Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thoughts on an Ideal Teacher Evaluation System

Such a hot topic...and one that if you asked 10 different teachers I am sure you would get at least 23 different answers. I'm not 100% confident that I even know what the "ideal" evaluation model would be...but I am confident that it needs to include a combination of many different components...Also, one caveat - teacher evaluations should be done entirely with the focus of improving teacher performance so they can best serve our students. Evaluations should not be an exercise in trying to find the negative and punish, but rather we should continually work to improve our teachers through the evaluations. That's not to say that we can't remove teachers based on these "evaluations" - we can, and we should if necessary. We cannot tolerate inadequacy in our classrooms. However, we need to make sure that these decisions are not based on a couple of observations, or a few data points - we need the big picture, over time.

So, here they are, in no real particular order...

Test Scores
I'll go ahead and get it out of the way - we need to have accountability in all of our schools and among all of our teachers. Though "testing" is a four-letter word that most wouldn't utter in front of their grandmother, I do believe there can be value in the concept. However, I also strongly believe that our current system is so far out of whack and alignment, and that there is way, way too much of an emphasis placed on a few snapshot high-stakes test. That said, I feel there is a role for test scores in teacher evaluation, albeit a small role. How small? I haven't figured that out yet...but, quite small.

Multiple Administration Observations
I'm not talking about the full dog and pony show 52-minute observations that take place 3 schedule times a year. No, not those. Instead, if an administrator wants to know what's going on in the class and how a teacher teaches, well, then they need to get in on the action. Ideally, there would be 4-6 quick (10-15 minute) observations - and not all from the same administrator. The purpose of the observations is NOT to punish - but simply to get a feel for what's going on, and to offer critical advice..."Have you ever considered trying ______?" I feel that the "Danielson Model" for evaluating teachers is quite strong, and it would be good to continue to base observations and expectations around the Danielson Model.

Peer Evaluation
We all know the rock star teachers, the duds, the has-beens, the never-will-be's, and the average Joes in our building. We work side-by-side with them on a daily basis. There can be tremendous value in getting insight and feedback from your peers, especially when those peers watch you and work with you. Again, these evaluations need to be professional and completed with the idea that we're working to improve overall teacher performance...not to punish. 3-4 peer observations and some feedback (evaluations) at the end would be tremendously helpful in achieving this goal. As with the administration observations above, the Danielson Model would be effective here.

Student Evaluation
Like test scores, student evaluation should play a supporting role in teacher evaluation and should not be the most heavily weighted. However, our primary purpose is to work with our students, to teach them and help them grow. They are our number one customer. If we're not meeting the needs of our students, well, then something needs to change. There was recently a great article in The Atlantic that touched on this very idea, and I really feel there is plenty of value in hearing from our students.

Self Evaluation
Lastly, I believe it is important that we evaluate ourselves on how well we think we are doing. We constantly strive for our students to be reflective and critical, and we as teachers are constantly reflecting and revising our work, so it's only logical that some form of teacher reflection on their performance is included in their evaluation

On the whole, my ideal teacher evaluation would take into account many different measures from many different people. Only then, I feel, can we truly get a fair and accurate picture of a good teacher. Sure, this is a lot of work, but I feel it's vital. Evaluations like this need not happen annually, as that might be too cumbersome. However, after the initial 3-year probationary period it seems reasonable that every 3 or so years our teachers are re-evaluated. During that time, should issues arise then we work to fix those issues. Should a teacher consistently prove that they are ineffective and that interventions and support are not helping the teacher improve, then we must take responsibility and remove that teacher? Our students' education is too important to be squandered by below average teachers.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bloated Curriculum + Standardized Testing = Homework

Would you still assign homework if your curriculum wasn't so bloated and there wasn't a standardized test at the end of the year? I think not...

I'm certainly not the first to write about homework, and I'm far from the last. The topic of homework - whether or not to assign homework (and how often, how much, what form it should take) - is a topic that instantly elicits many emotional opinions from all involved. However, much of what I have read and heard in the debate has glossed over what I feel is a fundamental question. Why are you assigning it in the first place? 

If you were able to teach in an environment where the scope of the curriculum was truly manageable and you knew you'd be able to do it justice and cover it in all its depth, would you assign homework? If you were able to teach in an environment where you knew there wasn't a high-stakes test with serious consequences at the end, would you assign homework? 

