An Open Letter to the Proprietors of Rate My Teachers Dot Com

When I became a teacher, I knew there were some undesirable things I would have to deal with: Out-of-control children, helicopter parents, administrators and other teachers on a power trip, to name a few. One thing I did not foresee was a website dedicated to providing ratings of teachers done by none other than the children themselves. Rate My Teachers (which I will refer to as RMT hereafter) is a fairly new website that gives students a voice to do just that. I personally don’t have a problem with students expressing their opinion of me, but if they are going to do so, I prefer that their opinion be constructive so that I can learn from it, and that their opinion be based solely on my teaching. If you’ve ever been on the site, you will see that this isn’t always the case. It is nice to give students this outlet, but I fear more harm may be coming from it at this time than good. I’m not saying take the site down, as some people who post in the comments section do; I am simply saying the site needs to be reformed so that the result can actually be better teaching. Before I explain how this reform should be done, allow me to explain where I am coming from with this.

I began my teaching career as do most teachers with the belief that I could change the face of teaching for the better. I was regarded as a better-than-average teacher, which is exceptional for a first year teacher. I was able to reach some of my students, but the ones I wasn’t able to reach put a sour note on my first year of teaching. As a first year teacher, my day seemed to consist of teaching 6 classes, coming home, spending all night (6 hours plus) planning for the next day with few breaks, and then waking up and doing it all over again. I had Saturday to relax but Sunday was all full lesson planning. I was tireless; I wanted to help everyone. I even put teaching in front of things that would benefit me as a person, like martial arts and exercise. And in exchange for all of this effort and hard work, students used the RMT website to make rude comments regarding my appearance and bash the teaching skills that I was working hard trying to develop. I was so upset the first time I saw what kids had written about me, I called out sick the next day and almost quit the profession after the first year. Not only were the comments malicious, mean, and spiteful, but they in no way helped me evaluate my teaching so I could improve. That doesn’t even begin to cover how difficult it is for a first year teacher to adjust – I had a tough enough time trying to do my job – having a mentor teacher who, instead of helping me succeed, was dedicated to my failure – without some mean-spirited children slandering me. This site, as the RMT creators laud their site for being, could be a place where:

– Students have the unique opportunity to “critique” their teachers.
– Truly committed teachers evaluate their own teaching methods.
– Dedicated teachers can benefit from the honest, anonymous feedback.
– Ineffective teachers are exposed, and stellar teachers praised.
– The mediocrity of “passionless impostors” who call themselves teachers will come to an end

These things are NOT so, however, because there are too many problems with the site, and it is these problems that prevent teachers, principals, and district administrators from giving RMT the consideration that it feels it deserves. These problems include, but are not limited to, the following:

– Inappropriate comments made at the expense of hard working teachers
– Unexplained negative/positive ratings that are of no use to committed teachers looking to evaluate their teaching methods.
– Publicizing private citizens against their will.
– Incomplete rating criteria that don’t accurately cover the myriad roles a teacher plays.
– A numeric rating system that many raters don’t seem to use properly.

To correct these oversights, I offer 5 changes that should be implemented in order to improve the site, make it a site that all are more likely to take seriously, and foster a teaching/learning community where the goal is BETTER TEACHING. Here goes:

