Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Modest Proposal Part 2: Intervisitation and Peer Colleague Professional Development Working Groups as Components of Teacher Evaluation

I've been thinking about the issue of teacher evaluation much more than I've been writing about it. It has not left my mind. I recently earned tenure, and I'm very proud of making it through the Fellowship, sticking around for another year to get tenure, and coming back to do it all again. That's all well and good. But I'm not persuaded that I'm now as good as I'm ever going to be as a teacher; this year, I plan to be much better than I was last year. But here's the problem: What constitutes "good," "better," or "best" for teachers? Can it be measured and evaluated? I think it can, and it can be measured more precisely and meaningfully than it is now. In my last post on this issue, I suggested peer review as one component. Another component of how to evaluate teachers might be through intervisitation and professional development working groups.

I recently read Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham, a book I would recommend for any number of reasons, but I'll focus briefly on Willingham's suggestions for improving pedagogy. He suggests videotaping yourself teaching (augh!, I mean, still a good idea, but AUGH!), observing other teachers at work, and meeting with this partner or small group of "critical friends" to discuss what's going on. (Note the absence of an administrator in this equation. I like it!) These strike me as sound and sensible ideas. I really enjoy intervisitation, and I'm lucky to have a few colleagues who have warmly encouraged me in visiting their classes. Heck, even when I ended up substituting for an elementary class during The Great Swine Flu Panic of May '09, I learned a lot by poking around my colleague's classroom.

Willingham's suggestions aren't exactly new, but they do matter in two important ways. One is his own inclusion of his tips in his book on brain science and pedagogy. His message is that teachers think and make decisions so constantly and, as such, contrary perhaps to what some people believe, teaching children is an intellectually lively and challenging pursuit. We as much as the children need to monitor our own thinking and reflect on what we are doing in the classroom to critically engage with our actions and square them up with what we think and know.

The other is what he doesn't say in the book, but what I'm going to suggest here: The ways in which we seek to learn more about our practice, specifically through working with peer colleagues, can be a component of teacher evaluation. Attending professional development workshops is fine, and the better ones can certainly be helpful (sometimes they feed you and give you free stuff, for example), but there is no substitute for working with peer colleagues. These are the people who work with the same administration in the same building at the same time as you do. They teach, have taught, or will teach some or all of your same students. Thus their experience and feedback will match up most closely with what you need to be thinking about and doing in your own classroom. We can all think of one or two or a hundred workshops that were perhaps well-intentioned, but not exactly positioned to be of immediate and real value to our own classrooms. Intervisitation and peer colleague professional development working groups, on the other hand, do serve that purpose.

How could they be used as a component of teacher evaluation? A journal or log of meetings may be kept, or the group could form one or two particular goals at the beginning of a term or year and observe how each member is working towards those goals, or the group could form recommendations for each other based on what they see. Or, GADZOOKS, teachers could themselves discuss and resolve towards how they will use their work to evaluate themselves and each other. (I know. Letting teachers make decisions about how they will be evaluated sounds very scary. Hold on. It'll be okay.)

Of course, we're all seeing one immediate drawback: When, exactly, are we supposed to do this? Our vast reserves of free time? Well, this criticism is spot-on, of course. Three Standard Deviations to the Left had a great post on this issue recently, observing how few hours teachers in the U.S. have to plan and collaborate as compared to other nations. Mrs. Bluebird also mentioned that when she and her colleagues were actually given, in the school day, more time just for planning, lo and behold! their students showed improvement. I'll admit that, other than saying, "Well, we need more planning time," I don't know how to solve that problem. We do need more planning time. But proposals to lengthen the school day are currently coming with more instructional time and no extra money. That, frankly, is kind of a problem for me. My kiddies are already wastes of space by 3 p.m. If a longer school day came with more planning and collaborative time, and more breathing space for the kiddies, and, oh, I don't know, maybe a dab more money, I might get behind it. But more instructional time? I think most teachers are already spread pretty thin in that sense. And, as NYC teachers, let's not lose sight of the fact that in some states, teachers are carrying even heavier course and student loads than even our contractual maximums.

That's the crux of the biscuit for any kind of teacher evaluation reform, incidentally. I believe the best, most meaningful, most effective reforms will come from teachers working together, reflecting, and supporting each other. But we need time to do that, and lots of it. No surprise, then, that most teacher evaluation reform ideas are top-down, computerized, checklist-type things rather than holistic and engaging processes for teachers.

Nevertheless, I plan to soldier on with this idea. My guestblogging over at NYC Educator is going to two days a week for the fall, but I think I'll keep these thoughts on my own blog.

Oh yeah, school starts again soon, right? (Kidding.) I suppose I should post about that, too. Maybe tomorrow.