I don't believe many of us would - and if we did, it would take on a drastically different format and purpose. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My Teaching Philosophy

It's been a while since I have last written anything...but, I'm currently working toward my Master's (shout out to St. Mary's Teaching & Learning program!) and as a part of the program we're blogging, which I think is outstanding. So, to get back into the swing of things here's my philosophy on teaching...
I have wanted to be a teacher since I was a sophomore in high school, I still have clear memories of sitting in Mr. Litecky’s history class, and knowing that someday I would teach social studies.  Starting in the fall of 2007 I was fortunate to land a job right out of college teaching history to eighth graders, and I have been doing it with great joy ever since.  Teaching truly is my passion and my calling, and I feel incredibly blessed to have the career that I do. Over the years I have continuously worked to hone my skills, and in doing so I have really crystallized my teaching philosophy. Each and every day, in all that I do, I strive to prepare my students for an unknown future in the 21st century. The simple explanation for my teaching philosophy is that it is all about the students. However, I would be very worried if a teacher did not put the students first in their teaching.  For me it’s more than “being all about the students”, the goal is to enthusiastically provide a safe and engaging classroom that allows all of my students to grow, learn, thrive, and prepare themselves for their future.

The safety of my students is one of my main concerns.  If my students do not feel safe in school or in my classroom, then they will undoubtedly struggle to reach their potential.  Therefore we spend a little extra time at the beginning of the year creating a safe and cooperative learning environment.  For meaningful learning to take place students must be comfortable and feel at ease. They learn early on that not only do I care about them, but that my classroom is a place where they are encouraged to take risks, to challenge themselves, to put themselves out on a limb.  Might they fall? Absolutely. However, they also know that stumbling is OK. Much of what we do in my classroom involves working together, and that cannot be done if the environment is not right. Of course, when we’re outside playing capture the flag to simulate the American Revolution, or when dodge balls are coming their way as they duck under desks to examine primary sources as we learn about the Siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War, I must also consider their physical safety! Regardless, the reality is their safety comes first.

My students are not treated like sponges. They do not sit in my classroom and passively absorb knowledge that they will soon forget.  I firmly believe that students must be engaged in what we are learning, and that they must be challenged.  When students walk through my door on the first day of school many of them assume that my subject, history, is something that will be dull and right out of the textbook.  After all, how could someone possibly interact with and bring to life a subject that ultimately focuses on the past? However, they quickly learn that the class will be anything but boring. Instead of reading about the Constitutional Convention and the debates about what our government should look like, my students assume the roles of delegates at the convention and engage in the debates and form their own government, and we then compare their solutions and answers to the historical reality.  Rather than reading about industrialization, students engage in an assembly line simulation, and at the end of the unit they put people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller on trial to determine whether or not they were robber barons or leaders of industry.

I am a self-proclaimed geek. I wear it as a badge of honor, a badge of honor that I encourage my students to earn and wear as well.  I have a passion for my students, my teaching, and my subject. I also happen to really enjoy technology.  Fortunately for me, and for my students, I am able to combine this passion for teaching with my love of technology.  I am lucky to be in a school that has some of the right tools to help engage and prepare my students for a future where they will be required to problem solve, to think critically, to collaborate, and ultimately to make informed decisions that will impact themselves and the world around them.

For better or worse, whether we like it or not, the world is changing at a rapid pace.  One of the driving forces behind this change is the ubiquity of technology. Cell phones, tablets, computers, portable video cameras, video conferencing, and internet access are just some of the many tools and technologies that our students will need to solve the problems of the future.  With that in mind, I make every effort to advocate for, and include, these tools and technologies in my classroom to engage my students, and to aid them in thinking critically, learning, and collaborating.  Rather than debate the merits of this historical issue or that, we use Skype to connect with another classroom. Rather than having three or four students sit around one computer to write a script for a video, we use Google Docs to have all students collaboratively write the script.  Students are provided with the tools, technology, and instruction that is necessary to engage them and to teach them the knowledge and skills that they will need in the future.

My philosophy for teaching my students has, and will continue, to impact my colleagues. I practice what I preach, I use the same tools I expect my students to use, and I collaborate with other staff. I work with the language arts department to help teach persuasive writing and about Andrew Jackson by having the students write persuasive essays about Jackson and whether or not he was a hero or a villain.  I also share what I’m doing with other staff members, I encourage them to try something new and different, and I seek out advice and ideas from others.  I am not on an island, but rather I work with those around me. It is a joy to not only share my knowledge and skills with my coworkers, but to learn from and with them as well.

Yes, I am and always will be all about the students. To me, being all about the students means providing each and every student with a safe, engaging, and challenging education that teaches collaboration and critical thinking, and that utilizes the tools and technologies of today and tomorrow to ultimately prepare them for an uncertain future.