1) Require all raters to log into the site, YET STILL KEEP RATINGS ANONYMOUS. Two things about this site are teaching very poor lessons to children. One is that if there is a problem in class, rather than discuss it with the teacher, you should report the problem anonymously to the website. Unfortunately, the worldwide web has given everybody the power to do that, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. If not RMT, maybe the student starts a blog on myspace talking about what a “dick” Mr. Jones is. There is nothing we can do about the non-confrontational passive-aggressive behavior that parents are passing down to their children. There is something, however, that we can do about the second problem. One of the most unwaveringly defended rights afforded to us in our constitution is the right to free speech. I would never support any measure to repeal that right. With every right, however, comes responsibility, and with this particular right, that responsibility is to be held accountable for the things we say. If you drive past a cop, flip him off, and call him a pig, don’t expect your freedom of speech to protect you from getting a ticket. Don’t expect freedom of speech to spare your life if you go around Harlem dropping n-bombs. We all appreciate the right of free speech. But we also know that if we tell a guy twice our size that his mother is a whore, we’re going to be missing teeth. Accountability for the things you say and free speech go hand-in-hand, and by telling our kids that it’s ok to slander our hard working teachers without being accountable to anybody, and without so much as allowing these people to respond to what we say is not in the spirit of what the framers of the constitution nor the creators of its amendments had in mind. By requiring anyone who wants to post a rating to create an account and log in, the site’s owners can hold people accountable for the comments they make if they be inappropriate or slanderous. By keeping comments anonymous, students who critique teachers in accord with the rules can feel free to give honest feedback without fear that it will be held against them in the classroom. (It shouldn’t, as teachers should be professional, but remember they are also human and have feelings.) It works like this: If a student makes an inappropriate comment, the comment is flagged and sent to the RMT admins. The admins send an email to the rater, stating that his/her account will be closed and posting abilities disabled until the child grows up and learns how to post constructive criticism without being inappropriate. Furthermore, the system will reject any future signup attempts from his IP address for a specified amount of time. The child is held accountable for his/her comments, but no teacher or student ever had to know it was him/her who made the comment. As a result, I believe that teachers and administrators would take the site so much more seriously knowing that students would be encouraged to write things about their teaching rather than about their appearance, personality, gossip, and other things that have nothing to do with what kind of teacher they are. Furthermore, allow teachers to create a login and respond to comments. The current system allows students the right to free expression and denies teachers the same right. Unamerican!

We can use this change to alleviate one of the other problems with the site, and that is publicizing private citizens against their will. Unfortunately, as a teacher, your name is likely to be on the website, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about that. However, is it necessary that anyone on the web can look at any teacher’s ratings? I suspect that a lot of teachers are freaked out because any idiot with a computer can go see what kids think of them. It would be more effective if students were required to, as part of their login, choose the school that they belong to, so they can rate teachers from that school AND ONLY FROM THAT SCHOOL. Thus, even though a teacher’s name is on a public website, only people who need to see it can see it. This way, Mike Jones in Alaska won’t really be able to look at the teacher ratings for Shirley Smith in New Jersey. (Does he really need to?) Sure anyone could make multiple logins, but I think don’t think a person is going to craft a login for a million different schools. I think teachers would be more comfortable with that. To supplement this argument, district administrators could be allowed to see teacher ratings from any school in the district. Parents who have children in different schools within the district (for example, one high school aged and one middle school aged) can see and rate any teacher in the district, but ONLY that district.

To sum up, require students to login so that they will be held accountable to the site administrators for the comments they make, but allow them to remain anonymous. Allow teachers to respond to any comments made. Require any raters to choose a school or school district so that teachers can remain mostly-private citizens.

2) Remove the school admin feature that keeps track of the number of ratings that a student “site moderator” has approved. This is a little-known feature of the site that only site moderators and the RMT owners are aware of. I’ll explain specifically what it entails in a moment. For now, think of what I have just said regarding inappropriate comments. As you are aware, there are rules in place forbidding any rater to make comments about a teacher’s race, sex, appearance, etc… anything unrelated to teaching. Now you have to ask yourselves… if the rules state that comments of the aforementioned type are not to be tolerated on the site, how do so many of them get through? Well, that lies almost completely in the hands of the site moderators. You see, when someone makes a comment for a school, the actual comments remain in the admin area for approval. Now, schools that have a site moderator are usually okay. However, many sites do not have a moderator. Who approves these comments? I’ll tell you who. Anyone who has been a moderator for, I believe 30 days or longer can approve comments made by students in any other school. All ratings made for a teacher at a school without a moderator get queued up at one central location waiting for the first person who decides to approve/deny the comment to evaluate the words as typed. Now that’s okay, as long as the rater and administrator adhere to the rules. The problem exists because there is a function of the admin area that lists each moderator along with the number of teacher comments they have approved. This creates a superfluous competition to see who can approve the most ratings, and to see how the number of ratings you have approved compares to the number of ratings other site moderators have approved. Because of this, I believe that most comments aren’t scrutinized for adherence to the rules like they should be, and many thoughtless, immature, useless comments get through. This problem needs to get fixed by REMOVING this FUNCTION immediately. What purpose does it serve to tally how many ratings each moderator approves. If each moderator acts for the benefit of the site, then no “contest” is needed anyway because that DEGRADES the site’s true purpose.

