Trust and Feedback: Finding the Balance for Teacher Evaluations

My first year of teaching was a constant struggle. Classroom management was my biggest problem, but I struggled with many of the other fundamentals of teaching. While I often look back at that first year as a personal failure, I know that I ended the year a much more effective teacher than I began. This was due in part to constant self-reflection and assessment, but I owe most of my improvement to my mentor, my instructional coach from my masters program, and working with an AUSSIE literacy coach.

The extra pair of eyes, paired with many years of experience, that each of these women offered, gave me an opportunity to analyze my strengths and weaknesses with a fresh and helpful perspective. My mentor, a fifth-year teacher taught me many basics of classroom management and lesson planning. My instructional coach helped me understand what differentiation meant in terms of classroom practice. My AUSSIE coach helped me get a better grasp of the workshop model and guided reading.

Each of these relationships were focused on observations of my teaching and conversations about how to make it better. They were also all predicated on trust. I knew that each of these people were coming to my classroom to help make me a better teacher so I could help all my students learn.

I can't help, but juxtapose these experiences with the formal evaluations I had during my first year, and since. I had two formal observations in my first year of teaching, both rated satisfactory, and with minimal actionable feedback. In my second year I had only one formal observation, rated satisfactory, but without a post-observation. At the end of that second year, I had to rely heavily on my own assessment of my abilities based on my own reflections, student test scores and general feedback from peers. Based on this inexact measurement, I felt I was doing a pretty good job.

When I landed at PS 310 after being excessed, I realized quickly how many gaps there were in my self-assessment. PS 310 had a very different culture with regards to observations and feedback. I had the entire administrative team in my classroom about once a month for learning walks (extended visits with a specific focus, i.e. math investigations, in mind) or snapshots (brief, low inference observations). My AP came through occasionally for informal observations in addition to the three official observations she carried out throughout the year.

These observations gave me opportunities for specific feedback I hadn't really had before, even with all the extra help during my first year. I was encouraged to receive compliments on my classroom management, my pacing, and use of accountable talk. I also received several specific points of improvement, for example creating more process charts that would support student learning. I had gone from a famine of feedback to a feast, but it wasn't necessarily easy.

As is always the case with classroom visits and feedback, there needed to be a mutual trust between me and my observers. After two years with minimal administrative involvement, the open door policy of my new school took some getting used to. I had to maintain an open mind, and at times I know I let my ego get in the way of being more responsive and proactive when given recommendations. Ultimately however, I was grateful for the observations, formal and informal, because I realized they gave me opportunities to improve that I was deprived of for two years before. I know the feedback from these observations made my class environment more supportive of ELL's, my guided reading more focused and consistent, and helped me differentiate more effectively for my lowest and highest students.

It's these experiences that convince me of the need for a better teacher evaluation system in New York City. Over the four years I've taught I have felt a mix of emotions toward my teaching. At times there's been frustration and disappointment, and other times pride. Too many times however, I've felt uncertain. A lesson may have felt successful, but the kids still struggled on the assessment. Or a lesson I thought was perfectly planned, crashed and burned unexpectedly.

A teacher knows without a doubt when a lesson fails. And a teacher can tell when a lesson has really engaged students and allowed them to grasp a new concept or skill. Still, it can be sometimes difficult to analyze our own work critically. Regardless of whether a teacher is a novice or a master, another person's perspective is an essential part of improving as a professional.

New York State and the UFT have already agreed on the need for better, more substantive evaluations. According to the new state law, 40% of teacher evaluations will be data-based, so that leaves 60% available to create a powerful new system. It's my hope that our new system will create a climate of trust, similar to the relationship I enjoyed with my mentors and coaches during my first year. I also hope that the system will establish more consistent and authentic opportunities for feedback, similar to the school community I've been a part of for two years. These two components are essential, and I don't believe a teacher evaluation system can succeed without either.

The work I did as a member of E4E's teacher evaluation policy team was an effort to advocate for such a system. Our proposal suggests including observations from an outside observer. This will be an improvement key to safeguarding against malicious or inept administrators. Contribution to school community will reward teachers who participate in intervisitations and lab sites, lead professional development or grade-study meetings, or help out in a number of other ways that are beyond the basic requirements.

The student surveys, which will only work if they are creating in a way that is meaningful and authentic for children of all ages from kindergarten to 12th grade, are my favorite suggestion however. The students, who spend far more time in our classroom than any adult, should be heard, and their voices could provide an invaluable context to the other components of the evaluations.

Over the months that the policy team worked on these evaluations, we never set to create the "perfect system" that we could impose on New York City. Rather, we studied existing systems and surrounding research and asked ourselves, how would we like to be observed? We disagreed on many points, some small and some large, but we were united in our vision of a system that ensured high expectations and fairness for teachers and students. I hope whatever the final outcome for new teacher evaluations in New York City, we end up closer to making that vision a reality.

