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A veteran teacher talks about observation and evaluation

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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?