How can we re-frame how principals talks about evaluations and observations with teachers for the start of the new year? Today on the podcast we're speaking with author Tom Marshall. He's written Reclaiming the Principalship: Instructional Leadership Strategies to Engage Your School Community and Focus on Learning.
We thought for the beginning of the school year, we should talk to Tom about why it's such a crucial time to be talking about evaluation conversations, observations, and how we can re-frame our thinking, which is where we started our conversation.
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Tom: Well, evaluations and observations are part of a teacher's learning life. They're not just meant to be something that's just evaluative or just a "gotcha". They're really meant to be part of a bigger picture, something I like to think of as 3D-PD, three-dimensional professional development. Because we want to support teachers by building up their own learning in any particular area, whether that's content-based or based on the phase of their career. And when we do that, we also have to somehow at least gently hold them accountable for what they've learned, so that they can grow, because they're going to be teachers for a long time, and we want them to continue to grow and be strong. And so evaluations and observations are a part of that cycle of, "Here's what you've been working on. Now here I'm going to have a chance to give you some feedback on it, based on what I'm seeing happening in your room," whether it's in a formal observation, an informal observation, a walk-through or something else.
Brett: Tom, what does this idea about 3D-PD, the idea that you have?
Tom: So the idea of a 3D-PD, three-dimensional professional development, is taking a look at all the different structures that we can have for our professional growth. So some of it is individualized. In New Jersey we call it PDPs, professional development plans. But it's creating individual learning goals for teachers and for ourselves. But then also thinking of some of the other structures that happen across our day, whether it's in-class coaching, professional development with a staff developer, or some of the study groups that teachers engage in about a topic that they really care about. I feel like the study groups in our school, in our district, are pretty strong as teachers are picking topics that they care about.
Last year we had teachers that studied topics like play, supporting students with anxiety, giving kids a greater chance to have choice in their learning. And so these are some of the topics that they kind of expanded upon for an entire year, and they had some time during the school day also that they could participate in these groups. And the only rule that I had is that they had to go into a classroom and try stuff out with real kids, to kind of grow their ideas.
Well, another part of the 3D-PD is this observation and evaluation part. It's taking advantage of all the elements of the teacher evaluation law, whether it's observations or walk throughs or student growth objectives, or anything else that can be made to feel like a mandate, can be made to feel like a hoop that someone is making us jump through, but taking their learning goals and tucking those into those.
So if I know that a teacher has an individual learning goal of studying students with anxiety, I want to see if maybe during an observation I can find evidence that will reinforce some positive things that the teacher has been learning in that area. What are some things that they might want me to see if I walk through the classroom. Maybe they have a special bracelet that they've made for certain kids, to make them feel a little bit better in class, when they're feeling anxious about their work. So it's taking all of the different elements of the teacher evaluation system, and weaving their learning through those different elements, so that it all feels relevant, and it all feels cohesive.
Brett: So Tom, one thing you're thinking about is a professional notebook. What are your thoughts on creating a professional notebook?
Tom: So a professional notebook can be a tool that a teacher or a principal keeps, and it's a place just to record anything that they might notice about their work. So for example, if a principal is noticing that there is a greater amount of time going on in math instruction or literacy instruction, or taking a look at the quality of some of the work that's being presented, it's a place for them to gather this thinking and try to notice trends. And then address them in some form, whether it's just talking about it at a meeting, or making it part of a PD plan for the future. It's a place for you to gather your ideas, just like we teach kids in a writer's notebook. It's a place for you to gather ideas, and sometimes those ideas turn into something bigger, and sometimes they just make you think.
Brett: You write about this in the book... but you say that it's important for us to really focus on the beginning of the year as a crucial time for these evaluation conversations. Why is that?
Tom: Well, the beginning of the year is such an exciting time for teachers and for principals. In no other area of work do we get to reinvent ourselves every single year. And the beginning of the year is a time that's filled with anticipation around that. And one of the most important parts that we can't let go of is this whole evaluation conversation. Talking to the teachers about where they want to head, talking to teachers about what goals they have. And so there's some pretty typical things that we can talk about with the teachers, some conferring questions, if you want to call them that, on with teachers as they start to set goals and get excited for the year.
So for example, sometimes I might say to a teacher, "Last year you worked on such and such a thing. What do you want to do to deepen your understanding with that?" And then I always follow that up with, "And how can I support you with that? How can I be a partner with you in that kind of work?" And it's a way for them to feel like their learning from last year is something that we're going to build upon and grow, so that they're on this continued journey in learning as a teacher, who's going to look different in her fifth year than her first year, and in her 15th year than her 10th year. So that's an important step for us to take.
Brett: You also say that during these conversations it's really important to build in strengths during, especially, evaluations and not deficits. Why is that?
Tom: Well Marie Clay, who was the mother of Reading Recovery, once said, "You can't build on a weakness. What kind of foundation is that?" So it's important to build on, just like with kids, what are teachers doing well, what is it that they are successful with, because then they feel comfortable taking that into a deeper direction.
