Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Coaching Should Look Like

It seems to me that teacher evaluations are personality driven. 

I’ve known administrators who were fully bought into the adversarial relationship between teachers and principals.  These administrators seemed to relish taking a “tough stand” on “bad teachers.”  The teacher evaluations were an elaborate game of cat-n-mouse.  I saw teachers, whom I had never seen with a lesson plan, busy copying materials and checking in with colleagues do see if they had differentiation, multiple learning styles, and other key buzz words, “covered” in their lesson.  Conversely, I’ve seen good teachers dinged over trivial issues, such as the daily learning target stated in the old-fashioned “Students will be able to…” rather than using the students voice by writing, “I will…” that is currently in vogue.

The arrival of these “gotcha” evaluation signals the opening of the second round of the fight.  Not a year goes by without one of my colleagues coming to my door to ask, “Can you believe this?   He gave me a ‘2’ on this!  I got a ‘1’ on that!  (We use a 1-4 point scale at my school, with 4 being excellent.)  He was only in my room for ten minutes!”  Trying to take advantage of a potential learning opportunity, I always ask, “Are any of the remarks things you think you should work on?”  Typically the answer is a colorful version of, “No.”

I myself was the victim of a different form of bad evaluation.  It was my first year at my new high school, even though I walked through the door with twelve years of experience teaching history, as far as my new placement was concerned, I was a new teacher.  It took three meetings for my evaluator and I to settle on my goals and objectives for the year.  Silly me; I thought they were my goals and objectives, but clearly I has misunderstood.  The vice-principal couldn’t just tell me which criteria that I would be measured by, because technically they still were my goals and objectives for the year.  Instead, like a good teacher with an unruly child, she would guide me to the correct goals that would be mine that year.  After three meetings, I had her signature on my pre-observation form, but it had cost me my enthusiasm for having a second set of eyes looking at my craft and offering me insights.

The scheduled observation never happened.  Month after month passed.  Three times I scheduled opportunities for her to visit my class.  Eventually, I stopped rescheduling, telling myself that the responsibility now rested with her.  I finished out that year never seeing receiving any feedback.
It doesn’t have to be this way

This year I’ve seen an administrator who is personally invested in coaching.  He sees his role as being an extra set of eyes for his teachers. 

Yet again, a teacher came to my door to talk about her observation, but this time the conversation looked different.  The teacher still received some 2’s on her evaluation, but they were in the areas that she was asking for help in.  She and the administrator had talked about those areas.  The amazing thing for her was this, instead of going over what went wrong or how to fix it, the administrator asked “What do you think you need this year in order to work on this?  How do you think I can help you?”  These were two questions she had never heard before.

As cool as that experience was; as invested in teacher coaching as this vice-principal is, it is still a symptom of the problem I’m laying out here.  Teacher evaluations are personality driven.  One principal sees himself as the new sheriff in town running the “bad” teachers out on a rail.  A vice-principal is too overwhelmed to find the time to even visit the classroom of the teacher she is supposed to be observing.  The third administrator does a great job, but only because he sees himself as a coach.

Formative Teacher Evaluations

Instead of paying “gotcha,” every teacher observation should be a partnership between the teacher and her/his observer.  There needs to be enough trust to have hard conversations if necessary.  Both the teacher and the observer have to be allies in the goal of helping the teacher be even better than s/he was the year before.

I can envision a future where the observer could be an administrator or a teacher-leader who spend a part of her job mentoring and coaching her colleagues.  I use the term “teacher leader” because in my mind’s eye, the people who are observing, evaluating, and coaching teachers are teachers themselves.  Gone will be the days when a teacher might push-back on a observation saying, “It’s been x years since the VP have taught kids, he doesn’t know what I am dealing with.”

In my fantasy world, every observer would behave like the “coach” vice principal at my school.  The observer would have conversations with the teacher being observed.  Together they would identify areas where the teacher thinks s/he is struggling, or additionally, areas where s/he is good and interested on getting better.  I envision post-observation sessions where both the teacher and the observed can evaluate the teacher’s performance together.  They can look at what’s good and what needs improving.  Them together, they can create a plan by which the teacher gets the support and time s/he needs to make the improvements s/he wants.

The problem with formative assessments is this: they are hard.  It is easy for a school administrator to identify shortcomings of a teacher, but it is hard to imagine the kind of professional development that the teacher may need to improve.  It is really hard to find the resources to provide extra professional development.  It is far too easy to point fingers and say, “Look at those test scores.  Shape up or ship out!”

