During the evaluation process, teachers might be asking for one thing while evaluators are looking for something different. How do we bring these two perspectives together to reach common goals? In Making Teacher Evaluation Work, Authors Rachael Gabriel and Sarah Woulfin suggest there’s a way to not only improve the evaluation process, but use evaluations as a way to improve teaching. Rachael and Sarah have created a resource for teachers and evaluators to read together that walks them through every step of the evaluation process. We started out our conversation on how this book came to be.
See below for a transcript of this conversation:
Rachael: I don't want to go way back into history, but the last five or six years, most states in the 40s, I think it's 46 out of the 50, rewrote their teacher evaluation policies almost completely. So we have this new wave of new generation policies and teachers all over the country over the last few years have been piloting them or getting into them for the second, third, fourth year, and it raises a lot of questions. They are higher stakes than they've ever been. They're happening for every teacher, every year, which is a new thing. People are using measurement tools for evaluating teaching that they've never used before, and we don't know a lot about how they work and how they work to support teachers, or how they work to identify teachers that are doing a great job or an okay job or doing a job that means they need support.
So, there are a lot of questions that are instructional questions, not just policy questions about what evaluation means for what actually happens in classrooms. What potential it maybe has or doesn't have to improve the quality of classroom interactions. Which I think is the stated goal of having an evaluation policy at all, but it's not always immediately obvious how the policy itself winds its way into what teachers and students actually do together in the classroom.
So, we both have this background in literacy and still work a lot with literacy teachers in different grade levels. And so we were doing a lot of thinking about how the new policies impact what happens in classrooms and what teachers are thinking and talking about. And then just informally in conversations with teachers it's what is on their minds a lot of the time. Especially at the beginning of the year and the end of the year. So, thinking about how they're going to be rated and what the ratings will mean for them as professionals and what they need to do to get different ratings. And also ... I'll turn it over to you ... Sarah's work with administrators, it's not always easy to make the evaluation happen and happen in an accurate and a fair way. So, teachers are worried about it, but I think probably almost equally administrators are worried about it.
Sarah: Yeah, I think there are two other pieces. I think that one, we started noticing in informal conversations with teachers that while they were perhaps had increases in stress and were experiencing kind of additional work related to evaluation, particularly at the beginning and the end of the year, they didn't necessarily always see or have access to the big picture ideas and policy messages and frameworks that were being used by policy makers with regard to evaluation.
So another purpose was to open up that black box, or open up, demystify some of the definitions and terms and ideas that were behind evaluation. And then I think the other piece that we noticed in our work with literacy educators as well as leaders and in interacting with the evaluation frameworks is that these frameworks are not necessarily content specific. So we were losing or lacking and missing sort of the ... where's the literacy within the evaluation. And if you want to improve the nature of literacy instruction in classrooms and in schools if and how you can use these evaluation materials to do so.
Brett: How does your work in the book unify classroom teachers' and administrators' goals?
Sarah: I feel that one point that we make in the book and across places is that it's less about the particular goals or the particular ask, tell, do this, and it's more about opening up the conversation and the on-going dialogue about what's currently happening in my classroom. What are my feelings working within that, what am I noticing is not necessarily working with that and being able to have that conversation with your administrator, who is doing the evaluation process. So in that way the evaluation process is a window or a time or a space where you can have those conversations about instruction about how things are going with the kids in the room, with the instructional materials that you're using, with instructional practices that you're trying out. Rather than in one point and time, evaluators coming in seeing A, B, and C, and saying okay you get four stars because of that.
Rachael: And I think teachers and evaluators often have the same very broad goal. We want things to go well, they want students to be safe and they want them to learn things. But they often come to evaluation from different frameworks and so we talked a lot about how matching your intentions up from the beginning is really important. That the administrator isn't necessarily going to see in their observation what you feel like you're showing them. Unless you have a conversation up front about what your goals are and why.
Likewise, teachers aren't necessarily going to know to show you or to showcase the things that you're looking for as an administrator unless you have that intention conversation before. Then there's within the policies themselves a couple of competing logics about whether evaluation is really about accountability and measurement. In which case you would approach it in a certain way, and you would use certain tools, and you would make decisions and let some things go but focus on others.
Or is it really about teacher support and development? In which case you might actually tweak your tools and you might make slightly different decisions, and a lot of the personal anecdotes that I was hearing from teachers especially in work shop settings when we're talking about what they could be doing in their classrooms or what they really value in their classrooms they ... I kept hearing over and over again that people felt like they were cornered by the evaluation system. Cornered out of doing things they believed in or cornered into doing things they weren't sure about.
