When Do Teachers Get to Practice?

By Dr. Sandra D. Jones

As developing a teacher evaluation system becomes a mandate at the state level, administrators who are also conscientious educators strive to comply. It is, however, proving to be quite a challenge for them.

I’m a literacy consultant and, for the past three years, I have been working in a district that just became a recipient of its state’s Race to the Top funds. District administrators are getting ready for the next school year by reviewing the teacher evaluation system designed by their state, which provides both formative and summative information on teacher performance.

There was a momentous shift in the administrators’ focus from the end of last school year to the beginning of this school year. For the first two years of the district initiative, I worked with the leadership team on how to conduct “learning walks” geared toward helping teachers develop the skills necessary to provide high-quality literacy instruction to all of their students.

We watched videos demonstrating effective literacy instruction, conducted countless walks and debriefings, worked as a team to achieve inter-rater reliability across the district, reviewed trend analyses, identified professional development needs—all the while assuring teachers that these “learning walks” were not evaluative.

While not completely won over, teachers were beginning to believe that the “learning walks” were instructional rather than evaluative in nature and increasingly welcomed observers into their classrooms.

At the beginning of this year, I was earnestly and politely informed by one of the principals that he was no longer going to conduct “learning walks” because he had to conduct teacher evaluation walks. Mind you, this comment was said in the presence of the superintendent and assistant superintendent.

He explained that the state-mandated evaluation walks had to be at least 15 minutes in length and had to be conducted a large number of times over the course of the school year. He said that there was “no way” he could conduct the teacher evaluation observations and provide instructional leadership “learning walks” at the same time. Furthermore, he added that at the previous state-sponsored principal training, his colleagues expressed the same thoughts. He and his colleagues all agreed that the new teacher evaluation mandates took precedence over other time-consuming observations. His declaration stopped me “dead in my tracks.” A multitude of questions were running through my mind as I listened to this educator, whom I respected.

Teaching is hard work! Changing how we teach is even more difficult and stressful. I recently re-entered the classroom to learn how to teach a strategy that was new to me. The resource teacher graciously allowed me to learn and practice in her classroom. Her pay-off was learning along with me; the students gained expertise and made significant progress. Despite my nervousness at being observed by the resource teacher and some of her colleagues, I felt “safe” trying out this new way to teach. After every lesson, we debriefed and discussed what went well and what didn’t. This was instructional collaboration at its finest, and it made me wonder, “When do teachers get to practice?”

If teacher observations are always evaluative in nature, teachers either do not get to practice new strategies in a safe and instructionally focused environment or their environment could inhibit the very fundamentals of effective embedded professional development.

Federal policy regarding teacher accountability has filtered down to the states, and from there to districts and schools. Educators are scrambling to figure out how to implement these policies. My plea is that, as we figure out how to conduct evaluative observations, we take care not to undo the gains we have made in helping teachers learn new data-based instructional practices.

If principals do not have time for instructional leadership because they have to collect a specified number of 15-minute evaluation segments over the course of a year, then we have a problem. Nowhere in the numerous Multitier System of Supports (MTSS) explanatory documents, the multitude of rubrics, or the many forms for collecting evidence is there a discussion of how to help teachers progress from one level to the next.

I’m not opposed to evaluation and teacher accountability, but I am insisting—begging, really—that we balance the new teacher evaluation mandates and accompanying time drains with the time required for effective instructional leadership. How do we help teachers make changes in their teaching or learn how to teach a new strategy if they don’t have opportunities to practice their craft? Time to practice new strategies with students in a “safe” environment must be part of the equation as we move forward with teacher evaluation.

Sandra D. Jones, Ph.D., is president of HILL for Literacy, Inc., and has been a school educator for 40 years, serving as a teacher, professional development coordinator, principal, and academic dean. She is a coauthor of Leading Literacy Change: Strategies and Tools for Administrators, Teachers and Coaches and a national presenter and consultant in literacy. Dr. Jones served as the professional development coordinator for the State of Massachusetts’ Reading First Initiative for six years. She was also the academic dean at The Carroll School, a nationally recognized school for children with language-based learning disabilities, and was an associate professor in the MGH Institute of Health Professions’ Communication Sciences and Disorders graduate program.

Categories: Professional Developement | 1 Comment

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One thought on “When Do Teachers Get to Practice?

  1. Fundamentally there is no conflict between practicing to get better at a skill and getting formative evaluative feedback on how you are doing at the skill. If your system clearly and objectively describes all levels of performance and those descriptions (goals if you will) are shared ahead of time and they are aligned with what’s being looked for in the evaluative walk-throughs, then feedback on how a teacher is progressing should be just as helpful as “learning walks.” Principals must also understand that no one is perfect to start, but that most teachers who want to can, in fact, make progress and become excellent teachers over time–so evaluation should be looking for progress rather than perfection. The problem comes when the evaluative criteria are 1) summative rather than formative, or 2) different than the coaching or “learning walk” expectations, or 3) when the evaluation focuses on outcomes that the teacher cannot control (such as test scores) rather than teaching skills (such as active engagement techniques) that can be developed over time. As long as none of those three things happens, there is nothing wrong with frequent evaluative classroom observations by evaluators. As long as principals can see progress, everyone is happy and headed in the right direction. At least this is what we found using our evaluation system that articulated consistent objectives/teacher skills throughout every step of the process.

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