Mo’ Better Teacher Evaluation

Since we can’t seem to get away from formally evaluating teachers – here are some thoughts on improving the process:

Teacher evaluation and professional growth is an essential factor in the health and culture of a school and its collective of learners. As such it must be a clear and understandable part of every teacher’s work. It must be seen as organic and natural rather than artificial and disruptive. How can we create an evaluation policy at a school that honors teachers, learners, and district and state legislative mandates … a policy that seeks ownership rather than “buy in” … a system that shifts our thinking from teaching to learning?

“For most of the twentieth century our educational system has been built on the assumption that teaching is necessary for learning to occur. Accordingly, education has been seen as a process of transferring information from a higher authority (the teacher) down to the student. This model, however, just can’t keep up with the rapid rate of change in the twenty-first century. It’s time to shift our thinking from the old model of teaching to a new model of learning.” (quoted in Thomas and Seely Brown 34)

Current teacher evaluation in my district consists of a pre-observation meeting, an observation by the evaluator, and a post-observation meeting – with some “drive-by” observations, self-evaluations, and goal setting along the way. Teachers digitally submit and curate planning and evidence of their work. Towards the end of the year the evaluator and teacher meet and the evaluator reveals his/her final score and valuation of the teacher. This evaluation is translated into one of the following labels: Innovative (4), Proficient (3), Transitioning (2) and Ineffective (1). Each of these labels carries a financial and so-called “performance” acknowledgement.

Yet, what is missing from this process is input from a teacher’s peers, a network of colleague mentorship, and a robust feedback look that allows for professional dialogue and growth. All of which are duly acknowledged practices that empower teacher development and further embolden a school and its staff as one that takes intellectual risks in the name of modern learning and transformative culture. (Rami, 2014)

Ownership rather than “buy in” will require purposeful communication and time for all staff to contribute and critique ideas for how such a system will work. The purpose of the work must be clear and remain clear throughout the endeavor. This will require frequent review of the purpose via effective facilitation. School leadership must begin the process, which should begin by carefully reflecting on the positives and negatives of the current system. This can be done in concert with the rest of the staff. A simple electronic survey may be employed to solicit sortable data and feedback and to identify teacher-leaders willing to serve as key contributors to the development of a new evaluation process. Further, some form of technology, like Google Plus (community), Classroom (blog/learning management system), or Sites (website) should be created and leveraged as a real-time communication tool that can be accessed by all involved and will notify when updated. Such technology would also allow stakeholders to visibly comment on progress and material.

Progressing in a form of a modified ADDIE design model, a phase of Analysis and Exploration should be initiated to generate the type of data that can be used to both study attitudes and experience with the current system and preparation for the move to a more organic and modern system that empowers culture and honors the idea of a professional network of educators. The data generated by this analysis should then be processed by the leadership team and summarized back to the whole staff of teachers (stakeholders). This summary time should include periods of facilitated questions-and-answers and time for online Q&A as stakeholders continue to process the information. Such reflection may identify the need for further staff development in the form of research, book studies, etc., thus requiring more time for those involved to understand the ideas behind a shift to a new system. This time cannot be unlimited. Stakeholders should be given fair deadlines in which they can demonstrate their progress – essentially analogous to formative and interim assessments. Subsequent staff development must be reserved for this work. Disrespecting the Analysis and Exploration phase of the work will more than likely lead to a lack of ownership by teachers. A benchmark that can be used to determine teacher-learning progress is one that articulates the idea of cultivation of learning rather than mere evaluation – the former emphasizes the organic nature of curiosity and learning, while the latter has a slight negative and dated connotation. Thus the Analysis and Exploration phase identifies believes and honors experience and contribution by staff.

The next phase is one of open and creative design. How can teachers, led by administrators and teacher-leaders design a sustainable system that includes both administrative observation and feedback and colleague observation, feedback, and praise – all the while encouraging and empowering teachers to organize their ideas, work, and reflections on some form of shareable digital media? This work may be done in both traditional content groups (e.g., science, mathematics, etc.) and as interdisciplinary groups. Work in content groups will honor the various intricacies of teachers’ preparation and expertise. Work in interdisciplinary groups will honor effective pedagogical strategies and will identify opportunities for the creation and sharing of interdisciplinary work. These groups should generate clear and broad statements that can be used to initiate deep conversation about learning and how teachers work to help create learning environments that focus on an individual student’s needs and passions. These statements may eventually lead to a sort of rubric that will be used in the evaluation (cultivation) process. Much of this work can be done during a form of professional learning community (PLC) time, where teachers would serve on two such PLCs: content and interdisciplinary.

A third phase, one of Development, would take the ideas generated by the PLCs and develop a formalized system that honors input from administrators and colleagues during observations and collaboration. This phase should develop a system of networking and mentoring amongst educators – one that allows teachers to interact and observe each other and provide feedback regarding the interaction and observation in a manner that can be visible to other teachers. Companies like Google and Zappos have similar peer-to-peer programs designed to encourage and support each other. (Pascual, 2012) Why should education be any different? Creative educators are capable of developing a similar system that supports and honors the work being done at their particular site (school) for their collective of learners.

Small work group (PLCs) are essential and central to much of the work done thus far to design a new evaluation system that teachers own rather than simply buy into. These small PLCs must, at times, come together with other PLCs to share and critique ideas. Schools and functional school units are often too large and should be broken down in size to effect creative and innovative work. (Wagner, 2001). Groups that are too large will result in sheep-like behavior by staff and eventually lead to less facilitation of the groups by leaders and more top-down dictates and less organic (and thus practical and useful) work. Though this work was directed to be site-based, it would be beneficial for principals and their teams to present their findings and design to one another much like how site-based PLCs shared with each other. Though time intensive, this step in the development phase will prod each school to reflect and potentially improve their ideas.

Implementation and Evaluation follow this development phase. A new evaluation system must have a grace period to then itself be evaluated and modified as necessary. These phases are no less crucial than the Analysis, Design, and Development phases that preceded them. The evaluation phase can help determine whether the system needs to be further developed to for novice and experienced teachers and can then address the need to help and mentor teachers deemed somehow marginal by the new system.

The process and ideas described in this post would take upwards of two years to progress to the Evaluation phase and it cannot be rushed. The evaluation and cultivation of teachers is simply too important to cut corners, as such behavior in a building will result in less perceived ownership and thus as an unsustainable top-down disruption to a learning environment, which will lead to “hoop jumping” and benign checklists of tasks. Modern learning communities revolve around deep and impactful learning and teacher evaluation and development must not be exceptions.

(Image credit: JJ Thompson)

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Pascual, M. (2012). Four Peer-To-Peer Ways Zappos Employees Reward Each Other. Retrieved from http://www.zapposinsights.com/blog/item/four-peertopeer-ways-zappos-employees-reward-each-other

Pascual, M. (2012). 5 Out-of-the-Box Ideas for Keeping Employees Engaged. Retrived from http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2012/10/30/zappos-5-out-of-the-box-ideas-for-keeping-employees-engaged

Rami, M. (2014). Thrive: 5 Ways to Reinvigorate Your Teaching: Heinemann Press

Thomas, D. & Seely-Brown, J. (2011) A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change: CreateSpace

Wagner, T. (2001). Leadership for Learning: An Action Theory of School Change. Retrieved from http://www.tonywagner.com/resources/leadership-for-learning

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