On today’s Heinemann Podcast, taking charge of your teaching evaluation. Evaluations can feel like a one-way street, with teachers feeling powerless. It doesn't have to be that way, Author Jennifer Ansbach writes about how we can take charge of evaluations by keeping the focus on student learning. In her new book, Take Charge of your Teaching Evaluation, she writes about the story of your practice.
We started out asking her what she means by that and why our story of practice is so important?
See below for a full transcript of our conversation:
Jennifer: One of the things I think has happened in our culture lately is that the narrative around teaching has been hijacked by people who aren't teachers, and I think that that has filtered into our classrooms. Teachers are not as confident about talking about what their students are doing or what they are doing, and the new evaluation system seemed to have added to that pressure, because instead of just being told that you're doing fine, there are all these levels and different things that you have to achieve. I think telling the story around your practice is a really powerful way of taking that narrative back and advocating for your students, because you're also advocating for yourself. I just think that that's a really important thing for people to keep in mind is evaluation is meant to be a conversation, and so if you think about telling your story in that conversation, maybe it's a little less threatening.
Brett: You talked with teachers all over the country about evaluations. What did they tell you? What did you hear from them?
Jennifer: Not a single person said, "Evaluation? I love evaluation." No one was excited about it. For the most part, the best I got was that people tolerate it, but the number of people who felt that they don't have any control or who felt that it's a negative experience or who feel incredibly nervous about it and feel judged and threatened was significant, and so I thought it was really important the more of these stories I heard ... and a lot of those anecdotes are in the book ... but the more of those stories I heard, I thought it was really important to help people focus on the students and why we do what we do, because the students are the most important thing in our work.
Brett: What should a healthy evaluation look like?
Jennifer: A healthy evaluation should be someone coming in to see you at your best, so not necessarily on a day that you're sick or that you just got hurt, which has happened to me. But someone coming in because they want to see what a regular day is like in your classroom, and it should be something that is open, where the observer is open to your ideas about what happened in that class, is open to your helping place what they're seeing in a larger context, because you're there every day and they saw one day. It's also a dialogue where you're getting some coaching feedback that is less judgmental and more reflective in helping you think about what you could do differently or what your other options might have been or where you might want to take your practice next.
Brett: You created a PD journal to help you with your own evaluation. Can you tell me a little about that PD journal?
Jennifer: The PD journal came out of the idea that in my school I need to turn in a binder of all of this information, and as I did more and more research on the different evaluation models, there are different levels of the amount of documentation you need. But everything is about evidence, and so I created the PD journal so that if you begin at the beginning of the year with the book, it goes through the natural cycle of an evaluation. So it starts with personal reflection, because you don't even need to have a teaching assignment for that. It moves into how to unpack the evaluation rubric, because you'll know that even before you have your specific classes. Then how to delve into your curriculum, to meet those standards, and then from there your students, and then pre-conference and the entire evaluation cycle. I just thought that that was a really useful way for myself to organize my note taking, so the PD journal is a way for people to keep track over the course of an evaluation cycle and sort of document their own growth and reflection.
Brett: Early on in the book, in the introduction, you have a beautiful design here. The book is in color, and there's a gorgeous layout here of what you had just described, where on the top you've got in yellow the summer break, and then it's a circle where it starts at the first month of school and it takes you all the way through to the last month of school, and it really helps you visualize everything that you're talking about in terms of the journey.
Jennifer: First I have to give all credit to my editor, Tobey, who designed that graphic and had the concept, making what I was talking about more visual, and I love the way she did that, because it makes so much more sense when you make it a circle like that. Also, our art department was amazing in bringing her sketch to life. But it's a really useful way to think about the fact that this is not a one way journey, that we're going to cycle back around and hopefully show more growth, and it's more of a spiral for us than just a beginning and end point.
Brett: One of the things that we hear from teachers is that the development that I want to do throughout the year sometimes conflicts with what the school is evaluating me on. How can we look at this and align our professional growth with the school's framework?
Jennifer: I find that more and more schools are more flexible in adding additional things in. I know that there are lots of things that I would love to do that don't always fit with the goals of my school; however, one of our goals is almost always related to literacy and I'm an English teacher, so that kind of thing is easy to work in. What's most important is that you have a balance, and I think that to be a good educator you need to be a good learner and to model lifelong learning. It's easy, I think, to have things added into your plan, and even if you have to scale back what you would love to do, if you can find a way to tie that into those goals you'll be able to rejuvenate your own work and find ways to connect with what the school's goals are by adding in other things. I do a lot of work with technology. I do a lot of outside workshops where I'm going for a week with the NEH or Gilder Lehrman to study, and it's always amazing to me how the stuff I bring back doesn't always necessarily seem to have an immediate application, but I find later on that it is applicable. So even if I'm just going through those experiences for the work of being a learner and staying curious about the world around me, if you're engaged with those kinds of things I think it helps you see your own teaching with new eyes.
Brett: Talk a little bit how your book helps align with evaluation criteria.
Jennifer: One of the things that people feel a lot of pressure to have is a perfect lesson for the evaluation criteria, and in almost every case all the new criteria models require some self-reflection. So when I did National Board Certification, for example, I discovered that a perfect lesson isn't one that has no mistakes or that every kid got everything right. A perfect lesson is one where I can walk away knowing what my goals were, what my students know and can do, and then what my next steps are to take them to the next level. That's really the goal, so when you unpack an evaluation rubric, my book helps you think about the language of the rubric and how to make sure that what you're doing and what you're giving your evaluator fits into that criteria really nicely, so that the language matches and there's less opportunity for something to slip through the cracks and them not to notice the good work that you're doing.