Comments

I have a few points and concerns that I have with the E4E proposals as well as some of the thoughts that were written in this post.

1.I find it extremely fascinating that your mentor was only teaching for 5 years. My mentor taught for over 30 years and she was superb. I learned so much from her on classroom management.

2. Workshop Model- All a teacher really needs to know is that it is a supplement to the literacy curriculum and not balanced literacy. Sadly, the system is treating the workshop model as the answer to balanced literacy. Truth be told, it is not.

3. End of the year evaluations/self reflections:
How would a teacher be able to do a fair evaluation based on students test scores? We all know that the student test scores have been inflated and not a perfect science to measure students achievement in the classroom. I think careful observations of the children by being attuned to their learning styles, responses, student behaviors and asking the students questions would be more appropriate ways to assess student learning. This would be 'authentic assessment'.

4. Accountable Talk? Please. Move on. I just covered this topic when I discussed authentic assessment to learning.

5. Frustration and disappointment are part of life so get used to it. It happens everywhere, whether it is a teacher, contractor, plumber or a homemaker.

6. I highly doubt that the new evaluation system will create a climate of trust but quite the opposite. When 40% of evaluations will be based on students test scores, nothing good can come out of this.

Speaking of:
7. Has anyone from E4E ever thought about consulting with 'experienced teachers and administrators' in school districts across New York State? It would be interesting to see an array of various teacher evaluations to assess instead.

8. It is not necessary to bring in outside observers/consultants to give feedback on teachers. Its the principals responsibility to ensure positive success in a school. If a principal is acting egregious, there are ways to appropriately handle the situation.

9. Have you ever taught kindergarten or first grade? As an early childhood educator, I would love for you to ask 5 year olds developmentally appropriate questions on your 'effective teaching". Typical responses from a 5 year old would be (regardless), "You are so nice because you are fun". "No, I did not like that because I want to play." I highly doubt they would know what an effective teacher is. 5 year olds would probably use the word, 'best', 'love', 'favorite'.

Furthermore, this writing piece was all about you. Is there ever a time where a writing piece could actually be all about the children and their needs? I would like to see a writing piece on what you think the children need out of the classroom, not what you want to see. There is a big difference.
ruben_b said…
Thanks for your thoughts Tracie. I'm not sure if I can address all your concerns, but here's my best attempt at a thorough response:
1. My first school, like a lot of high-need schools, didn't have many 30 year veterans to draw upon. 5 years of teaching qualified you for veteran status, sort of like as a 4-year teacher I'm one of the most senior teachers at my current school.
2. I'm not really talking about the workshop model as a curriculum but rather as a process for a lesson, i.e. I do, we do, you do.

3. I definitely think the many informal and summative assessments we do in-class provide a lot to reflect off of, but seeing certain kids fail who might have passed with the right supports, can still be an eye-opener.

4. Are we talking about the same thing?

5. ...

6. I agree that the 40% is troublesome, especially when we don't know how it will work for K-3, 9-12, and other teachers not assessed currently by test scores, but I think the observations are the key component to building a system centered on mutual trust.

7. That's a good idea. Our system was brainstormed with NYC in mind though, and I'm not sure other districts in NYS would be as helpful since urban districts are a pretty unique beast.

8. I think in an ideal world we could rely entirely on a principal's judgment, but I think it's important to build a system that tries to safeguard against subjectivity or outright biases.

9. I'm not claiming it's a simple proposition, but I do know that there are student "surveys" for lower grades already. There are ways to do it effectively that account for kids language abilities and cognitive development.

On your last point... This is a personal blog, mainly about my personal experiences. That usually entails talking about myself in some way or another. I do write a fair amount about my students and their needs as well, but that wasn't really relevant to this post.
CharterReform said…
I think one of the better suggestions in the policy paper was having a rubric for administrator observations to make expectations and goals for teachers clear. I also think that student voice is important.

The largest problem with the proposal is rubber stamping the decision that 40% of evaluations are going to be based on one standardized test score using a value added data.

Aside from the fact that VAM data is notoriously unreliable, the real danger is they type of curriculum narrowing that occurs when 40% of an evaluation is based on one test.

The other problem with VAM data is that it provides no actionable information for teachers to change their practice. It will not help me to know how many student failed their ELA exam or what percentile I am in. For teachers to improve, they must know what the trends are across their students. What types of questions did most students miss and what are the specific skill deficiencies students have?

Finally, if we are going to accept this type of evaluation for teachers, there really needs to be the same evaluation at every level up to district leaders.

I wonder why the district leaders don't start by evaluating themselves first?

I also wonder who the paid members of the E4E policy team are.

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