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Teachers Crave Meaningful Feedback & Want to Learn!

March 11, 2012

After nearly fifteen years of teaching science in a variety of independent schools, a division director, department head or principal never completed a formal evaluation of my teaching.  What I mean by that is, I never had an administrator observe a sequence of classes knowing what my goals for the lessons were, give me targeted and constructive feedback, and generate a formal document that summarized their findings.   In fact, I don’t believe I have been formally observed doing my work over my entire career.  Mostly, people I work with see the products of my work which is only part of the story.  While serving as Executive Director of the Center for Teaching at the Westminster Schools, I have had annual feedback that comes from a supervisor summarizing results from a survey to constituents.  Is this enough feedback or the right kind of feedback?

When I think of the national conversation about changing teacher evaluation systems in the US, I am struck by the narrow scope of the dialogue.  We seem to be focused on just a few issues like pay-for-performance, incorporating value-added test data or improving delivery models for supervision and evaluation.  My concern is that the national conversation isn’t starting from the question, “what does it mean to be a good teacher?”  Don’t we need to have a very clear sense of what it means to be a good teacher, as well as a road map or GPS to guide those who need help?

In this piece, I want to suggest that the national dialogue should be about creating and promoting a supervision and evaluation model that supports teachers and honors the complexity of the job.  Jon Saphier writes in chapter 1 of The Skillful Teacher:

Teaching is one of the most complex human endeavors imaginable.

So the supervision and evaluation model needs to have sufficient depth and breath to honor this complexity.  The components should be:

  • self-reflection process (helps the teacher become a more reflective person)
  • administrative feedback (hinges on pre & post-conversations around classroom observations)
  • student feedback (interviews or surveys)
  • peer feedback (hinges on classroom observations in non-evaluative setting)
  • feedback on other roles played by a typical teacher (observations of learning spaces in which the teacher is involved)
  • portfolio of the teacher’s work (lessons, sample units, videos, writing samples, etc.)

So, what does it mean to be a good teacher?  Is there an understanding and agreement on what defines good teaching and what it looks like in the classroom?  It has to be more than, “I know a good teacher when I see one?”  We need a context for good teaching before we can evaluate a person doing it.  Well-researched frameworks for good teaching are available.  Charlotte Danielson’s framework is used by many school districts around the country.   Robert Marzano’s book, Art and Science of Teaching, has been developed into a framework for what good teaching looks like.  Both the Danielson and Marzano frameworks have been transformed into an instructional improvement system by IObservation.  My favorite framework for good teaching comes from the work of Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.  He crafts a beautiful narrative, stories and examples, of what it means to be a good teacher.

Certainly, these are not the only frameworks for good teaching.  In fact, some of these frameworks are very costly to implement for single schools or districts without significant resources to invest in these “for-profit” companies.  With billions of dollars of Race-to-the-Top monies tied to improving teacher evaluation systems, all the “big players” are vying to market their frameworks.  Check out IObsevation’s website, they even have a Race-to-the-Top link on their homepage.  Capitalism at work.

I tend to be an advocate of individual schools and districts using their knowledge, experience, and local expertise to define what it means to be a good teacher at their school.  The work is important to complete, but it is not rocket science.  Here are some examples from different schools or school districts:

Doing a simple Google search on what it means to be a good teacher yields a great deal of information.  Some of it interesting and some of not.  Everyone believes they define what it means to be a good teacher because just about everyone has experienced being in relationship with a “good teacher.”  I believe our profession needs to take an active stand, creating a more demanding definition of what good teaching looks like or the qualities a good teacher possesses.  But most of us know from experience that good teachers do not conform to a “one size fits all” model.  So our model or definition needs to incorporate a diverse set of enduring qualities.

The first component of a supervision and evaluation model, the self-reflection piece, should be built around the school’s definition of good teaching.  The tools faculty use are less important than creating time and space for faculty to define their annual goals, process the information they receive about their teaching, and construct a professional development plan that acts as their GPS for how to improve.  The model for good teaching should be the lens through which a faculty member does their reflection.  I particularly like this article by Thomas Sergiovanni, Landscapes, Mindscapes, Reflective Practice in Supervision, wrote in 1995 for Journal of Curriculum and Supervision.

