This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: I’m talking to “Take Charge of Your Teaching Evaluation” author Jennifer Ansbach about what a healthy teacher evaluation looks like, and the three things you can do to take charge of yours.
Teaching observations are stressful, but you can do more than just survive them, and actually take charge of your teaching evaluation.
My guest on the Truth For Teachers podcast today is Jennifer Ansbach, a National Board Certified™ English teacher. She is currently in the classroom teaching high school, and she’s also the author of the new book Take Charge of Your Teacher Evaluation.
Jennifer shared with me before the recording began that the book grew out of her work helping colleagues and the research she was doing as her local union’s PD chair in New Jersey. Her hope is that the book will help teachers overcome the feeling of powerlessness that evaluations create and finally be recognized for the effectiveness of their daily practice. Jennifer is a true advocate for teachers and I think you’re going to love her practical and encouraging advice here.
Click play to listen to the interview, or read the summary below.
Why teachers are feeling so anxious about the evaluation process
ANSBACH: Since we’ve moved to this evaluation model that is supposed to be more objective, in my conversations with people, they feel it’s more subjective than ever because it comes down to a lot of minutiae. In an attempt to remove the bias, they’ve just sort of split it into much smaller portions. One teacher I spoke to said it comes down to who evaluates you, or it comes down to that principal who only looks at one thing, and that’s not really what the intention of the model was.
Charlotte Danielson originally conceived her model as a way of giving feedback to teachers to consider where they might be able to strengthen their lessons, but not as a judgment of who they are as people. Anytime we change things it’s stressful. But in this circumstance, because it used to be such a simple process and now there’s so much work to it and so much preparation for the post-conference, they’re feeling like it’s less out of their control.
Some of the models are measuring 67 different things, and that’s just not realistic. In fact, I have some research that shows, including Marzano, that that’s too many things to target. So a lot of districts, including my own, pared down how many things to think about to try to focus people more, but it’s still really overwhelming. It is a change from the way things used to be, and I think that that’s contributing to the anxiety. It’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of things to think about.
Marzano’s approach is very different. He embraces a lot of direct instruction. His work is very similar to Hattie’s in that it uses a lot of meta-analysis. Whereas Danielson was using a constructivist model of education, and it was a constructivist philosophy. So right there you have some conflict between how people approach, how children learn, and then how they’re being measured. Because now districts have to choose one size fits all, we have a lot of places where there’s a conflict between the way the educator perceives student learning and the way they’re being measured. When in reality, Danielson especially was just looking for a way to give people feedback on areas to consider for improvement. She never intended it to be that one score on that one lesson was supposed to be something that you owned.
We wouldn’t let our students own that score that we put on their paper or that they earn on a standardized test. We wouldn’t have them think of themselves as that number, and yet I find colleagues and people around the country do that to themselves and kind of internalize, like, “I’m not highly effective,” or “I’m only effective,” or “I’m not effective,” and that, I think, is really damaging. We should never let outside judgment be the measure of who we are.
Don’t cede the narrative of what it means to be a teacher
Teachers are getting tired, in general, of being told what our classrooms are like, what our students are like, and what our day is like. Heartbreakingly, when we saw the Parkland shooting, it really showed the contrast between our everyday lives in a classroom and the general perception of what we do all day. When people are posting their concerns at seeing what the world looks like sitting on the floor huddled in a corner and not realizing that we practice those drills several times a year, that’s not what was different for those children.
I think that we need to stop letting other people determine what education is, determine what our lives are like, what our classes are like, and what our students are like. We need to take that over, both on the larger stage in ed policy, in conversations about what education could be, and on national platforms.
I think that the days of the fiefdom where you closed your door and didn’t worry about policy and just taught your own kids are over. Policy has come more and more intrusively into our classrooms, and we really need to start pushing back on that. As educators, we owe it to our students and to ourselves to start talking about what our profession is and what our students can do, and that comes down to when someone comes into our classroom.
So they don’t necessarily get to tell us what just happened. We’re allowed to frame that narrative and talk about what’s been happening before that happened and then what that might lead to later in terms of goals or expectations or consequences.