So we really wanted to have a text that teachers and administrators could read together to have a common language and a common way of thinking and talking about literacy in the context of evaluation so that they could be clear with each other about ... Today I just want to measure, so these are the kinds of things I want to see, or today I really need your support, and so these are the kinds of things I'm going to show you. Don't be measuring at the moment, but I'm going to show you this, and what sorts of conversations would let that support happen instead of shutting it down because we measured instead.
Brett: When we open up that communication between evaluator and educator does it relieve that stress, does that stress level come down on both parts? Do you see that that's making the big part of the difference?
Sarah: I think that there is potential for the stress to decrease and be reduced. I also think there's potential for real adult learning to occur on both ends. I mean I think that administrators can and should learn more about what's happening within the classroom, what's currently happening within the classrooms across their building, as well as about instruction in general. And in the same way teachers can and should continue to grow and improve.
So I think it's part of ... I think that the conversation together is a mechanism for everyone to grow and develop as instructors and to benefit instruction.
Rachael: Yeah, and so it could be that some of the anxiety around the interaction itself maybe goes away but it doesn't make it easier at all. Like in some cases I think it makes it harder because you will have a pointed conversation about what's working and not working. One that maybe you wouldn't have had if you had completely crossed purposes. That's what we really wanted to ... The big problem we wanted to avoid with the book is that people are investing an enormous amount of time and resources and energy with the paperwork associated, and with the time spent in observations or in debrief conversations, and it's like ships passing in the night sometimes. What administrators are looking for, what teachers are hoping for, and nothing comes out of that conversation.
So calibrating it a little bit and giving some tools for talking together and giving some common language for it in a way of just talking about ... We have rubrics for observation that say what good teaching is, but what does that look like in a literacy classroom and what does that mean for reading and writing instructions specifically? My hope is that people will have tougher and better conversations instead of nonsensical absurd ones that end up with a rating, or a number, or a I wish I'd learned something but I didn't. 'Cause I think both sides, too often, both sides are disappointed. Nobody's getting what they want if we're all using the system for two different things.
Brett: You've got a quote from chapter six that I think sort of dives into that nicely. It says, "At the same time, leaders who care about their teachers may feel like giving feedback is a risk in itself." Can you expand upon that quote but also the risks involved with feedback?
Rachael: So I think that ... We think that when teachers are the ones receiving feedback that they're the only ones that have something to lose. That they're going to need to save face or that they're going to feel bad about themselves. But administrators have a really difficult task in terms of balancing the kind of feedback they give and wrapping it up in ways that shore up the relationship instead of knocking it down, but also in ways that shore up their authority and their authenticity.
They often don't have the things that teachers think about as something that would lend an administrator authority, which is among teachers usually experience. You've never taught my content area or my grade before and so why should I listen to you. It often doesn't come off rude like that but administrators need to convey that they know what they're talking about and have some confidence in what their analysis is but they also have to do it in a way that doesn't burn a bridge, because they need to be able to coach and keep that employee but also realize that teachers are not just employees, like widgets by themselves. They are part of networks that talk to each other. And so whatever you say to one teacher is going to be repeated over and over again to the other people in the building and then everybody will have heard that message. And I think that can be really intimidating to know that I said it wrong once and all of a sudden everybody thinks that I meant this, or everybody thinks that I think this one thing and it wasn't what I meant.
So I think that can freeze people up sometimes and make them not want to give specific feedback, just stay broad because broad is safe. But broad doesn't get us very far in terms of improving instruction or even just improving the chops that we have for talking about teaching, which sometimes need to be sharpened if we're going to be talking about the same thing sometimes.
Brett: What does an empowered teacher and evaluator look like?
Rachael: I can tell you what they have. They have ... They sometimes use similar words and they talk about similar things. And the words they use are specific. So I'm big on the idea that a really supportive evaluation system has to be content specific. It can't just be in general good teachers do generic things, because I don't think that there is anything generic about good teaching. I think it's particular and specific and context bound. So when they talk to each other they talk about specific things and they know what each other means.
So I guess what it looks like is conversation that moves past broad generalizations and conversations that aren't necessarily long, or combative, or pointed, but that people seem like they know exactly what the other person is talking about. Whether they are using a word or phrase that is just used in the building, or a word or phrase that we would use in research, or it doesn't have to be the official term, but that people really seem like they are talking about the same things when they are talking about instruction.
The big thing is that they actually talking about instruction. So I think we often hear conversations move to management, or move to logistics, or move to here's why all of these things aren't happening. But it's much more rare to hear teachers and administrators separately or together talking about instruction like the core of instruction and how teaching and learning actually happen. I think in relationships that are a positive, robust relationships for evaluation teachers and leaders can have a lot to say about the students in their rooms.
