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A veteran teacher talks about observation and evaluation

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 10, 2009 11:39 AM

Following my post on The New Teacher Project's report on teacher evaluation called The Widget Effect, longtime Philadelphia teacher and Notebook board member Ron Whitehorne sent me these thoughts on the subject. This is a hot topic; the New York Times had an editorial today on the TNTP report.

Here is Ron's guest post:

The centerpiece of teacher evaluation in Philadelphia are the twice a year formal classroom observations that are conducted by an administrator.  

Do these twice annual visits that range from 15 minutes to an hour give an accurate snapshot of a teacher’s skills and performance?   Or should they be regarded as part, a big part perhaps, of a larger picture?

Over two decades of teaching in Philadelphia I was observed by by upwards of fifteeen different administrators.   I never received an unsatisfactory observation…most were good, some were glowing, others perfunctory and one or two  were lukewarm.  

Based on this experience I wanted to make a raise some issues and hopefully prompt some feedback from other teachers. 

There are two kinds of observations, each with its own set of problems.   There are the scheduled observations where the administrator tells the teacher when they are coming, usually with enough lead time for the teacher to prepare.   And there are the unscheduled kind where the administrator arrives unannounced.   Some administrators prefer one over the other.   Some do both.  

The rationale for the scheduled observation is that the observer will see the teacher at their best and get a real sense of their pedagogical strengths and weaknesses.   Critics say what you get is an artificial picture of the day to day quality of teaching in that classroom.

The unscheduled observation gives you the teacher unrehearsed but it has its own set of problems.   Lessons have a structure and coming in in the middle or end makes it difficult to judge its effectiveness.   The observer might come in during an activity where little active teaching is going on…i.e. testing, sustained silent reading, journal writing.

There are three important variables in that enter into the observation.

The first, of course, is the teacher.   Most teachers, even veterans, experience some anxiety about being observed, particularly if the administrator is an unknown quantity or has a reputation for being critical.   Like students during testing, some cope better with this anxiety than others.

Most experienced teachers can recall an observation from hell when everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong….the student who flipped out, the overhead projector that stopped working, the phone that rang three times, the stack of work sheets you apparently misplaced, the principal arriving a half hour late after the best part of that lesson you slaved over the night before was done.  Wise administrators who know you well are likely to keep these lapses in perspective.   Others, maybe not. 

The second variable is the administrator, each with their own particular beliefs about what constitutes good teaching as well as a variety of views about how to effectively supervise teachers.    Some value order and routine above all else, others prioritize student engagement and an interactive approach.   Some are more forgiving of weaknesses with new teachers, others not. Etc. Teachers, who naturally share their knowledge of the habits of administrators, try to adapt best they can.

A third variable are the students.   Every class has its own dynamics.   Middle school and high school teachers typically have a class that gives them more problems than others or, conversely, a class that is unusually cooperative.   Some administrators generously allow you to choose which class you would like to be observed with.   A hostile administrator, on the other hand, might choose to observe you with the class from hell right before spring break. 

The student attitude toward the teacher makes a big difference.   Generally I found that the students rallied to the cause, making me look better than I was.   Of course not every student thought I was a great guy, but enough students liked me so that there was peer pressure to do the right thing.   Students who wouldn’t shut up were quiet, students who never raised their hands did so, students proudly displayed knowledge and skills they had kept under wraps. 

Personally I would like to see more rather than less observation.   The best administrators in my experience were those who spent a lot of time in classrooms and by the time they made a formal observation had a pretty good handle on what you were doing and given you some informal feedback.

I would also like to see a team approach to observation, ideally incorporating teachers into the process.  

Finally, my own view is that while classroom observation should be a central element of the evaluation process, other things should be included.   Feedback from students and parents, school leadership, and, yes, student progress as measured by standardized test scores.   Taking all these elements together gives a more complete picture.

What do you think?

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Comments (9)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 10, 2009 1:44 pm

I teach at the high school level and it is my 5th year teaching. I have an incredibly incompetent administrator who does not make any useful or constructive or helpful comments whatsoever when he has come to observe in my classroom. The only comments are things like "only 12 students were in the class" or "there were 3 kids out of uniform." Things like this do not reflect on my interactions with the students per se, nor can I use them to better connect with my students over the Social Studies content I teach. It's extremely frustrating!