So for example in the book, there's a story of Kristin who's a first grade teacher in my school, and she decided to take on the study of growth mindset with her first graders. And it was something that she was just motivated by because of something that she had done earlier. And she had comfort in it, but she wanted to explore it more because she was curious herself.
Brett: How did the growth mindset process go when she was doing that?
Tom: So Kristen had identified herself as someone that wanted to study growth mindset with her kids, and how do we take this really deep, sophisticated theory and translate it into a way that first graders can understand and first graders can use.
And so she and I entered into an exploration together of that. Similarly, with Kristen, she wanted to take a look at math and the way that she teaches math. We were using a program that she felt wasn't doing enough to enrich the math learning for her highest kids. So we got into a conversation about, well, what is it about the math that you feel is limiting. She built that into a conversation that led to a bigger thing about relevance. She found that the homework and the different activities that the math program was asking her kids to do was really not something that they would care about. And so the conversation went from being about a math program, to math in general to relevance, and then that's something bigger that can then spill over into other subject areas as well. It turned into a study that she engaged in for a couple of years, and it's been an amazing thing to watch that unfold in her class.
I go in and I coach teachers a whole lot, and sometimes you wonder what do you do to coach those really strong teachers, the ones that are proficient and engaged and interested. Sometimes you feel like they know way more about something than you do, and that can be pretty frustrating as a coach. Last year I went into Kristen's room for a coaching residency, where I was in there for a whole week, and we kind of explored the idea of creating a project for her strongest math students that would feel relevant to them. And so they created this recycling bin during their unit of study on measurement, and it was a great way for Kristen and for me to explore together and learn together. And like that's some of the work that we can start thinking about in September, is how will we support all of our teachers in some way throughout the year.
Brett: I love that, Tom. I love that especially because it really shows how you're a partner in the thinking there, and how you are a learning partner, as you said earlier. That's a really great example. That's wonderful. And it also sort of kind of goes into the next thing, which is you talk about how successful evaluations don't just help the adults in the school, but they also benefit the students, and very much so you showcase that in that example. Say more about how they benefit the students.
Tom: Well, the students definitely benefit when their teacher's skills grow, and we see that in the really obvious ways like test scores. But we also see it in the way that when students are in the classrooms of teachers who identify themselves as learners as well, who are not afraid to be coached in front of their kids, who kind of use language that says things like, "Something that I'm studying, boys and girls, is." Or when they say that they're going out for a workshop, instead of calling it a workshop or calling it PD, they say, "Boys and girls, I'm going out for a learning day." All of a sudden it seems more real. It's not just another hoop that an adult is making them jump through. All of a sudden it's something that's a way of life. And that can help create such a positive culture and climate for learning in a school, no matter what age level we're working with.
Brett: And that definitely does re-frame our thinking around that learning. That's a really great tip. Something else that you talk about throughout the section on reframing our thinking around evaluations and goals, is sometimes we have these conversations about moving past both compliance and then noncompliance. How can we in, our conversations, sort of nudge past either compliance or noncompliance? What's your thinking there?
Tom: Well, a couple of years ago a bunch of coaches and principals who I work with did a study of this whole topic of engagement and compliance and noncompliance. And one of the things that we found was if we look at it in terms of a continuum, we want to move kids out of the realm of compliance and teachers out of the realm of compliance, and to real engagement and eventually empowerment. And one of the things that we discovered, sort of accidentally, is whenever we assign a number to anything, we get compliance, which can be good, because if we have, say, noncompliant readers, kids that don't want to read, if we say, "You have to read for 20 minutes," we know they're going to read for 20 minutes. Same thing with teachers. If we say they need to have 45 minutes of math instruction, they're going to have 45 minutes of math instruction.
But then I think about like that's good moving from noncompliance into compliance, but to move from compliance to engagement, sometimes that can have an adverse effect. For example, if you have a student who's already compliant or who might be engaged... So I know some kids that will sit and read for two hours, but once the teacher says you're going to read for 20 minutes, all they do is sit and watch the clock for 20 minutes till the time is up. And so like when we assign a number to anything, you get compliance, which is great, and it's horrible at the same time.
And moving into engagement, one of the things that we found had a great impact on the level of engagement that both students and teachers had, is when they had some sort of element of choice around the procedure, around the content or the material, when they had choice in who they would work with, or if they would work alone, or the format with which they would present their learning, that was one of the elements that gave us greater engagement.
Another thing that gave us greater engagement was when they had a sense that they had some knowledge, like they had some strength in their own understanding of the topic. And so it's important to build some of that content knowledge too, so that when kids and when teachers are making these choices, they feel confident in what they're working on. That's an extremely important thing, but we can't just fall into the trap of just worrying about content knowledge. We need to also give kids and teachers lots of time to practice and experience what they're working on.
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Tom Marshall is a former teacher and staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. He is currently the principal of Stony Lane Elementary School in Paramus, New Jersey. Tom runs a course for literacy coaches from around New Jersey, coordinates the Littogether Teacher Leader Project, and is the founder of the New Jersey Literacy Leaders' Network, a learning group of over 150 educational leaders who meet to study ways to supervise and support best practices in literacy instruction. You can find him online at http://www.littogether.com and on twitter at @TomLitTogether