It isn’t sufficient to just have a framework for good teaching.  Schools also need a concise and meaningful rubric aligned to the skills and qualities that are part of its vision for good teaching.    We need to translate our thoughts about good teaching into a rubric that guides the teacher.  The rubric should be both specific and open-ended.  Specific enough to help the teacher understand the difference between mastery and novice levels of implementation.  However, the rubric needs to be open-ended enough to allow for the creative personality of the teacher to shine through his or her practice.  Like rubrics in the classroom that guide a student in mastery of learning targets, rubrics used to deliver feedback on instruction can serve as a GPS for a teacher’s mastery of the skills and qualities of good teaching.  Charlotte Danielson’s, Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching, contains models for rubrics across different domains.

Creating a school culture in which peer-to-peer observation is everyday practice, should be the goal of every administrator and faculty member.  One way to change a culture so that all faculty openly trust the school’s supervision and evaluation model is to promote and support peer-to-peer observation.  This means creating time and space for faculty to visit each others’ classrooms.  If classrooms are open laboratories for learning, where one faculty member learns from his or her colleague, then all faculty get better.  Faculty should be expected to document and communicate their observations, what they see and learn. If this practice gets embedded in the culture, then faculty will be more trusting of observation data being used for feedback and evaluation.

Creating a culture of observation that supports open and honest feedback requires that schools:

  1. train faculty to do effective classroom observations;
  2. train faculty to give constructive feedback;
  3. provide all faculty with a useful and simple tool and protocol to carry out and record their observation;
  4. and give faculty time to observe, reflect, and communicate with peers.

A peer-to-peer observation process could be implemented through a PLC structure in which faculty are collaborating on lesson design, assessment, and improving student learning.  It could be implemented through an improvement process like DATA WISE.  Some schools make use of an instructional rounds process to get faculty observing one another.  Finally, some schools may just promote a process where each faculty member is encouraged or required to complete so many visits each year.

In addition to peer-to-peer observation, administrators’ feedback should include observing classes as part of their effort to get to know their faculty.  Faculty have to see their principals as effective classroom observers.  Schools need to take responsibility for being sure their principals are well-trained and capable observers of classroom practice.  If they are, then faculty will embrace them coming to their classroom to observe and give feedback.  Kim Marshall, in his book Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, promotes an observation process that is frequent enough for principals to develop a deeper understanding of how a teacher manages the learning environment.  He writes about doing “mini-observations,” which are frequent, 10-15 class visits per teacher spaced throughout the year, but only lasting about 10 minutes.  This would be in contrast to much less frequent, full-period observations.

In the end, faculty want to know that a principal is trained to look for more than the just the obvious.  So a principal needs to have a reasonably strong understanding of their school’s curriculum.  They cannot be expected to know all the details of each and every lessons, but they should be expected to have at their disposal an outline of what each teacher is covering or the learning goals the teacher expects students to master, as well as the scope and sequence and some of the enduring understandings. Principals are not content experts, but they do need to know where particular lessons fit into the curriculum plan or map.  When the workload exceeds what a principal can manage, the responsibilities can be delegated to other academic leaders such as department heads, but then the principal needs to empower and support them to complete their work.

Administrative feedback should focus on what is taught, how it is taught, and how teachers assess whether students have learned the content and skills.  Principals need to have a solid background in understanding classroom assessment, both formative and summative.  Since a primary responsibility of the teacher is to assess student achievement, principals need to be able to give constructive feedback on assessment practices.  They should be able to effectively evaluate whether a teacher is adequately using formative assessment to assess a student’s path to progress, as well as use the data to inform their own teaching.  They should be able to give a teacher effective feedback on the alignment of their summative assessments to their teaching practice and expectations for students. Along with the teacher, they need to know whether students are learning.

