We Don’t Learn From Experience …

Cross posted at Education is My Life …

Race to the Top and related state legislation has brought a klieg light focus to the issue of teacher evaluation … and along with the spotlight has come the expected frenzy as schools and districts comply with yet another partially funded mandate. As with many such initiatives, educational leaders are faced with an important choice: get it done (compliance) OR seize the opportunity to consider the potential of developing an evaluation system that positively impacts student learning. The beauty of choice #2 is that it does not preclude complying with the legislation.

Why Do We Evaluate Teachers

There are essentially two important reasons to evaluate teachers. The first is quality assurance … no one would argue that families have a right to expect that a school system provide quality teachers for their children. The second, however, is to support and encourage professional growth. The key is in finding the balance between these two goals.

As schools and districts embark on rethinking their evaluation systems, the most urgent demand is to attend to the WHAT and HOW of the initiative: what model will we use for our performance criteria? How many observations a year for each teacher? What forms will we use? How will we train the observers to collect objective data? The list of WHAT and HOW is lengthy, complicated, and important. More relevant to professional growth, however, is to address the question of WHY. Why are we using this model? Why are we choosing to observe teachers x numbers of visits a year? Why will this form enhance the process? Why are we training observers to collect objective data?

It’s More Than A Process

Wrestling with the WHY leads to the most critical aspect of the process: providing teachers the support and encouragement to become reflective about their own practice. It is far too easy to get caught up in the processes of teacher evaluation and lose sight of the rationale for doing it in the first place: to positively impact learning experiences for students. To do that, teachers need the time, resources, and supportive culture to become increasingly reflective about the complex work that they do.

In the traditional evaluation process—one that so many teachers in the US have experienced—a teacher might be observed once a year and the observer (typically the principal) would write up their impressions of the observation for the teacher to read and sign. In this model, the teacher has very little opportunity to become participatory in the process.

As we attempt to reform evaluation processes in our schools, the most important shift is not about the model, the forms, the processes, or any of the WHAT and HOW pieces—it is to create reflection opportunities for teachers. No matter what process a school or district adopts, there are multiple opportunities for reflection.

Steps to Reflection

Pre-Observation … Teacher lesson plans come in all shapes and sizes, from 1-inch sticky notes slapped in a spiral notebook, to lengthy narratives complete with research and blow-by-blow descriptions of activities. The planning process is a prime opportunity for teachers to think critically about an all-important question: what do I want my students to learn? Most teachers will be able to describe what the students will do, but it sometimes takes some reflective digging to get at the true learning objectives of a lesson.

Post-Observation … I look forward to the day when a post-observation meeting is no longer simply about filling out and signing a form for the HR department. The post-observation meeting is a golden opportunity to review the data collected during a lesson and have a meaningful professional dialogue about what worked and what might be improved. The observer’s most important job is to provide an environment and structure for the teacher to engage in cognitive analysis about his or her own practice. This requires a shift from the traditional conference in which the principal does little more than inform teachers of their “rating” on a lesson, to one in which the post-observation meeting is a conversation between two professional educators who share the same goal: how to positively impact instruction.

On-going … Yes, time is tight and demands on teachers and school leaders are pressing. But if we really embrace that the prime directive of schools is to create excellent learning environments for students, then our focus needs to move away from management to instruction. This notion suggests that we should continually be seeking ongoing opportunities to do this—not reserve it for a district-mandated beginning and end-of-year meetings. Simply marching through the steps of a process will not result in any meaningful change. That will only happen through deep reflection and a desire to learn and grow.

In reality, this notion is independent of any particular initiative, or system, or legislation … it’s a simple idea based on an ages-old principle of practice. To paraphrase John Dewey: We do not learn from experiences, we learn from reflecting on those experiences.*

*Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan

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