It was only when I did a demonstration lesson at a charter school (where I will be working this summer) that I actually got constructive criticism. Two competent observers watched me teach a 30 minute lesson and gave extensive feedback- not in writing but in a face-to-face debriefing conversation- that I used *the very next day* in my classroom.

Over the last couple weeks there has been much talk about Dr. Ackerman's belief that many SDP teachers are ineffective and need to be fired. And maybe there *are* lots of ineffective teachers in our district. But part of the blame definitely lies with incompetent administrators like mine, who can spend a full period in my classroom and yet have nothing to say about how I can get better.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 10, 2009 2:58 pm

Anonymous...you dared call your administrator incompetent?

The thought police...will come after ya...be careful...don't make waves...just go with the flow...

Laud your principal...the Great Helmsman...the Keeper of the Faith...the Leader...

Don't ever talk poorly of your principal...

A word to the wise...

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on June 10, 2009 3:07 pm

Thanks for your comments. Your so right. Teaching, except for those rare times when someone comes in to observes, you goes on in isolation. We need feedback that can help us know what we are doing well and where we need to improve and how to do it.

Submitted by Teacher (not verified) on June 11, 2009 6:33 am

If the principal or AP came into the class several times a year WITHOUT the clipboard or laptop and participated in the lesson, they could get a much better idea of how the teacher operated and the teacher and students would feel less anxiety. The administrator could record her/his observations immediately thereafter. This would create a much more accurate picture of the teacher's abilities.

Submitted by First_Year_Teaching_Fellow (not verified) on June 11, 2009 8:12 am

Ron raised excellent points on the shortcomings of both types of observations. As a first year teacher, who receives consistently high marks, I have struggled with the lack of constructive criticism given to me. Although I applaud my administrators for their hard work, it's not enough to give me high scores because I'm a good classroom manager and that there is evidence of higher order thinking questions. As a Philadelphia neighborhood school grad, my barometer is to make it 10 times more challenging than anything I ever received but it's all relative.

I want to give my students the same level of rigor and innovative teaching as they would receive in a better resourced District. It is the job of my administrators to help get me there.

In so many respects, the bar is set so low that I feel stifled. I would be much for effective if my AP did more than instruct me on how to create the perfect bulletin board. My students have gained over three years of literacy growth this year, but for a high achiever like me, I often still feel there's more to do.

We should be observed more, and more constructively if we are to really raise student achievement.

Submitted by Concerned (not verified) on September 3, 2009 4:26 pm

My wife has been a 1st grade teacher at a awarded elementary for 4 yrs. So this yr starts her 5th and she has been observed 5 times in 12 days. Most of the reviews have been negative; however, she is a great teacher, takes pride in her work and has a deep passion for teaching. She has been emotionally upset many nights the past couple of weeks and doesn’t know what’s wrong. She has to go observe other teachers and a 1st year teacher handbook was left in her mailbox recently. She feels as if she is being pushed out and there is a hidden agenda. I think the principal is creating a hostile work environment and that my wife has to be submitted to the stress in order to keep her job.
1. Can she go to HR about this? How can this be resolved?
2. Why now are the principals doing this….after 5 yrs?
3. Can principals single her out? Would this be considered a hostile environment?

PS: Did I mention that she is currently finishing her Doctorate in Education?

She loves teaching and inspiring kids to learn, but the administration is starting to chip away at that passion.
Any advice?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 3, 2009 9:30 pm

How can your wife have been observed "5 times in 12 days" when the year hasn't started? It sounds like the big bucks your wife will get for her doctorate might be motivation for her removal. Think how many TFAs you can buy with for the price of one experienced teacher with a doctorate. Is she white? Ackerman has set up a racially charged atmosphere. Read today's Inky piece on the 100 teachers who have bailed out of the district BEFORE THE YEAR HAS EVEN STARTED! Hope the SRC starts their search for the next CEO real soon.

Submitted by bibi (not verified) on June 5, 2014 10:45 am
He makes some valid points. You get a good perspective on things after so many years spent dealing with the actual problems and people involved. case mansarda
Submitted by gigel (not verified) on June 9, 2014 4:03 am
Evaluating a teacher takes more time, not just some short visits now and again. Plus, I think these evaluations should be made somehow without the teacher being aware of them. noutati seo

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