Thoughts on Evaluations

Lots of thoughts bouncing around as another school year ends, my 37th.  I’ve been hit by the same pendulums several times, including the Evaluation Pendulum.  I’ve been able to work in schools that were improving, and a couple that were models for others.  The only common characteristic of the two groups is that they were never static.  We were always looking for ways to improve our “product,” recognizing that the expectations placed on our graduates were constantly changing, consequently, we had to re-examine our methods and results in light of the changing expectations.

I’ve reached a point where I define the purpose of school as preparing students to be workplace ready.  At some point, every student will enter the workforce.  Some after high school, others after some type of post-secondary experience leading to certification or degree.  This makes me think that a successful school is one that focuses on the applications of learning over acquisition of knowledge.

What is the purpose of evaluations?  I suggest that the overarching purpose of evaluation is accountability.  Are our teachers effective?  Are our schools successful?  Do our students leave our buildings adequately prepared for what’s next?

If I were to ask you to define learning, what would you say?  School is no longer about what was learned, rather, it should be about how you apply what was learned.

I believe that learning is a process that consists of two parts; productive and unproductive.  Productive learning is that which leads one to want to learn more.  Absent wanting to learn more, the learning is unproductive.  In other words, is the learning relevant to the student.  In science, we learn about matter and anti-matter.  Now, many of our students are asking, Does it matter?

I would like to complete this post with a series of profound, sometimes original thoughts on evaluation, but, after several drafts, I’m not really able to do that.  So here are the questions I am struggling with.  Need your help in working through them.

  1.  What are accurate and appropriate measures of student learning?
  2.  How do competencies factor into learning?  How do they differ from standards?
  3.  How well do current models of teacher evaluation measure student learning?
  4. What are the characteristics of an effective teacher?  Do they directly transfer to application of student learning?
  5. What are the characteristics of an effective school?  Do they directly transfer to application of student learning?
  6. If the application of learning is the product, and students are our customers, what role should student evaluation play in the accountability of teachers, administrators, and schools?

And so it goes… very interested in your thoughts.

The Best Teacher You Ever Had

During the staff developer part of my career, workshops focused on what characteristics separated the great schools from the good schools.

To be honest, we all teach from the same texts and materials, and since the adopted curricula used by most of us prior to the Common Core was based on standards adopted by various national organizations such as NCTM, NCSS, and NCTE, there wasn’t much variation in what was being taught.

It should come as not surprise to any of us that the differential was the impact of the teacher in the classroom, and the quality of the relationships established between the teacher and the students.

As part of the conversation, I would ask teachers to think of the Best Teacher You Ever Had as a Student.  Then I would ask them to think of the one characteristic that separated that teacher from every other teacher they ever had.  We would then share the one thing that mattered most, and list them either on a flip chart or a screen.  Most of listed items were things like, “She cared about me,” “He had a sense of humor,” She knew me as a person,” “Learning was exciting and fun in that classroom,” and “I felt valued and important.”

The next step was to compare the list with the characteristics used on the district’s adopted teacher evaluation document.  Seldom were there many matches on the two lists.

The first list we called the Art of Teaching.  The things that really mattered.  The things that were remembered after we forgot what the teacher taught us.  The things that made us want to become teachers.

The second list we called the Science of Teaching.  You can go to a class or a workshop and get better at them, but I can never recall things like “lesson plans were clear and concise” showing up on the first list.

The reflection that followed was really fun, listening to teachers talk about their role models.  It wasn’t unusual, particularly in smaller districts and schools, for the role model of a younger teacher to be in the room with us.  I cannot describe the feeling when a new teacher shares that the reason she became a teacher “was because of the impact of the best teacher I ever had, and she is sitting on my left.”  Do we realize we have that kind of influence on young lives?

And we never know when we will make that one statement, smile that one smile, share that one moment, that will never be forgotten.

We all have that one teacher.  Mine was Mr. Dan Kolb, freshman English.  I don’t recall ever opening a textbook in his class, but I remember reading, writing, and acting in ways unheard of in 1970.  As a music teacher, I had the opportunity to return to my Junior High school in 1984 for a music contest.  My first stop on the building tour was the library to see if some of the stuff we wrote in 1970 was still in the reference section.  Couldn’t find it, but I’ve never forgotten it.

Mr. Kolb and I had the opportunity to visit many times after I entered the profession, he knew the impact he had on me.  He was by no means the only great teacher in my student career, I was blessed with many in Dodge City, Kansas.  As a trumpet major, my high school trumpet teacher, Mr. Bill Charlesworth is in a class by himself.  Eighth grade English teacher Mr. Fred Deyoe was deservedly inducted into the Kansas Teacher Hall of Fame after retiring.

I have the honor of working with teachers like Mr. Kolb, Mr. Charlesworth, and Mr. Deyoe.  The Quiet Heroes who come to school every day, not doing what they can, but doing what they must, to make a difference in a young person’s life.

With sincere thanks to another of my heroes, Mr. Dan Clark, from his song “Quiet Heroes,”

“The world is full of quiet heroes, who never seek the praise.  They’re always back off in the shadows.  They let us have the limelight days.  You’re the one I look up to, because of you I’m free.  You set an example I could follow, You helped me see my destiny.

I wouldn’t be where I am today, I’ve won my share of time, unless you coached me through the maze and pushed me on the hardest climbs.  It’s just your style, the extra mile, no glory, must be tough.  You let me have the accolades.  A smile, you said, was just enough.

So even though my thanks don’t show, unnoticed you will never go.  I need to say  I love you so.  You’re my hero!”

Thanks to all the Quiet Heroes who inspired me then, and continue to inspire me every day.