Yes, evaluate me. But do it well. (Part I)

Last summer, a local non-profit organization called Great Oakland Public Schools hired me to be the manager of teacher leadership. The primary objective of this job is to organize and lead a think-tank of Oakland teachers, who will analyze elements of education reform and policy with an eye toward creating an agenda that we can present to our district and union. In this role, I have been interviewing numerous teachers here in Oakland, CA. Two or three times each week, I got together with a fellow local teacher to sip coffee and chat about school reform and educational policy.

One of the themes that popped up time and again was the teacher evaluation system.
Just like the educational reformers writing articles in Kappan, Ed Leadership, Ed Next, and a whole host of other publications, teachers know that the current system we use to evaluate our teachers is broken.

Observation Dance
When I was an inexperienced teacher and unsure of myself, I would find myself doing the “observation dance.” On the day my principal was going to visit, my learning objectives were on the board; we had an opener to the lesson; we had smooth transitions between activities; and, because I had talked to them the day before about how important a good evaluation was to me, my students were well behaved. In short, observation and evaluation day was very different than a typical day in my class. At this point in my career, I knew I could be a good teacher, but since I felt like observations were more about firing “bad” teachers rather than supporting inexperienced ones, I hid the truth of my classroom. I wanted to make sure I survived long enough to become a good teacher despite the observations.

My discussions with local teachers showed that I was not the only one on the dance floor.

“I get very little, in terms of actual professional development or coaching, from the observations that my principal is supposed to do,” commented one of the teachers I interviewed. Because the observations were so infrequent, they had little value. “I’ve been teaching in Oakland for ten years,” she began. “I was observed twice my first year. Then he came in two or three times over the next nine years.”

“It’s a joke,” another teacher told me on a different day. “My principal knows that it’s a joke.” This teacher’s principal has a district form that she must fill out with each observation. On the form, there are six different criteria, each with five or six sub-criteria, which combine to define effective teaching. “We (this teacher and his principal) know that no one can see over thirty different elements of good teaching in a single hour. It’s absurd.” Unfortunately, both teacher and principal are bound to the form.

Personality, Skills, and Time: Each Plays a Role.
The same teacher who acknowledged that the mandated observation system is “a joke” went on to talk about how he and his principal get through the obligation of official observation, then try to engage in some real coaching after the formal observations are done. “I feel like I can trust my principal. She thinks I am a good teacher, so we both sort of do the dance together,” he says. It is only after the paperwork is done and filed that the two of them can open up to one another.

“Not every principal can be a good coach,” another teacher reported. She is a special education teacher, working with 1st-3rd graders with moderate to severe learning disabilities. Her principal is a former high school math teacher who, “Has no idea what my kids should be learning or what skills they should be developing,” she told me. “Basically, for him, if the room is quiet and in control, then I’m a good teacher. He just doesn’t have the skills to coach me.”

While some of the teachers I interviewed said that they had good relationships with their administrators, others spoke of poor relationships and little trust. While some teachers mentioned that their principals didn’t have the knowledge or skills required to coach them, others found value in the conversations they had with their administrators over instruction. However, not one of the teachers I talked to felt their principals or administrators had the time in their work day to engage with their teachers on instruction.

While the rhetoric from our district offices stated that principals were to lead their staffs in improving instruction, each of the teachers I talked to felt like the district had other priorities.  Even though the central office’s intentions may be to support learning and teaching, their actions seem to say that the priorities are  “Butts, budgets, and busses.”

So… Now what??
In this post, I’ve laid out the problem, or the situation as it stands in my district. Teachers see little value on the mandated observation system. The system seems more like hoop-jumping than coaching. Some principals are better coaches than others. Even good principals/coaches have too little time to do real coaching So what’s a better system? In the next post, I’ll sketch an idea based on these conversations with my fellow Oakland teachers.

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