Say you’re introducing a new unit with an idea that you thought would hit it out of the park with your students...but you’re getting crickets. Your mind is racing to come up with Plan B while sweat is beading on your forehead. You have less than 15 seconds before one of your students is sure to blurt something that will throw you off your game.
And then, of course, your principal picks that moment to walk in for your observation.
This scenario happens altogether too often. For all the progress we’ve made in other areas of education, it’s surprising how unpredictable and outdated our teacher evaluation process can be.
We reached out to teachers from around the country and invited them to share their experiences with classroom observations and evaluations. More often than not, we heard that teachers didn’t feel like their administrators knew what they were really doing. Instead of a feedback mechanism for growth, these observations often became a way that some admins “got back” at their staff.
We’ve collected some of these stories here. If you have a story to share about teacher evaluations going awry for you, please add it in the comments below, or by tweeting it to @insightadvance.
1. Obsessive Documentation Over Instruction
A middle school English teacher shared a story of how her admin loved what she’d observed in the class, but for some reason “made me go through at least five rounds of revisions on my documentation.” The teacher explained what that looked like: “Many subs and many prep periods later, she still wasn't communicating what she needed me to do. It started to feel like she needed to criticize the paperwork since she didn't have anything to critique about the lesson itself. Somehow it turned out that I didn't use the right sentence stems in the fields. Eventually, I passed the document back to her and said, ‘Just write the stem you want me to use and I'll fill in the honest outcomes.’ She ended up filling it out using the eduspeak she needed to see, but the fact she hadn't spelled it out, clearly had liked what she had seen, and yet was still caught up on the logistical rigamarole, spoke volumes about how superficial the evaluation process was.”
2. Crushed by Bad Timing
Many teachers felt like the observation process was entirely too dependent on timing. A former elementary teacher who now is an instructional technology coach shared this first-year experience: “I had a wild third-grade class of 14 boys and eight girls. School started at 7:50. It was 8:05, and I had a student at my desk crying. His parents were going through a divorce and it was all coming out in his behavior. I was telling him I wasn't mad, and letting him vent. My schedule outside the door said bellwork was 7:45-8:00. My principal walked in, pointed out in front of my class that I wasn't on schedule. Wrote me up for it. I sent the crying boy back to his desk and did my lesson, but I was already upset. At the end of the year when they handed out pink slips, I was lucky and didn't lose my job, but my year review said I was never on schedule. One day! I found a new school the next year. Unfortunately, three of the four new teachers I started with are no longer in education.”
3. Mixed Messages From Leadership
A K-12 ELL specialist shared a real “gotcha” moment when she followed directions from her assistant principal: “This new AP insisted that I deliver a lesson exactly (EXACTLY!) as she would. Of course it bombed. My principal saw this during my observation and questioned why I wasn't myself and what happened to the life of the lesson. I had let the pressure of following the trend of the moment get in the way of my confidence, how to connect with my kids, and who I was as a teacher. I still detest a few particular Big Books!”
4. A Competitive Streak?
One former tech-savvy kindergarten teacher shared a story of an admin who docked her for reasons that she never entirely understood: “My principal didn't schedule my annual mandatory observation until the last week of school. There was no way those little munchkins were performing to their best ability when they knew kinder graduation was two days away. Needless to say, he didn't think I did a great job. I was particularly mad that he marked me down in the category of technology integration when he, who was pretty tech-savvy himself, knew full well that I was doing ALL kinds of tech integration all year long. We had a class Twitter account, plus we Skyped with authors and classes, WITH kinder. AND only one iPad. Honestly, in retrospect, I think I was kind of intimidating to him.”
5. Backdoor Power Plays
One teacher shared a story from her early years of teaching: “I worked at a school where the principal was friends with a paraprofessional who was about to graduate from a teaching program. I was still very young and green, and the para was maybe ten years older than me, and had been working at the school way longer. She made no secret that she wanted my position. One day during an observation, she and the principal sat in the back and laughed loudly every time something went wrong. I left the school at the end of the year, and she got my position. The silver lining is that I found a much better working environment, free from toxicity and politics.”
And One That Rocked: Evaluation, an Opportunity for Growth
Fortunately, we did hear some positive stories about how an evaluation can be used as an opportunity for reflection, which can lead to a better job. One teacher shared his story:
“When I applied for my current job, I had to do a sample lesson while the principal observed. Stupidly, I chose the most difficult thing to teach in elementary school: writing. But it was the same week as Read Across America Day, and I couldn't resist the draw of a Dr. Seuss lesson.
“The lesson ultimately failed, even though I tried to adjust it on the fly. The problem was that I didn't know where the kids were developmentally with their writing and it was too challenging, even when I tried to meet their current levels. The previous school I taught in had much higher second-grade writers, so I just assumed this group would be there, too.
“Immediately after the lesson, I emailed the principal while sitting in the parking lot of the school. I wrote her a lesson self-reflection piece, sharing what I would do differently next time now that I know the level of the students. It was a lengthy but honest reflection, and I got the job. I later learned that my self-reflection was the thing that got me the job from a group of very qualified applicants. She was looking for someone with a focus on continual improvement and reflection.”
With so many horror stories of observation evaluations gone wrong, it’s not hard to guess why roughly 50% of teachers leave the profession within five years. But there are hopeful stories, too, as more administrators focus on continuous improvement and giving teachers meaningful feedback. In the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing more stories of educators who are redesigning the evaluation process, helping teachers improve their craft, and how this ultimately benefits students.
Got a story to add to the mix?
Please share with us either here in the comments or via @insightadvance on Twitter.
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