We can talk about those things, and we don’t have to sit back and wait for someone else to tell us what that is. The story of our classroom is the story of our classroom, and it’s not someone else’s story to tell.
What a healthy teacher evaluation process looks like
In a healthy situation, a teacher evaluation is a conversation among colleagues. It is not a top-down model. It is not someone coming in and passing judgment or dictating what is going on. It’s a conversation. It’s a coaching of what’s happening. Even if you’re struggling, that person should be coaching you on how to get better and not just passing judgment on what’s good or bad.
In the best scenarios, when it’s healthy, the teacher has an equal voice in what’s happening in their classroom. The teacher is able to say, This is what you’re looking at, this is what my goals were, and that’s not being dictated to them. Not everybody has that kind of relationship in their school district.
For example, I encourage people to email their administrator and say: This is going on in my classroom, or I went to this workshop, or I got this certificate. A lot of times administrators are very busy. They’ve got a lot on their plate, and they can’t possibly memorize all of that and a lot of times we forget to share those things.
It’s so important that we take that responsibility as professionals and say: This is what I’m working on, this is what I’m doing. That’s really vital, and I think that’s something that a lot of teachers are afraid to do. They’re hesitant to put themselves out there and claim their professionalism, but it’s really an important part of the process.
Rather than sitting back and hoping someone notices, we can be advocating for ourselves and saying: This is who I am. This is what I’m doing.
3 things any teacher can do to take charge of his/her own evaluation
1) Unpack the rubric and get a clear understanding of what you’re really being evaluated on.
I would say the first thing that teachers need to do is unpack the rubric and really look at what you’re being evaluated on because as I had mentioned earlier, there’s sometimes a disconnect between the way the teacher sees student learning and the way the model perceives student learning.
So going through and looking at the differences between a three and a four, for example, and really thinking about how you can get students to where the model would like them to be is really important. Using that language in your pre-conference or post-conference documents, or in your conference when you’re talking to the person observing you so that they can easily align that, is all in your benefit. That’s really going to help you feel like this is something you’re in control of.
2) Look for systematic ways to collect more information about your students to make it easier to document that you know your kids well.
The second thing that you can do is really know your students well and think about finding more systematic ways to collect information about them. So I, for example, send home a questionnaire to parents asking them for more information about their child and goals. I teach high school, so sometimes it’s really interesting to see the gaps between what the student thinks their life is and what the parent thinks their life is, what the student sees as their strengths versus what the parent sees as their strengths. But it gives me really good information that a child wouldn’t be forthcoming with, and I always end with, “What else do you want me to know about your child?” And I get really powerful information just from asking that question.
It’s amazing how sometimes people think that we don’t care, or we don’t want to know, or it’s not relevant when the fact is we just didn’t ask the question. Finding a systematic way to collect that information about students is very important, whether you’re taking inventories on their skills and their past experiences or their interests and then using that information to help tailor lessons to them and pull them into things that might be a challenge.
3) Spend time reflecting on what your next goal is for your students, how you know that’s the goal, and how you know what they know.
The last thing you could do is spend time really being reflective and thinking about: What’s my next goal for my students, and how do I know that’s my goal? How do I know what they know?
And being reflective in: How am I gathering information? When I’m designing lessons, even if I’m having them play games, what artifacts am I letting my students hold onto from that to keep their memories refreshed about this activity we did? How am I helping them memorialize their learning in that way? What am I gathering for myself to help measure their learning?
Those are three things that teachers could do right away that would make a really big difference in their instruction because in all of the models when you keep students first with your focus on student learning and growth, you’re going to be fine.
What to do if you get a negative evaluation
Unfortunately, that happens more than we think. And if you belong to an association or you have a local union, I would go to them because they’re going to have people who are trained in how to respond to that and can coach you.
If you don’t have that situation, I would definitely go to a trusted mentor and talk it through. I always recommend writing down how you’re feeling and not sharing it with anybody else but getting the initial hurt and anger out so that you can work through it — it’s kind of shocking to see that you felt you were achieving something and it still hurts to see that evaluation not meet your own expectations for yourself.
