When I started as a teacher in New York City, I was, to put it mildly, a mess. In my first week, I cried in front of my principal when talking about how ill-prepared I felt, and he did something I never expected: He put a veteran teacher in my room. Gail taught every lesson in my class for about two weeks, and after a month, I was teaching the full day on my own. Gail was there, though, and every afternoon we assessed what had gone well and what I could change. Eventually Gail was assigned to another task in the school, but I’ll never forget how valuable her guidance in those first months of teaching was.
Having Gail as a mentor introduced me to that school’s culture of professional learning, a culture that I saw reinforced when teachers availed themselves of the option for peer evaluation. At that time in New York City, teachers could opt to go through a peer-observation process in lieu of one administrator observation. For a peer observation, the teacher selected a colleague who was skilled at a particular practice and observed that teacher in her classroom. The teachers met to discuss what they had seen and done, and the skilled teacher then observed the initial teacher in her classroom attempting what she had observed.
It was easy to know who to observe—we all had our strengths and they were not secrets: Christina had great classroom management skills, Kristen’s math workshop was efficient and fast-paced, Mel’s small groups were strongly differentiated. Eventually, even I was considered a good person to observe, especially when it came to giving English-language learners a voice. The opportunity to learn from colleagues was invaluable, and the peer observation option made the teacher-evaluation process a learning one instead of strictly a disciplinary one.
But peer observation disappeared as an option in NYC when we adopted a new evaluation system. Today 60 percent of a teacher’s end-of-year rating is based on classroom observations. There are several options to choose from, including both formal and informal observations. In general, these observations are conducted by administrators, and the teacher’s final rating can determine whether she retains her position in the coming years. It makes sense, of course, to receive feedback and evaluation from one’s principal—but I still think we are missing an opportunity in not making more room for learning from colleagues.
This year there is a new option for teachers who were rated “highly effective” in the 2013-14 school year: In addition to three informal observations, they can host three visitations from other teachers to observe their work. While this is a step in the right direction, the visitations are strictly observatory and do not require any evaluative or reciprocal elements. If we want to encourage teachers to learn from each other’s practice, we need to value the visitation experience as highly as an administrator’s observation. In doing so, we could change the culture of evaluations into one of professional learning.
I’m now in my seventh year as a teacher New York City’s public schools and I credit those initial professional learning experiences with keeping me in the profession. New York loses 42 percent of teachers in their first three years, and we owe it to our students to fight to retain newer staff members, who could turn into “highly effective” teachers in only a few years’ time, just as I did.
Read more of this edition of Teaching Ahead: Are Schools Making the Most of Classroom Observations?
Maura N. Henry is a teacher at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria in New York City. She is a member of Educators 4 Excellence New York, where she was recently part of a Teacher Policy Team on testing and assessment.
Join CTQ Collaboratory for a Twitter chat (#CTQchat) on Thursday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. EST to discuss teacher-to-teacher feedback loops and peer observation.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.