Best Evaluation – EVER

The common topic for the Compelled Tribe is evaluations.

During my career, I have been Hunterized, Marzano-ized, Danielson-ized, and MCREL-ized on various models of teacher evaluation.

Yet we are still looking for the best tool.

Do we really know what we want, what we are looking for? Are we looking for teacher inputs? Student outcomes? Student outputs? Education is a life-long process, can we really measure our effectiveness during a specific school year?

My career began by teaching junior high students band and orchestra in Kansas City,  Kansas. After my first 2 years in the school, our principal was retiring. Our new principal had worked in one of our feeder elementary schools, and the “music teacher network” was buzzing about him in order to give our Choir director and I, both relatively new teachers to the district, a heads up about what we could expect. I will admit, he had large footprints to fill. My first principal understood the value of the arts and was very supportive of our music programs.

The word on the street was that the new principal, Dr. Harold Frye, “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but would support the program.”

Fair enough.

Being new to our school, policy required Dr. Frye to observe every teacher, regardless of whether we were scheduled for formal evaluation that year or not. At a staff meeting early in the year, he invited us to schedule him in to observe a class of our choosing.

I signed him up to observe a beginning strings class. We had just started using the bow, and I am confident that dogs within a three block radius of our school were going nuts for a couple of weeks.

At the appointed time, Dr. Frye came into class with a violin. He spent the period sitting with the other violin students and did everything they were doing, and I must admit, about as well as they did.

At our post-observation conversation, he shared that he knew little about how to teach music, but one of his sons was taking Suzuki violin lessons. That explained everything. In the Suzuki program, the parents take the lessons alongside their children. He was thrilled that I had signed him up for beginning strings class, as he felt that his skills and abilities were at about the same stage of proficiency as the rest of the class.

Then he said something I have never forgotten, “If you taught it to me, you probably taught it to them.”

One thing really struck me that day. He was more concerned with what the students learned than he was with my teaching behaviors. That wasn’t how the “game” had been played before, my formal evaluations were about what I was doing, not what the kids were producing. In my administrative preparation coursework, the old rules still applied, let’s observe the teacher more than we observe the learners.

DISCLAIMER: I taught a performance based class. Several times a year, my students performed in front of an auditorium filled with parents. While they weren’t “trained” evaluators, they knew if we sounded good or not. And they believed that the quality of our performance was a direct result of my abilities as a teacher. Music teachers all realize that our groups are only as good as our worst player, so our worst player better be pretty good. We have a standard of acceptable performance that every player must achieve. Anything below “proficient” was not acceptable. Now we call it “personalized, individualized instruction.” Back in the day, we called it survival.

That year with Dr. Frye was truly a joy. He certainly filled the footprints. I left the district after that year as my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I took a job much closer to home in order to spend quality time with him.

As a principal, I tried never to forget what Dr. Frye taught me. Regardless of the model used in our district, it’s always about what the kids learn and can do. I hope that, like him, I was secure enough in my skills to be able to place myself in the “violin section” whenever I was in a classroom. If the teacher taught it to me, the kids probably learned it as well.

I am not convinced that there is a Holy Grail of Evaluation. We appear to be looking for a short term solution to a long term process. We seek engagement and too often confuse it with activity, never acknowleging empowerment. We give the learners answers to remember rather than problems to be solved. Life does not consist of situations with only one right answer, but our classrooms are filled with them.

We have all read volumes about what skills our students need in order to be successful after they leave us. They tend to focus on what we call the “soft skills.” But we don’t find them in our models of teacher evaluation.

You might want to try this exercise at an upcoming staff meeting, I used it in teacher trainings for years. Ask your teachers to think of the “best teacher they ever had as a student.” Then ask them to think of the one quality that set that teacher apart from every other teacher they ever had. Go around the room and list the one quality. Compare that list to the qualities you are looking at when you do an observation. I guarantee that you will find few matches.

The qualities provided by the teachers list what I have always called the “art” of teaching. It will include things like, “had a sense of humor,” really got to know me”, “cared about all of us,” things I don’t believe you can teach in preparation programs, simply because you can’t fake that stuff in front of a bunch of kids.

The qualities listed on your evaluation instrument are what I have always called the “science” of teaching. Those are things we can address in professional development.

But do they really matter, when we look at our classrooms from the “violin section?”

End the exercise by challenging your teachers, as they plan for their next class, to become the best teacher they ever had. After all, when the layers of the onion are peeled, that person had a lot to do with their decision to become a teacher in the first place.

I was honored more than once to work with staffs composed of both young teachers and some with some experience. The “best teacher I ever had” shared by a younger teacher happened to be one of the veteran teachers in the room. They had never shared that feeling with one another.

Talk about the power we have as teachers!

And that is the best evaluation – ever!

And so it goes…

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