our own turn comes and someone else has to report on us. And the truth is there are grey areas where the truth is sometimes dependent on what is perceived and this is relative to the observer.
So sometimes when we are not too sure whether what we report is an accurate representation of the situation, we tend to play it safe by giving scores that are higher than what is deserved.
Although everyone in the end seems happy with this and it seems like a true win-win situation for the person being evaluated and the evaluator, the down side is people actually begin to have delusions of their own competence and mistake mediocrity for brilliance.
At another level, this may also be the reason why we have students who have little or no oral proficiency in a particular language with certificates that testify to their having achieved a satisfactory level of proficiency.
This may also be the reason why reports on various aspects of the school always end up as “satisfactory” even if the toilets are stinking and rats are scuttling across the canteen floor! How do we tell it like it is, when what it is to us, may be different from what it is to someone else?
Perhaps the hardest thing to do would be to stay true to our gut feelings of what is good and what isn’t, and be prepared to state the truth if needed, regardless of the consequences.
That however doesn’t give us the license to indiscriminately criticise or make disparaging remarks whenever we feel something that is presented or achieved by our students, colleagues or superiors fall short of expectations.
While we don’t have to gush forth with false praise saying how well they have done, we can also choose not to give unsolicited comments if it is not going to achieve anything besides giving us the chance to gloat.
But at times, we don’t have the luxury of being able to reserve our comments. We may be needed to grade student competency and the only thing that lies between a pass or fail grade may be our own personal judgement on the performance.
You could choose to record what you feel to be the true reflective grade and risk having another student fail the subject in your class, or you could lower your own personal standards.
In the same way you could write the exact truth in any needed report and risk being on bad terms with the people you work with.
When you think deeply about it, it becomes almost something of a moral dilemma and there is always someone to point out to you that being completely honest isn’t worth it. They tried it once and see where it got them. Nowhere! So they tell you not to get all worked up about the difference between an A and a B grade or even a satisfactory and an excellent appraisal.
After all everyone else is generously adding numbers and percentages where it should matter, so it all balances out in the end.
But does it really balance out? No matter how noble the goals may sound, the ends do not justify the means.
A little exaggeration, an extra padding of files with slightly altered or completely made-up minutes of fictitious meetings with inflated attendance records may not seem to be such a terrible thing to do, but this may have something to do with the reason we end up with students whose actual ability in curricular and co-curricular activities sometimes doesn’t match up to what is documented.
This is also the reason we have students who despite having achieved “competent” levels in both school and public evaluations still fail to demonstrate any level of mastery in a specified field.
This may also be the reason why we churn out people who choose to acquire fake degrees rather than sweat it out. We may have indirectly promoted this culture of lackadaisical half-heartedness among our students when we make it so easy for them to make a grade.
If the rot really sets in, we may end up with individuals in positions of authority with mediocre ability but inflated egos who actually believe they are superior.
There are some who are convinced that these deluded individuals who think they are better than the rest are the real losers because when it comes to the crunch, their lack of competence will show through.
Others believe that the losers are the ones who have competed in the same race and due to inaccurate documentation have ended up with the same level of competency stamped on them as those who were far less able than them.
But I choose to agree with the third group which believes that the real losers in the end are at the macro level, in a society where the weak lead and incompetence sits in positions of authority, meting out decisions and directives which are sometimes tinged with personal agenda.
But perhaps the real danger is when the truth itself is not obvious anymore, and when there is no longer any twinge of conscience within us when we tell it as it should be, and not as it really is.
The danger will be when we can no longer differentiate between what is true and what is not, and begin to view everything as grey even when there are clear boundaries of black and white in front of us. Perhaps we need to get back to grass-roots, to calling a spade a spade. After all the truth is something we owe to ourselves.