When I was in college, I was in three choirs at the same time. Nuts, right? I know! And that was on top of 18 other credits I was taking, so I was actually taking 21 credits at one time, plus working part time in the Education Department, plus having way too much fun simply being a college student. I mention the choirs because I just missed the opportunity to join the alumni of the choirs at my alma mater, Trinity University a couple of weeks ago. Even though I missed the event, I have been reflecting on my time in those choirs (mostly the 16-voice chamber choir that I adored so much). One of my funniest memories of our director, Dr. Chamberlain (and there were many with him, as he had a pretty wicked sense of humor), was when one of us in the alto section said to him, "I think we are singing that note wrong in measure ____". In a deadpan voice, he remarked, "Well, don't do that anymore". Obviously, what we were looking for is for him (or the accompanist) to play the correct note. As I said, he was funny and we all loved him.
But I was thinking about how educational leaders often do this type of evaluation to teachers. What do I mean by that? We go into a classroom, we watch a teacher teach for a few minutes, and then we give them what one of the directors in one of my favorite districts in which I work calls "an autopsy report". In other words, we simply tell the teacher what they did wrong or tell them what should have happened instead. You might be thinking, "Well, the latter is the right way to handle a teacher evaluation, right? What's wrong with telling the teacher what they should do differently?"
I have been blessed to work with Charlotte Danielson and her Framework for Teaching as a Framework Specialist for the past 6 1/2 years. Prior to that, I was just as blessed to be the school leader at the best elementary school in the world, Edge Elementary School in Niceville, Florida (no, I'm not joking, and yes, it really is nice---let's just get that out of the way). We used the Danielson Framework to "evaluate" teachers, and I regret having ever had to use that word. Yes, I get it. Accountability is present and important in any line of work, and teaching is no exception. But what is so critical and different about the Danielson Framework is the focus not on evaluation but on teacher growth.
I will be the first to admit that we (present company TOTALLY included) didn't get this all right when we first began, despite having some amazing training from a senior member of the Danielson Group. We school leaders would go into classrooms, watch a lesson and collect evidence, give that evidence to the teachers, and the teachers and administrators would both analyze the data against the rubrics on the Framework. Then, we would come together to have a "conversation" about the teaching that we had experienced (both from the teacher's perspective and from the observer's perspective). Yes, I meant to put the word "conversation" in quotation marks. Why? Because, despite the fact that the teacher and the school leader had both done some analysis of the teaching, the administrator typically still did the bulk of the talking, making it something the teacher simply had to endure, as Charlotte Danielson often says, before the school leader quit talking and the "ratings" were done and paperwork was signed. I conducted my dissertation on teacher trust in school leaders, and many teachers said things like: I want to know how I'm doing in my own teaching, but I want the process to be fair and accurate.
I can promise you that the process I described is not what Charlotte had in mind. In fact, I know firsthand that she believes (and I do, too) that the conversation is actually the most critical piece of this teacher observation cycle. Allowing the teacher, who is the one who is in his/her own classroom all the time, to do the majority of the thinking and talking allows them to process what happened, how that compares to what typically happens, what patterns they notice in their teaching, and what might be causal factors that contribute to certain results in the classroom. But, in order for the teacher to be able to do that heavy lifting, the school leader has to ask provocative questions and then BE.QUIET. Boy, was that my problem, or what??? Edge teachers, go ahead and agree.
I have learned such monumental things about how to coach teachers in the past few years, thanks in no small part to Charlotte Danielson (2016), Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman (2013), but also to the vast number of school leaders and teachers with whom I've been honored to work over the last several years. The more I've had a chance to model reflection conferences for school administrators who are learning how to talk less and listen more, the more confident I feel in my ability to coach not only teachers but administrators, as well. Most of what I have learned boils down to this: there is a wealth of knowledge floating around out there on great strategies to use to improve classroom management, rigorous engagement of learning, discussion techniques, assessment skills and much more. But all of those strategies and techniques would be for naught were it not for the ability of the principal to ask the right type of questions that get the teacher to do the lion's share of the thinking. Most recently, I have heard teachers say, "I have never gotten the chance to talk this much about what goes on in my own classroom" as well as "Ummm...I didn't know I was going to have to answer any questions---I thought you were just going to tell me what you saw me do". The latter is fairly typical, I think, until we all get used to the process being one in which teachers expect they will be doing some heavy lifting in the reflection conference and that they will take away some new ideas that the principal and teacher work on together. One of the best quotes I've heard a school leader say recently is, "I used to think I was supposed to tell the teacher about what I saw them do in the classroom. Now I realize that, by allowing the teacher to do some self-reflection, they are leaving the conversations happier and better-equipped than ever before!"
And isn't that really the point?
Dr. Chamberlain, I know you were joking with us about not singing the wrong note anymore. But we, as school leaders, simply cannot do that to teachers. We must give them the chance to think about their teacher, try on some new strategies, practice those strategies with some coaching, and to assess the effectiveness of them.
Let's work on coaching versus evaluating, and see what a difference it makes to teachers and administrators alike.
Arneson, S. (2012). Character and competence: A mixed methods study on teacher trust in principals in a mid-sized county in Florida (Doctoral dissertation). University of West Florida.
Arneson, S. (2014). Building trust in teacher evaluations: It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Arneson, S. (2015). Improving Teaching, One Conversation at a Time. Educational Leadership, 72(7), pp. 32-36.
Danielson, C. (2016). Talk about teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Lipton, L., & Wellman, B. (2013). Learning-focused supervision. Arlington, MA: MiraVia.