I think that the folks that aren't paying attention to the right things, if you ask them about their kids they tell you about the behavior. Or they say, they'll rattle off something about the data. People that are really in tune with what's going on instructionally in their classroom can take one child and talk all about who they are as a thinker and a learner. They could do that for all their kids and you could be there all day. And the idea is to put a stopper on them instead of what sometimes happens, which is that it becomes a conversation about why teaching is so challenging. And it is. Or it becomes a conversation about everything but teaching and learning. Like the equipment, or the behaviors, or the the school day, or the schedule, or the ... which are all part of it but they are the structure that holds it. They are not it.
Sarah: The teacher should also be asking the administrator questions. On the one hand, what are their expectations for change, improvement, implementation enactment of A, B, or C. As well as for what kind of support they can and should receive. In some of our other separate research together it's evident in many evaluation or in a particular state most school leaders are still not providing professional learning opportunities. They are matched with the needs surfaced in teacher evaluation outcomes or in their ratings. So I think that that's a through line that still can and should be connected. That it's a place for empowered teachers to ask more questions and sort of request and say "Okay, if this is a surface need, that I need to improve this dimension of my classroom discourse. What are the supports that I can expect? Where can I go to learn about this? Is there a way to carve out additional time with a coach? Is there a way to find a support in the district?"
Brett: When I was going through chapter six I got the idea in my head about imposter syndrome, and how new teachers in particular really walk into the classroom and there's many challenges that they have to face. I feel like one more challenge is that imposter syndrome and then they have to think about the evaluation at the same time.
Rachael: I'll just speak from personal experience. I was deep into the imposter syndrome as a 21 year old teacher in a middle school, and I think and I remember and I write in the book about my very first observation. I remember looking forward to it so much because what I wanted most to get out of feeling like an imposter was to be better, and to know how to be better. And I think the big challenge for beginning teachers is that you could grow in all directions and we all can grow in all directions but you can tell your own priorities as you go. Or you have your own interests so its not like I need to be better at everything all at once immediately tomorrow.
I was really excited about getting feedback in that context, scared about it, but excited about it because I thought the next day I'll have an idea of what I should be working on, and right now I feel like I have to work on everything and that's overwhelming. So in some ways I think the evaluation process could be uniquely supportive of teachers that really want some outside guidance about what to focus on. Because administrators have experience, maybe wisdom, but they also have tools that help them prioritize. For better or for worse the tools prioritize some things more than others, and that can be helpful for a beginning teacher.
It can, the flip side of that, is that can feel constraining to teachers that are more clear about their professional goals and so that conversation from the beginning with the administrators is helpful again in saying this is my focus right now as a professional, and here is why, and can I enlist your support and/or can we make this go quickly because it's not a huge part of my learning process at the moment and we'll just do it the way it needs to be done. But we'll save some time and some space for me to explore this thing I think is really important for my particular classroom.
Sarah: My answer is suggesting kind of a research agenda with it. In that new teachers are ... and teachers who have come in in the past couple years are uniquely situated in where they're coming in with a new generation teacher evaluation system as the norm. So they're seeing that from day one. So on the flip side, I think that for veteran teachers, they've experienced this shock and this change and I think that that imposter syndrome can also be there for even veteran teachers. And need to not only work through the imposter issues but as well as get to know and understand a new evaluation system.
Rachael: Yeah, I think I did hear often and I still hear it pretty often, this feeling like you're under surveillance for the first time and also feeling like you're teaching but you don't have all your clothes on or something because people are there watching for the first time. But there is a generation of teachers that grew up in the profession with video cameras in their classrooms as a matter of course, or with administrator walkthroughs as just part of the furniture. There are beginning teachers that never had that experience and it isn't necessarily an age thing but in general, yeah, I think there's a culture shock, but sometimes beginning teachers have an easier time because they didn't have it any other way.
Rachael Gabriel is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. Rachael began her career in education as a middle school teacher in Washington, DC. Since then she has worked as a literacy specialist, new teacher advisor and intervention provider. She earned a PhD in Literacy Studies from the University of Tennessee. Rachael’s teaching and research focus on: teacher preparation, development and evaluation, as well as literacy instruction, interventions, and related policies.
Dr. Sarah Woulfin is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education. As a former urban public school teacher and Reading First reading coach, she was dedicated to strengthening students’ literacy skills to promote educational equity. Her research uses organizational theory to investigate the relationship between policy, leadership, and classroom practice. She earned a Ph.D. in Education from the University of California-Berkeley.
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