Teaching Profession Opinion

Teachers Can’t Thrive When They’re Working in Isolation

By Precious Crabtree — November 24, 2014 5 min read
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Precious Crabtree

The question of how teachers in this country should be evaluated, and who should be evaluating them, has exploded into a high-profile—and divisive—national debate. Many teachers dread evaluations for a number of reasons—but for most, it boils down to the fear that we will be negatively assessed using criteria and variables over which we don’t have control.

If teachers are to be as student-focused as possible, we need to turn that around. Rather than a top-down assessment of best practices, the evaluation process should be a collaborative one. Teachers and administrators should work together on goals that foster teachers’ development—goals over which teachers have some ownership, thereby increasing their personal investment in the profession, and in their students’ success.

Teachers need—and I think most want—constructive feedback from others. Professional development should be linked to specific areas we have helped identify as particularly relevant to the needs of our students—not a prescribed in-service by someone who has never been in my classroom. Many evaluation systems fall short because they focus on the wrong things. Student development is the bottom line—but evaluating teachers fairly requires consideration of numerous factors involved in that development. A single test score on a single day is hardly sufficient for that; such an approach is, therefore, inherently unjust.

Restructuring Evaluation

So where do we look for alternatives? I think the answer, at least in part, is to each other. If we are part of a “village” that educates and invests in children, shouldn’t we invest in each other too? Educators have been isolated from one another for too long—it’s time to create more opportunities for collaboration, more chances for us to learn from one another in areas like lesson planning, classroom management, and professional growth. Including peer assessments as part of a standard evaluation process offers structured opportunities to do just that.

Teachers’ unions can also play a role in helping make evaluation processes more constructive. Unions need to build closer partnerships with district leaders to create systems that allow great teachers to use their talents and progress in their careers, while steering less effective teachers out of the classroom. This is already happening in a number of highly regarded school systems across the country.

In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools were among the first in the nation to allow peers to observe and learn from one another as part of an evaluation system called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR). The school system, teachers’ union and the administrators’ association worked together to create and now operate the PAR program. While administrators maintain a critical role in evaluation, Consulting Teachers (CTs) observe and provide individualized support to teachers who are struggling or new to the classroom. A panel of teachers and administrators then reviews the CTs’ documentation and reports, and makes recommendations regarding the renewal of the teachers’ contract. The system has a high degree of validity in teachers’ eyes because 1) recommendations are based on the perceptions of several educators rather than those of a single evaluator based on one or two observations, and 2) teachers themselves are integral to the process.

Empowering Effective Teachers is a relatively new teacher evaluation system used by Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, is a well thought out, planned, and vetted system. Its goal is “to promote effective teaching in every classroom by identifying and rewarding effective teaching across our district.” The system has three components based on student achievement, principal evaluations, and peer mentor evaluations. While the student achievement component is subject to debate, the broader point is that the program focuses on supporting teacher development through evaluation, professional development, and compensation. It also provides teachers with other avenues for leadership without going into administration by allowing them to serve as peer evaluators, mentors, and teacher leaders.

By making their evaluation systems more inclusive, these districts have changed their culture of schools to one that more effectively promotes collaboration. As lead mentor in my school, I see the value in this collaborative work. Faced with a new teacher who is struggling, I enlist other teacher leaders in our building to help support her or him—but for many this is challenging due to time constraints. Our school system has no peer observers and relies heavily on administrators to evaluate teachers. It also burdens teachers with time-consuming paperwork that does little to demonstrate our ability to reach our kids. My newer teachers would benefit from a structure that focuses on observations by many, accompanied by frequent feedback that allows them to hone their skills.

Culture Shock

For some teachers, the prospect of being evaluated by their peers will be a culture shock. Personally, I welcome it and feel it is long overdue. The truth is that if we want to own our profession, we need to lead it—and we can’t do that in isolation. If we have evaluation systems we trust because we are active participants in them, we can focus on being excellent teachers rather than being distracted by the need to jump through hoops. More importantly, if we are invested in our own professional development based on student-centered goals we have created with our administrators and peers, we will be more likely to feel a sense of fulfillment and growth at the end of each day. And America’s children will reap the benefits.

Read more of this edition of Teaching Ahead: Are Schools Making the Most of Classroom Observations?

An elementary art educator in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, Precious Crabtree serves as a lead mentor teacher in her school and as government relations council chair for the Fairfax Education Association. In March 2014, she received the Virginia Education Association Award for Teaching Excellence, which honors excellence in the classroom and advocacy in the community. Follow her on Twitter @sweetpcrabtree.

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