June 16, 2011
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 and 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 was 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 around 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 assistant principal 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 suggestions for several specific points where I could improve, such as by 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 for English language learners, focused my guided reading and made it more 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 percent 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 Educators 4 Excellence’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 inter-visitations 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. Students — who spend far more time in our classroom than any adults — 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 out 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.