I have a confession: The most helpful post-observation conference I’ve ever had wasn’t with my principal or assistant principal. Too often, those conversations have been short-circuited by pressures on school leaders to identify ratings, comply with guidelines, and move on to the next observation—since many school leaders are responsible for evaluating every teacher in their building.
Rather, the conversation that most increased my ability to teach kids was with the lead teacher of the social studies department as part of an informal, nonjudgmental, fact-based, and collaborative observation process. So, what did this observation look and sound like?
Before visiting my classroom, she asked me a few questions. She asked me: “What did I predict students would say during the conversations?” and “What did I predict students would write in the assigned paragraph?”
While visiting my classroom, she listened to my students. She sat among the students and paid close attention to their conversations and actions. She took low-inference notes—what students were doing and saying in conjunction to what I was doing and saying. Before leaving my room, she gave me a copy of her notes and asked me to look them over before we met to discuss the observation.
After visiting my classroom, she collaborated with me and pushed my thinking. I talked about what stood out to me most in her notes. She also identified a few items that stood out to her. We looked at student work from the lesson and identified understandings and misunderstandings. We compared what students said and wrote throughout the lesson to my initial predictions. She asked me to think about how I would re-teach this lesson knowing what I know now. I verbalized and wrote down my instructional next steps and things that I wanted to try in the future. She smiled, we both acknowledged that we learned something new; we expressed gratitude and I received an invitation to visit her classroom for the same purpose of being a thought partner.
I also left our meeting feeling like a professional that had agency over my own classroom. I remember thinking, “Wow, this person really values looking at student work and the strategies school leaders ask us to engage in to optimize instruction.”
Better Feedback Needed
What made this process so effective was that it was about informing my professional practice rather than giving me a rating or rank. Based upon my experiences as a classroom teacher and a coach, teachers need to collaborate with other educators in ways that push their capacity to teach kids more than they need evaluators that check boxes indicating their aptitude. Evaluators need to be skilled in fostering professional growth by providing constructive feedback based on classroom observation, student work, and surveys of student perceptions.
This principle is echoed in a recent report by the Aspen Institute titled “Teacher Evaluations and Support Systems: A Roadmap for Improvement.” The report emphasizes that “the purpose of teacher evaluation is to accelerate professional growth and development that leads to instructional improvement and greater success for students, not to create anxiety and concerns about job security among educators.” The report recommends several ways to refine evaluation systems so that they truly strengthen teachers.
For example, the Aspen Institute recommends that evaluators be trained to have the “skill and will to provide meaningful, constructive feedback to a colleague.” While it’s important that evaluators are able to accurately and reliably use rubrics to measure teaching practice, when they use them in a proforma manner without coaching conversations that foster reflection, they give teachers little more than a thumbs up or thumbs down—which doesn’t help teachers identify ways to grow in their practice. Such actions also promote a fixed mindset and a culture in which teachers are fearful to take the risks necessary to learn how to best teach their kids. Measures of teacher effectiveness are useful tools in fostering common language, promoting goal setting, and engaging teachers in self-reflection, but the ratings themselves only mark the milestones, not the roads by which teachers get there.
Shifting the Focus
Building on the strategies in the report, I encourage everyone involved in teacher evaluation systems—from policymakers to educators—to consider ways to shift the focus of evaluations from rating to reflection.
If you are a policymaker:
• Think about how you can help empower school leaders to support teachers’ growth in ways that go beyond performance ratings.
• Support locally developed measures of student learning and engage teachers in improving teacher evaluation systems.
If you are a teacher:
• Ask your students for feedback on your class. Reach out to both high-achieving and low-achieving students and listen to what they have to say about your classroom.
• Invite school leaders and colleagues into your room and ask them to take low-inference notes, or better yet ask them to videotape your class and the kids working. Kobe Bryant studies tapes of himself playing ball with the curiosity of a scientist in the lab.
If you are a school leader:
• View classroom visits through the lens of growth—focusing on learning, teaching, and outcomes rather than evaluation or judging a teacher’s ability to teach kids. Leverage observations as a way to build relationships with your staff that enable teachers to build their reflective capacities.
• Identify teachers who have leadership potential or better yet are already doing the work. Find ways for these individuals to provide 1:1 peer coaching, facilitate professional collaborations, strategically design adult learning, and facilitate leadership conversations to ensure teachers are collaborating with school leadership in a solutions oriented manner.
For now, the reality is that most of the time a classroom teacher is going to be on their own. No one else but the kids, the teacher, and hopefully a few colleagues will be in their classroom to provide feedback on a regular basis. But let’s re-imagine how we can leverage realities to improve teaching and learning. Let’s ensure schools are places of learning for teachers as much as they are for students. Every lesson, classroom visit, and 1:1 conference is an opportunity to increase a teacher’s ability to better serve kids.