3) Add relevant criteria to the existing rating criteria (Helpfulness, Easiness, Clarity) and remove numeric ratings in favor of worded ratings. While we’re on the subject of rating approvals, let’s talk about the criteria used to rate these teachers. We have helpfulness, clarity, and easiness (which doesn’t even count toward the overall rating number.) Are these REALLY the only components of effective teaching? There are so many other things to be considered when we think of what a good teacher should be. That is not to say that Clarity and Helpfulness are not important; they are. But when I think of my best teachers, what makes them great are the way lessons are developed. For starters, effective teachers activate students’ background knowledge so that new learning can occur. They successfully make one lesson follow logically from the last, and they reinforce the material in a creative way such that learning occurs. The categories of “healpfulness, easiness, and clrity” do not even begin to encapsulate these teaching skills. Other characteristics of an excellent teacher is whether he or she is interesting, well organized, is enthusiastic about the subject, manages the classroom well, is proactive about discipline, and easily walks the fine line between being understanding of adolescent problems and letting students walk all over them. All of these would make great categories and would paint a more complete picture of what it is like to be in the teacher’s classroom. We should add rating criteria that included some of these, as well as other appropriate criteria. Some students actually try to give a fair evaluation of the teacher’s strengths/weaknesses, but in general, I notice that a well liked teacher often gets all fives. Regarding the easiness category, even though a student means to rate a teacher highly, as a teacher I personally would consider a 5 rating in easiness to be an insult. A good teacher is not necessarily and is often not an easy one. The best score for easiness is, in my opinion, a 3. If a student doesn’t like the teacher, often he/she will give the teacher all ones. In many cases these ratings aren’t consistent with the teacher at all. For instance, there is a teacher in my school who, although the day ends at 2:30pm, she routinely stays until 5pm just to give students extra help. Yet a lot of students rate her a “one” in helpfulness. How could that be true if she gives so much of her own time to help students? Just because a student didn’t take advantage of the help that she offered does not mean she is not helpful. Instead of rating teachers on a 1-5 scale, they should have to rate the teachers using a drop-down list containing words. The list would contain five different rating levels for that category – most helpful, very helpful, somewhat helpful, not particularly helpful, unhelpful – along with a brief description of each (for example, most helpful – teacher is available almost every day for extra help and is willing to answer any question you have.) This would, I believe, force students to think about how they are going to evaluate a teacher BEFORE they do it. I believe it would be more effective than just a simple number which students can use without really understanding.

4) Take down the “Wall of shame.” For those who don’t know, the “Wall of Shame” is a listing of schools who have blocked students from accessing RMT on school property. If a school district doesn’t want students on your website rating teachers during school hours, then you should just accept that. Maybe the reason that your site is restricted at so many schools is because your site is incredibly flawed. So rather than addressing the problems with your site that are causing district administrators to block it, you created a “wall of shame.” Instead of this ridiculous wall, lead by example and evaluate the message that your website is sending to schools (it may be different than what you think it is), see what is causing schools to block it, and make changes. After all, you expect teachers to evaluate their teaching based on the ratings they receive on your website. Why then, do you not evaluate your website based on the comments that you receive from others? You don’t seem to be willing to practice what you preach, RMT! If teachers who came to your website followed YOUR lead, they would be creating the “wall of crappy websites” and sticking RMT at the top of it instead of doing what you hope they’ll do – addressing their teaching and fixing the problem! Fix your flawed website, and you will find a lot of districts may remove the blocked access.

