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Dogs, Ponies, and Teacher Evaluation

In a recent incarnation of the endless (and mostly pointless) Twitter skirmishes re: test scores as reliable indicators of teacher quality, a "reformer" described the "dog and pony shows" he used to stage for the benefit of his evaluation-by-administrator. Ergo, he indicated, face to face appraisal of teachers' practice could not be trusted to represent the ordinary, everyday teaching in that classroom. We must rely on subsequent, externally created tests to precisely measure what learning has transpired, lest we fall prey to being dazzled by showmanship, not regular teaching. 

I can't even express just how irritated that Tweet made me. Like "disruptor" and "choice" and--most unfortunately-- "the civil rights issue of our time," I am seriously torqued by the casually deceptive language people throw around when it comes to teaching, learning and the way public schools should work. Especially when that bold language is utilized to promote some misguided policy, such as assessing teachers' value to an organization based on their students' test data. 

Have I heard teachers refer to The Lesson Where the Principal Shows Up as a dog and pony show? Many times. And my first thought was always: If that was their staged and fluffed-up best, what are they doing the rest of the time?

Some thoughts on the examined, observed lesson:

  • To some extent--and with some strong qualifiers--all teaching is rightfully a dog and pony show.  That doesn't mean that teachers are obligated to entertain their students--they emphatically are not. Only that on any given day, good teachers read the classroom atmosphere just as actors and tap dancers read the audience, and tailor instruction toward, you know, getting something accomplished in the time allotted.  Sometimes that involves a little passion, a provocative question, something to wake them up--in many classrooms, the dog and pony make regular appearances. Is that bad?
  • Teachers are obligated to engage their students, an increasingly difficult tap dance that never ends. The tools they use to do this are varied--and differ from class to class, student to student--but if a teacher has good luck with overt showmanship (and my friend Chuck Olynyk's wardrobe of costumes and characters springs to mind here) more power to him. Teaching is a mix of pulling them in, challenging them, fine-tuning their skill development, offering them feedback, and so on. But first--the students have to be paying attention.
  • A good supervisor should be known to students, because she informally drops into classrooms often. I have some empathy for school leaders whose teacher-evaluation duties have increased exponentially--witness this familiar 64-point evaluation template--but the one-shot annual evaluation doesn't cut it, either. Principals should know the teachers in their buildings, and have a good idea of what's going on in their classrooms, including problems. A visit from the principal with his clipboard should feel no different to the students from the five minutes he spent in the back of the room last week.
  • Which would lead to a situation where a dog-and-pony/ Superbowl lesson would be obvious to all--students and administrators--and teachers might not be tempted to overgild the lily, but simply open their classroom door and let someone watch them teach, perhaps get some good advice.
  • Giving a teacher a heads-up before a formal evaluation is actually a good idea. Contrary to the assertion that this unfairly gives teachers time to "prepare," rather than being ambushed by The Evaluator, it's an opportunity for a teacher (especially a novice teacher) to discuss her learning goals, or explain the instructional sequence. All instruction happens in context--and all evaluation should happen in context, too, and involve questions and conversation.
  • That could lead to a professional culture, something that can only be built over time, with the opportunity to develop genuine regard, even trust, with colleagues. Evaluation reflects human relationships. One teacher's dog and pony show is another teacher's effective daily routine. The trick is encouraging all teachers to want to grow.

Perhaps I am merely lucky, to have worked in seven schools and under at least two dozen administrators--seriously, I lose track--yet never felt compelled to fancy-up a lesson or experienced a clutch in the midsection when the principal walked in. I've had principals ranging from smart and motivating to downright evil--but when they walked into my classroom, what they saw was what happened every day, for better or worse. Some days, teachers are on top of their game. But there's a fair amount of floundering, process time and repetition in any functioning classroom, too.

For a couple of years, I was assigned a middle school math class (before the days of the Highly Qualified teacher), even though I'm a music teacher. I asked my principal to observe me in math class, because I was a lot less confident teaching math. He came in early in September, and sat in back as we were doing a review lesson on subtraction with regrouping (borrowing, for us oldsters). He was impressed and said a lot of nice things, then mentioned a technique I'd demonstrated that he'd never seen before. Where did you find that, he asked--great stuff!

Well, it was in the teachers' manual--I'd found it the night before, as I was scrambling to get my plans together for the next day. Was I an unprepared teacher, relying on the manual, one step ahead of the kids, trying to cover up my weaknesses? Maybe. But I absolutely wanted to do right by them.

The punitive cloud hanging over teachers  is darker today than it's been in a long time.

Let's not make it worse by taking the human element out of teacher evaluation, in favor of numbers.

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