Brett: Does evaluation sort of differ across the content area teachers, or does it all sort of work the same?
Jennifer: I think the key is to focus on your students learning. If you know your students, and you have evidence that you know your students and that you're choosing work for them with goals that are appropriate with materials that are appropriate, whether they were the materials that you were given or you had to make modifications or you had to scaffold them to get there, you're working towards that, and you can show that your students are showing progress and that you're reflecting, then that's really what everybody needs to do. What that looks like in different cases is different. If you're a special education teacher of three students on the autism spectrum in a separate setting, then your ability to show growth is going to be different, because you're going to be using different kinds of tools to measure it, for example. But again, it goes back to knowing those students and knowing what goals are appropriate and then picking the best texts and the best strategies to get students to where they need to go next.
Brett: Early on, you have a section on planning your professional learning, and you have a lot of really great call-outs here about how to use Twitter effectively, how to use Facebook groups. Why is that ... All of these wonderful things that you've listed here, why are all those different things so important?
Jennifer: I think it's easy to get lost in our own heads and to just get tunnel vision in our own school, and I find that my teaching is strongest when I stop and pick my head up and sort of reach out to people in other places who don't have the same teaching context I have, who might not even have the same grade level or the same content area, and talk to them about what they're doing and what challenges they face and what tools they've discovered are useful or what new strategies they're incorporating. That helps me keep my focus on issues larger than just what's going on in my school. I also feel more confident that I'm not gauging my students by some measure that has been flattened by being only in my school, and make sure that I'm looking outside of my school and bringing resources in. I think that that's what strong teachers do is they're looking for other ways and then bringing those back to their school and networking with colleagues. So those tools help you connect and feel a little less isolated.
Brett: Still as we record, we're sort of at the beginning of the school year, so we're about a month and a half in for a lot of schools, but as we're planning out our school year maybe we hit a certain wall, we hit a certain moment where something's not going well and we need to think about changing course. What is the best way to reassess or how to change course if we hit that wall?
Jennifer: I like that you say "if" because for me it's always "when". At some point, things aren't going to go the way I had hoped. I hope that other teachers have more "if" moments than "when" moments, but for me something is always not quite the way I thought it was going to be. On rare occasion, it's that my students are really mastering what I've given them and I need to find a new challenge, but more likely I need to back up and figure out where some other skills have dropped out. So for me, my fallback is to just stop what I'm doing and have the students reflect on what they think their goals were, what they've learned, what they think the problem is, because sometimes they're really astute at knowing what the problem is more that I know, and then doing a quick self-reflection myself. So stepping back and saying am I taking formative assessment into account? Am I stopping to measure their growth? If I gave a test and I'm frustrated, did I take the time to do an item analysis and look at where the difficulties lie? And then it always goes back to the students. So if I'm stuck I look to my students to guide me, either literally by saying, "Hey, we need this piece," or by just having them reflect and then looking at my reflection and seeing where there might be some discrepancy or some gap, and then working to fill that, which sometimes means a lot of hours researching new ideas or finding new ways to teach material that maybe I feel they should have mastered or seems like it is a skill that they should already have. But I can't just say, "Well, this is 11th grade and you should already know this." I have to meet my students where they are. Sometimes that's a lot of hard work on my part finding new ways. To me, that's just adding another tool in my toolbox that I can perhaps use some other time. I've been teaching for 20 years, and I'm always finding new things that I can do with my students.
Brett: You also write about the importance of finding your voice.
Jennifer: I think that that's so important. I think teachers, as I said earlier, have sort of ceded the narrative of what it means to be a teacher, and we can't do that, and we certainly can't do that in our classrooms. It's important for us to tell the story of what goes on in our classrooms and to speak up and find a voice. If we're not advocating for ourselves, we're not advocating for our students, because what we're asking for is always the best learning conditions and the best resources and the best opportunities for our kids. And so it's really important to find that voice, especially as the current climate is shifting, and public education especially is becoming more and more under attack. I think that finding your voice to speak up and hopefully to get the confidence to speak not just in your building to your colleagues and your students and your administrators, but to speak at a board meeting or to speak at a state level meeting about what's going on, and advocating for the best policies, because we are the experts. It takes a lot of training and a lot of testing to become a teacher. It's not an easy thing, and as the experts in our content and in our students, it's really important that we find our voice and speak up and advocate for ourselves and for our schools and for our communities and for our profession.
Jennifer Ansbach (@JenAnsbach) was told by nationally prominent educator, Jim Burke, “if you were any more reflective, you’d be a mirror.” A National Board Certified™ English teacher, Jen works in a continuous cycle of professional improvement: identifying students' needs, improving her practice, finding applicable PD, and documenting her work. She also supports other teachers’ professional journeys by serving on her local and district PD committees and as her local union’s PD chair. She hopes that Take Charge of Your Teacher Evaluation will help teachers overcome the feeling of powerlessness that evaluations create and finally be recognized for the effectiveness of their daily practice.
If you’d like to read a sample chapter of her new book, Take Charge of Your Teaching Evaluation, or read blogs from the book, go to Heinemann.com/blog for more. You can also follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenAnsbach where she is happy to connect with you further.
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