Differentiated Professional Development Could Help

Professional development (PD) at my school has been a mess.  At the best of times, we gather all of the teachers into the library to hear a day-long speech from the guru that some one in the principal’s office or downtown had met at a conference and felt, “This will be the game changer at our school!”  In the library, some of the teachers agree.  They also think that the guru is the bee’s knees.  For them, the lessons and ideas of the workshop will live in their classrooms, for a while.  For most of the converts, the lack of on-going discussion, collaboration and support will result in a gradual fading of the new ideas and a return to business as usual.

Unfortunately, most teachers wont connect with the workshop.  They wont see the relevance, or it will look like the reform idea they saw tried-and-died years ago.  These teachers may try to make the most out of the professional development day by grading papers, but some may form affinity groups to chat among themselves or snark at the guru.

At their worst, PD at my school devolves into administrative meetings.  Last year, I was the one responsible for this disappointment.  Lat year, my school engaged in our Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) self-study.  This huge undertaking ate up nearly all of our so-called PD time.  Speaking for myself, I learned a lot from this process.  Being one of the people responsible for writing the report allowed me to take a glimpse at everyone else’s classrooms and pedagogy.  I saw some great things that I then wanted to implement in my classroom.  I saw some of my own mistakes mirrored by my colleague, making it easier for me to see them.

While I was leading our “PD” about our WASC self-study, I couldn’t help but think of all of the first-year teachers in the audience.  I was asking for their help in evaluating the school when many of them needed to know where the photocopier was.  They were helping us create a five-year plan for improvement when they didn’t yet have a handle on their own classroom management.  I kept thinking to myself, “They should be in these meetings.  They have entirely different needs!”

What if our school had several “Master Teachers”?  These would be the veterans who are widely viewed as having great lesson planning skills, great instruction, great classroom management, and so on.  What is the school designed a Beginners Teacher Institute where 1st – 3rd year teachers held their PD sessions with those Master Teachers.  For example, I’m widely seen as having good skills in conducting a parent-teacher conference, getting even angry parents to see the value of joining forces with their child’s teachers to form a success-team dedicated to getting improvements done. 

After their third year, new teachers could be designated as “Professional Teachers.”  Professional teachers could form their own Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) around themes that are relevant to them.  One PLC could self-organize a year-long professional development series about integrating more Web 2.0 technology into their classes to enable students to collaborate on their projects.  Another PLC could form to further their work on classroom management because they see themselves as struggling in this aspect of their teaching.  An administrator, using formative evaluations, could help a teacher identify this need and connect with other teachers in the school who share this concern.  A third PLC could spend a year doing action-research about their new project-based learning unit.  The ideas just go on and on. 

Master teachers would lead hybrid professional lives.  In my mind’s eye, I see these great teachers having a foot in two worlds.  They spend a part of their day in the classroom teaching a reduced load of children.  In an elementary school, this could be accomplished by having Master teachers share a class, one teaching Monday through Wednesday, the other taking over Thursday and Friday.  In a secondary school,  I see Master teachers in front of children for two or three periods a day, having the other two or three periods for research.

Some master teachers would be paid by their school districts to create professional development lessons and then facilitate beginning or professional teachers who want or need that PD.  Other master teachers could work one-on-one with new hires, mentoring and training them, ensuring that fewer new teachers leave the profession before they have taught for five years. 

The money to do this is already in the system.  Every year, I hear once again how our states are facing a teacher shortage.  Policy makers look for creative ways to fast-track new recruits into the classroom.  This is a false crisis.  The reality is, we have a teacher-retention problem.  Over ½ of all new teachers are out of the classroom before their fifth year.  Thinking about a teacher-recruitment crisis is like thinking about filling a bathtub that has a hole in the bottom.  Some folks are trying to get more water into that tub faster and faster.  All we really need to do is fix the leak.

Huge sums of money are spent recruiting, training and placing new teachers into our schools.  That money would be better spent supporting and mentoring the new teachers who are already there. 

The personnel are already in the system.  In California, over ½ of people who are paid with educational dollars are NOT in front of children.  They are site administrators, professional development coaches, trainers, curriculum writers, managers, and policy wonks.  Many of these positions could be converted into hybrid roles.  Classroom teachers could spend a part of their day being local and state educational leaders.  Conversely, educational leaders would see their standing with teachers skyrocket if they could tell stories about their own, recent, successes and struggles in their own classrooms.

Teacher leaders.  It’s a radical idea whose time has come.

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