Saturday, February 1, 2014

Evals: Keeping Me on My Toes

This week, I finished my formal and informal observations. The principal was an invited guest at my Salem tea party. The principal and my curriculum coordinator popped in to see Room 111 Writer’s Workshop. And on Monday, the curriculum coordinator was an important audience member of our debut reading of Rod Serling’s teleplay,  “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”

As a new teacher I consider myself lucky to have had three observations.

And I’m not being sarcastic.

Of course, many of the teachers are concerned about their observations. They want to an administrator to walk in and be able to see the high caliber teacher they know that they are. However, this desire for success often morphs into  eye rolls and preemptive defensiveness.

Not exactly the most inspiring attitude to share with a rookie.

Yes, the observation rubric calls for a lot. Yes it can be unrealistic for teachers to include all of the rubric indicators at an “exceeding” level every day, especially when we have short periods and lessons run for multiple days. You might have had a rough night. The students might have had a rough night. There are so many variables.

But if we aren’t striving to be the best teacher we can be every day, then what are we doing in the classroom?

I know I am privileged to be coming into education right now. I have no preconceived notion of what it was like before Race to the Top, Common Core, PARCC, and revamped evaluation rubrics. I have never been considered a “highly effective teacher” in the Coventry school system. I’m also young with no spouse or children or ill family members to take care of when I get home.

But like the brooding veterans, I too have high expectations for myself. I was a successful college student and I trust that I had the best preparation around. I am fighting to make a good first impression so that I can stick around for another year or two or five because I too love the content...and love the kids even more.

I empathize with these other teachers’ point of view.

However, I think the negativity gets in the way of seeing the hard work that the administrators are doing to make this a fair process (at least in my building) and prevents teachers from remembering some of the most basic lessons about assessment, feedback, and being a human.

As teachers, we expect our students to be patient with us as we develop a new unit, teach a new lesson, or try a new strategy. How often do you try something new and it flops? ALL THE TIME. Your students don’t riot, you pick back up, and try again. I feel confident that, though the system may not be perfect, administrators deserve that same patience. They are people trying to do the best they can with what they have. And there are structures in place if things really don’t go the way they should.

Also, we know the importance of assessment and feedback to students’ learning. It’s our job to help kids see what they excel at, where they can grow, and what they can do to get there. When I have a stack of 100 essays in front of me, though, that task is daunting and it’s tempting to just circle the errors and call it a night. When you are the one with the red pen (well, green and purple are my colors of choice) and the power, it’s easy to forget how much a low mark stings, especially when you feel like you are strapped and already trying your hardest with what you have - which is how so many of our struggling students feel. But being evaluated so closely and receiving so much feedback (of both the warm and cool kind), I am reminded of how important the framing of that feedback is.

Again, I can’t speak for all and I might just be blessed with exceptionally fair, skilled evaluators, but regardless, when receiving that feedback you are immediately put into a student’s shoes. Am I good enough? Did I let her down? Am I going to get in trouble? Panic sets in and negative thoughts blaze through your mind.

Thankfully, my evaluators have been so wonderful at using the feedback sandwich (a top bun of something warm -a slice of something cool in between-and another warm bun on the bottom). My curriculum coordinator has shared personal stories of her own challenges as a new teacher as well as things she still struggles with today. She reveals herself as a human being. Her feedback reminds me of the importance of trying to make this same connection with each student.

Truly, I am not just saying this because I passed with flying colors. No way. I have a lot of room to grow. My point is, that just as vulnerable as we feel as teachers, that feeling is multiplied and magnified a million times for our students. I don’t want to forget that.

One of my biggest fears is being swept up by the murmurings of negativity, becoming complacent, and settling for what’s easy or comfortable. This year, I am grateful that the eval process has kept me on my toes.