I used to hate formal observations when I was in the classroom. It wasn’t because I was worried about someone seeing what was happening in our class. I was anxious to get feedback that would help me grow, which did not usually occur. I wanted it to be more than a “dog and pony” show with a “good job” pat on the back at the end. The first year that I observed teachers, I vowed to give genuine and honest feedback that pushed the individual to grow. I used to observe over one hundred teachers in seventeen locations, so that was not always easy to do. I realized then that the process was not working as intended, given the time I had. How could I give someone honest feedback if I had not spent the time to get to know them and find out what they were working on as professionals? How could I possibly do that with so many teachers in so many locations? I shifted my process many times to try and get it right. It wasn’t until I changed who was doing the talking in these meetings that I saw a shift to real goals, personal reflection, and meaningful feedback supported by evidence.
This year, more than ever, educators are under immense pressure. We are all trying to make education during a pandemic work for as many people as possible. This has not been an easy feat. We wanted to get virtual instruction right for our learners and opened camps for students who needed care and interaction during the day, all while I used my new minor in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to help our amazing teams make sure schools buildings were ready to reopen. We have spent so much time talking about school logistics that we need to be very intentional to still infuse the purpose of school and our strategic goals no matter the learning format. This was especially true of teacher observation this year.
There has been a push on social media to drop the teacher evaluation system this year, and some states even offered a waiver to do so due to the pressure on teachers and the education system as a whole. As our strategic plan includes continuous improvement cycles for our goals, our growth, and our learner experience, it was important to continue to participate in the Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness System and shift our focus on who was doing the evaluating.
As part of that process, teachers set a student learning objective and a professional practice goal each year. Evaluators do a couple of short observations and a formal observation at least once a year. Every three years, educators complete a documentation log to demonstrate progress in each professional standard and receive a ranking in each one. Our districts’ evaluation system used to be tied to performance compensation, so it had become a compliance-driven process instead of an opportunity for reflection and growth. We have been working to shift that perspective for a while and listen to what our administrators and our teachers needed from us to gain value from the process.
Our administrators needed us to shorten the time it was taking, and our teachers needed to feel more support and opportunities for reflection and feedback. I went back to how I had shifted the process years ago when I evaluated so many staff in so many locations and thought a lot about the importance of modeling with and for teachers what we ask them to model in classrooms. We cannot say we are a district that is about learner-empowered, evidence-informed practice and have an evaluation system that still gives out grades like stamping an A or a C on a paper. We needed to shift to a teacher-empowered, evidence-informed evaluation system as well.
For our first informal observation, we asked each principal to schedule a short meeting with each educator. During the meeting, they shared the following prompts:
- Tell about a time you have felt successful in your teaching this year.
- Tell about a time you struggled. What did you do to move forward?
- How do you measure success in your role?
The employee then shared their personal professional practice goal, and we asked:
- What evidence will you collect to demonstrate progress towards your goal?
- What support do you need from me?
It was essential to start with a positive. We tend to focus on the negative and think of our work from a deficit lens. Instead, we want people to celebrate their bright spots and use those as inspiration to grow forward. It is not that we ignore the negative. We recognize and acknowledge it and then plan to overcome it with the right support to get there.
These meetings took under thirty minutes. In that time, we were able to connect one-on-one with each educator and hear about what was going well, where they were stuck, and how we can support them. It pushed our teachers to slow down and really reflect on their practice. We do not do that often enough. We are often so busy moving on to the next event or the next lesson that we don’t think about what just happened and how it can inform our future practice.
This is also the experience we want learners to have in classrooms. We want them to set goals, go deep in their knowledge of how to accomplish a goal, reflect on their progress, and get feedback from others—shifting the first observation to this process allowed teachers to have that experience. We still do formal and informal observations, but those are now designed to collect evidence about the teacher’s goals for the class and themselves. It has moved the process from what’s good and what’s bad to what evidence we can both see that tells us we are making progress towards the goal.
Our teachers have always been dedicated to professional growth. This process focussed the development around a single goal aligned to our strategic plan and the school improvement plan, which the teachers had input in developing. The focus allows us to concentrate on one element of the job to really push ourselves while continuing to do our work in other areas. It pushed us to reflect and think about our practice more regularly and seek feedback on the skills we are trying to develop.
My superintendent and I followed the same process with our principals this year as well. It was an incredible time to hear them and connect. They shared personal stories, successes, and ways we could support them. We got to ask thought-provoking questions and learn more about them as people and leaders. We suggested professional development opportunities that may assist them or the teachers at their school site in reaching a professional goal or suggested a connection with another leader or school that was one step ahead in the work. One of our leaders reported that the “observation” was one of the best professional conversations she has ever had. She will reflect and grow independently and with her staff in all-new ways based on the experience.
Many of our evaluators have shared that they will continue doing these check-ins with staff as the informal observations throughout the year as the value of the conversations has been immense. Teachers are reporting understanding the system better and feeling supported. Evaluation has shifted to be a process of self-reflection and growth aligned to professional development. It is no longer about right or wrong or an “I gotcha” for staff. It is about personal growth and reflection with the right push and the right support. I’m excited to see the impact our educators’ reflections can and will have on every learner we serve.