5) I know I am about to lose a lot of you on this suggestion, but please read the whole thing before disagreeing with it. My final suggestion is to remove all user comments entirely. Most of the problems with this site stem from the comments – partly for the aforementioned reasons, that many inappropriate comments get through. But aside from that, let’s agree with the RMT standpoint that 60% of the ratings are positive. But how many of the comments, good or bad, are actually useful? One of RMT’s most hard-fought views of their site is that teachers should use what students say to make positive changes in their teaching. To see what types of comments teachers have to work with in order to improve, go to a random teacher on your school’s RMT page who has at least 10 ratings, and look at the comments. I am doing this right now. If you consider an overall rating of 3 or above to be a positive rating, and below three to be a negative rating, I am viewing the teaching profile of a teacher with 14 ratings, 9 positive and 5 negative (Perhaps there is some merit to the 60% positive claim.) 4 of the positives have no comment, along with 3 of the negatives. Of the two negatives with comments, one of the comments is “I don’t like him” and the other is “doesn’t know how to teach.” Both comments equally useless, the former a social commentary (I’m sure this site exists so you can tell people who you like) the latter a matter of opinion from someone not qualified to make such claims (does the student know how to teach? Not likely.) In neither instance are any suggestions for improvement given. The positive comments: “Great teacher,” “Go (enter teacher’s name)!” “Interesting and informative, but a little disorganized,” “best teacher ever,” and “he rox my sox.” The only comment here that is of use is the interesting and informative comment. How is a teacher supposed to use any of these comments to improve? One can argue that as long as a teacher is receiving positive comments, then he/she doesn’t need to improve. There is no such thing as a teacher that can’t improve – but you WON’T improve as a teacher unless you know what it is that you need to improve. Furthermore, it is important to know what specifically you do RIGHT, so you don’t lose sight of that down the road. From a statistical standpoint, the above example is by no means a random sample that is representative of every rated teacher on RMT. However, while it seems to be true that roughly 60% of ratings on the site are positive, if you look around, you’ll see that less than 20% of all comments are useful. It is not difficult to see why this is – you’re asking students, many of them pre-pubescent – to make comments on people’s teaching careers, when they have no way of putting themselves in the others’ shoes. Most of them have never even held a job. What do you expect from children? After all, children are younger, less mature versions of adults, and all you have to do is look at the comments section of this website to see that adults can tend toward immaturity and inappropriate comments, too! In the comments section of the website, students, parents, teachers, and the general populace all debate the effectiveness and the appropriateness of RMT. There is a teacher who resorted to correcting a student’s grammar to make him/her feel small instead of approaching the topic maturely and rationally – which is what we expect from an adult. Ergo, any comment made can be harmful, and remember, the point of the comments is that they are supposed to HELP teachers become better. The way the system is right now, very few comments, good or bad, actually are helpful. To fix this, instead of leaving a space for people to write in comments, have two categories: “Positive Feedback” and “Suggestions for Improvement.” Under each category, have pre-made comments such as “makes class interesting and engaging,” “students are afraid to ask questions because the teacher reacts negatively to questions he/she deems stupid,” etc. Even I am not completely comfortable with this suggestion, but until all people involved with the site – parents, teachers, administrators, RMT site creators, and especially students because they do most of the rating – realize that the point of this site is to help teachers improve, not to slander or argue with them – the quality of the comments will continue to be poor. Ultimately, that detracts from the site’s true goal as purported by the creators of RMT.

I believe that the suggestions I have given would be excellent ways to address the problems with the site. However, don’t expect that the creators and administrators of the RMT website will listen to these or other suggestions. I know I just wasted quite a lot of my time formulating this list, but the RMT people will never change the site, and it is not because they are dastardly fiends who don’t care about education. I am certain that they believe somewhat in their message, and that they really care to some degree about more effective teaching. Keep in mind, however, that RMT is a website, and the point of any website is to attract visitors. The website, as it exists now, with all its flaws, creates conflict. Conflict creates controversy. Controversy creates buzz, and buzz draws visitors, plain and simple. More visitors means more page views, more advertising, more revenue, and more money in their pocket, which means more fame through press and articles written about them, which means even more visitors, and the cycle continues. That is why you will NOT see a change to ameliorate the problems with the site. That would undoubtedly mean less visitors, and ultimately, less money for them. So while I believe that they do care about education, I believe more firmly that their concern for teaching ends where reduced notoriety and profit loss begins.

I hope this article reaches someone in charge, that they may see the flaws inherent in this website, that it may change for the better, so that teaching may change for the better, so that the quality of education improves, which will always be necessary to shoot for no matter how good education becomes. I hope all teachers who read this also realize that RMT is not going away, so the only thing TO DO is to try and make this a better site for ALL people so that the common goal is better education. Because as it stands now, the website succeeds only in creating bad feelings between teachers, students, and parents, and it has the potential, if these problems are not addressed soon, the site may steer many potentially fantastic teachers away from the profession. If this happens, I hope the creators of the RMT website will be able to live with themselves in knowing that they degraded the quality of education and got rich by doing it.

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