To be successful and garner the support of faculty, models for supervision and evaluation should start out with the premise that a teacher’s professional growth is of utmost importance to the strategic vision of the school.  If supervision models focus on evaluations as a mechanism to catch teachers off-guard or tabulate their mistakes, they will fail in spirit and practice.  School administrators should hold themselves accountable for knowing a teachers’ personal and professional goals (their self-reflection piece) and helping them align their goals to resources that assist them in realizing them.

While some teachers may struggle with using student feedback to inform their practice, a large majority generally see the wisdom in surveying the “user” as a way to get information about their success.  Since students are in teachers’ classrooms 6-7 hours a day, experiencing the learning environment firsthand, they are in a good position to give feedback.  A comprehensive supervision and evaluation model should give students the opportunity to reflect on their learning and the teacher’s instruction.  Here are some things to keep in mind when designing a process to collect student feedback.

  1. Create feedback processes that are developmentally appropriate to the age of the student.
  2. Create tools for collecting feedback that are easy to use and contain student-friendly language.
  3. Create tools that ask students to give feedback on their learning experiences, not on individuals as people.
  4. Collect feedback at strategic times of the school year.  Not around exams or before vacations.
  5. Collect feedback on the spot and make the tools anonymous.

In addition to the complexities of managing an engaging classroom, teachers also wear other hats.  In some cases, they need constructive feedback on diverse roles they play.  If they coach, advise students, or sponsor a student activity they are working with students in important capacities.  Feedback on how they’re doing should factor into their professional growth plan.

A good teacher has a rich portfolio of lessons, activities, assessments, and examples of student work and the feedback they give students on their work.  This portfolio, like an artist’s portfolio, should be thought of as a rich set of data that can inform teachers about where to focus their professional development.  In addition, it should give administrators a clear window into the teacher’s quality of instruction.  Why don’t we have these portfolios serve as an important part of the supervision and evaluation process?

Most of the debate around supervision and evaluation models focuses on the use of value-added data to evaluate a teacher’s performance.  My view is that we have lost site of the most important components that significantly impact whether a student will be successful on high-stakes tests.  If a teacher is a high-quality teacher, manages a classroom well, has a GPS for determining how to improve, gets excellent peer and administrative feedback, is connected to the larger community, and has develop an extensive portfolio of work, then his or her students will perform well on high-stakes tests.  We give too much credence to the end-game, performance on a high-stakes test, and not enough on a teacher’s and students journey along the path.  It’s feedback on the journey, in real-time, that will make the most difference.

Let’s keep our eye on the ball and encourage the development of much more comprehensive and influential supervision and evaluation models.

References:

Education Week, Spotlight, On Teacher Evaluation, February 2, 2011.

Education Week, Spotlight, On Teacher Evaluation, December 16, 2009.

Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, Kim Marshall, John Wiley and Sons, 2009.

States Tries to Fix Quirks in Teacher Evaluations, New York Times, February 19, 2012

NY’s Cuomo: 2010 Teacher-Evaluation Law Not Working, Sean Cavanagh, Ed Week blog post, January 4, 2012.

Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain, Annie Lowrey, New York Times, January 6, 2012

How To Measure Teacher Effectiveness Fairly, Justin Snider, Hechinger Report, January 14, 2012

Measures of Effective Teaching, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2012

Advancing the Teaching Profession, Barnett Barry, Teacher Leaders Network, June 2011

Q & A with Deborah Gist: Involving Teachers in Evaluation Policy, Nick Pandolfo, Hechinger Report, February 7, 2012.

Value-added Evaluations Hurts Teaching, Linda Darling-Hammond, Commentary, Education Week, March 5, 2012

What Teacher Characteristics Affect Student Achievement? Findings from Los Angeles Public Schools, Rand Foundation Study, Rand Corporation, 2010

What Makes a Good Teacher?, Patrick Ledesma, Leading from the Classroom, Education Week, November 7, 2011

Evaluating Teacher Evaluation, Linda Darling-Hammond, et.al., Phi Delta Kappan, March 2012, page 8.

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