Then, I would sit down and go back through the rubric and look at the evidence and notes that you took after the observation, and then see where it aligns and make an appointment to go back in and say: I really need to discuss this with you. I need more information.
Put it in a way that’s non-confrontational like, I notice that you gave me a three here, but when I look at the rubric, it says that I needed to do this, this, and this to be a four. Can we talk about this?
A lot of times, when you can produce that evidence, it can be reconsidered or you can have a conversation so that even if it doesn’t get changed, you know what you need to do the next time for that evaluator.
How to avoid taking the evaluation personally
WATSON: How do you avoid taking an evaluation personally? Because I think you’re touching on something that a lot of teachers struggle with, which is feeling like: OK, if the principal says this is what it is, then this is what it is, and he or she doesn’t think that I’m a “good teacher.” That’s sort of the conclusion you draw when you don’t get to the level of effectiveness that you believe you are. And so it becomes this thing where you almost sort of question your own value as a teacher. I thought I was pretty good at this thing. I thought my kids were learning, I thought I had a good rapport with my kids. It can really create a lot of self-doubt and it can really cause you to feel differently about yourself as a teacher. Have you seen that too with educators that you’ve talked to?
ANSBACH: Definitely. You know, the difference is the shift to the new evaluation systems, which was spurred by a federal mandate for Race to the Top, which said that states had to adopt these evaluation procedures. They had some flexibility, but there had to be this new evaluation. It boils your score down to a judgment, and in the past when I would get evaluations, it would say I was excellent at this, and I was good at this, and then there might be some notes from the person who observed me listing some of the great things that I was doing in my classroom or as part of this school community. It then might have had some notes about a conversation we had about what I’m going to work on next and that was the sum of it.
Now it actually boils down to a number, and that number is assigned a descriptor, like distinguished or effective or highly effective. That’s what people are internalizing. But I never let my students internalize a score they get on a test or a report card or a standardized measure as who they are as people, and we have to talk to ourselves the same way we talk to our students. If you wouldn’t allow your student to talk to themselves that way, then don’t do it to yourself.
When you look at the rubric you see that in their attempts to become really objective, they’ve really just made it super difficult to distinguish. No one’s expecting children to be perfect, no one’s expecting teachers to be perfect, and we all know that teachers make a squillion decisions, large and small, in a single class period. We need to cut ourselves a break in understanding that we’re now being forced to be measured in a system that we weren’t raised in, or based on how that person is interpreting the model, or how the evaluator is interpreting the model.
It becomes a source of stress when it doesn’t need to be. And the best thing I can tell you is not to own that, to understand that this is one person’s judgment on one day, on one lesson. If you measure out how many minutes you spend in a classroom per year and you look at how many minutes they were in there interacting with you, watching you with your children, it is such a small, small measure of what you are and who you are and what you do.
WATSON: That’s right. And we have to resist those labels. I love that comparison to talking to ourselves the same way that we would talk to our students or we would want our students to talk to themselves, and I think a lot of times we’re our own harshest critics. If we had a friend who had a bad evaluation, we would speak kindly to them and encourage them and lift them up. But when it’s ourselves, we tend to get down on ourselves and think of all the ways that that is true and think about all the times that we did fall short and we didn’t measure up. I think that’s such a good perspective to remember that this is one person’s evaluation, one person’s subjective opinion in a lot of ways based on this one moment, and that we can’t extrapolate that into our self-image and allow that to determine how we feel about ourselves.
How administrators can empower teachers to take charge of their evaluations
ANSBACH: Your perception is your reality, and so I think making sure that you are present in those pre-observation and post-observation conferences, making sure that your body language is open, that you are interested in a collegial conversation.
It’s important that you’re not holding yourself up as the grand arbiter of all things education, but that you’re offering some tips based on your experience. Making sure that people understand that there’s a dialogue there, making sure that people understand that you’re there to support them and to coach them is so important.
The most important thing every teacher should know about teacher evaluations
I think the most important thing for every teacher to understand is that this is just one piece of who you are. It is not the sum total of who you are, and if you use the tools the right way, it can really become a place for you to grow regardless of someone else’s input. It can really be an opportunity to become more reflective and really think about what you’re doing and how you can improve student learning in your classroom.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!