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Peer Revues

Teachers should observe other teachers more often.

A key issue for improving schools has always been how we evaluate teachers, but that vital link in the chain that is public education has generally been an afterthought.  When evaluations occur, experienced teachers put on a dog-and-pony show, administrators nit-pick around the edges but generally rain glitter bombs of praise down on the teachers’ heads, and school boards have no clue on how superficial and misleading the final written evaluative summations of teachers are as they immediately sink into the abyss of personnel files. 

Or, lock-step rigidity dominates with younger, more insecure teachers being pressured by their bosses into using a canned methodology being peddled to the school district by paid consultants.  The spectacles these teachers put on for evaluators are even more disturbing than the hypocritical ones put on by older teachers as these relative neophytes are having their formative years corrupted by those who have little concern for the art of teaching or the Snowflake approach to education that should dominate every school. (See www.snowflake-schools.com  for much more on this). 

And when the state has involved itself, things have only gotten more obtuse.  Now we’ve begun the objectification of the teaching process through evaluations based on more factual data like attendance and standardized test scores, which don’t assess teaching quality with any accuracy.  We also have the Core Standards created at the behest of the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers which have been incorporated into state documents like the Illinois Administrative Code, Part 21, “Standards for Endorsements in the Middle Grades.” Among the myriad of objectives you will find there lurk such gems as, “Effective middle grade teachers provide instructional support and opportunities for students to write routinely for authentic purposes in multiple forms and genres to demonstrate the power and importance of writing throughout their lives.” (See http://www.isbe.net/rules/archive/pdfs/21ark.pdf if you’d like to wade through all thirty-five pages of this set of criteria to be used in evaluating sixth-to-twelfth-grade teachers.)

In any case, the important work of teacher evaluations—helping teachers to improve their teaching and to understand their strengths and weaknesses—gets lost in the performances and the bureaucratic gobbledygook.  It’s no wonder that most teachers regard evaluations as one more unnecessary hurdle they must leap once or twice each year.  We need a better methodology to assist teachers in the challenging act of self-evaluation leading to enhanced instruction.  The pressure and pace of daily classes makes it hard to make use of the introspection necessary to understand one’s skill set or why a class went badly; just keeping up with lesson planning and grading can seem overwhelming.  Stopping to look at one’s own performance requires reflection, which rarely happens in schools.  But without that close examination, habits and procedures—whether they are good or not—can become ingrained so deeply that change becomes nearly impossible.  So how can we help teachers, who already have too much to do, make their classes better?

The key is time.  Currently, most evaluations take place in a rush over a day or two.  The teacher and evaluator (most typically a department chair in high schools or the principal in elementary and junior highs) meet prior to the lesson for about twenty minutes to discuss what is going to happen that day in class, the evaluator watches the class period, the two debrief on what happened for a class period (at most), and eventually the two have a meeting to go over the final (summative) review for the teacher near the end of the school year.  There is a slight possibility that something positive can come from this, but in general, it is a routine procedure that everybody politely and rapidly suffers through.  Both teachers and evaluators breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over, moving on to more important things without giving the evaluation a second thought.

Instead, we need a way to help teachers to think about what they do in a systematic, unhurried way.  Short of training in meditation with a Zen master, simply providing teachers with a certain number of periods/hours to watch other teachers teach would be an excellent way to help teachers improve their own skills.

That might seem counter-intuitive at first, but it would solve many of the problems with our current top-down evaluation system.  In order to understand what you’re doing, it is extremely helpful to watch somebody else who is performing the same task.  By observing rather than doing, a teacher has the opportunity to think about why that class period is going well or what needed to happen to improve it.  By analyzing someone else’s teaching, teachers will have to relate those positives and negatives to their own styles and methodologies, leading to real growth and better self-evaluation. 

At the beginning of this process, the observers would probably learn the most from watching those who teach most like they do.  The control freak wouldn’t learn very much if she’s in a class that seems unruly to her, except that her way is so much better.  But in seeing the rigidity of her colleague stifling any creativity or joy in another class, she might gain some perspective on the stranglehold she has on her students.  Conversely, the digression-filled, seat-of-his-pants teacher would see how a little more planning and order would help his class when he observes the seemingly pointless waste of a period his similarly disorganized colleague allows to happen. 

Once the shock of seeing the problems with classes like their own had taken place, teachers could then observe other teachers with different styles in order to learn which techniques and adaptations might help them with the issues they observed.  While no one would or should expect teachers to alter their entire teaching essence from these peer reviews, they would be exposed to many different teaching methods so they could pick and choose things that would help them to be more effective within their own essential teaching gestalt.  This see-and-experiment approach would be significantly more useful to teachers than the isolated performances for higher-ups that currently take place.

And I’m not suggesting that administrators would stop watching their teachers teach—that is an important function of their jobs, especially with new teachers.  But even more important under this system would be administrative guidance to assist teachers in selecting which colleagues to observe.  This direction would have to be predicated on the administrator’s having seen those teachers teach, so regular observations of teachers by administrators would continue, but without the needless pressure of trying to figure out some non-threatening generality to fill in on the evaluation form.  Instead, administrators would be getting a sense of what their teachers were like in order to guide other teachers into observing those who would help them grow the most.

After all the peer reviews had taken place (I would suggest a range of at least four class observations per school year on up to once a month), teachers could then analyze what they had seen in relation to their own teaching skills.  What had they witnessed which made them more aware of their strengths?  What observations had helped them to recognize areas where they need to improve?  Which techniques had they seen which they were most anxious to incorporate into their own classrooms?  What changes were they contemplating based on all the classes they had watched?  Granted, this self-analysis would be much more challenging than the current approach where teachers are largely performers, doing what they believe administrators want to see while the administrators scramble to record what’s going on.  Instead, teachers and administrators would sit down and discuss the teachers’ observations as they relate to their own classrooms.  Teachers could come prepared with a list of strengths, weaknesses, and new concepts they had learned based on their observations.  Administrators could help teachers condense those lists into action plans for the future.  And the action plans from the previous year could be used as a starting point of the discussion to see how well they worked out during the current year. 

The Peer Review Educator Evaluation Method of Operation (PREEMO™) could take what has become a stale, predictable ritual and turn it into an opportunity for significant reflection and growth.  Every school prides itself on the learning that its students get from their teachers; we should make sure that teachers get that same benefit from each other.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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