Thursday, July 12, 2018

Observations and Elephants

Some of us have been quietly trying to persuade leadership that there needs to be an option for two observations. I'm persuaded they now understand, what with working teachers bearing the message and Janus hanging over all our heads We picked that number because that's the minimum under the state law. It's not ideal, and I'm honestly not sure what is.

Former principal and current head of Network for Public Education Carol Burris told me she generally only needed to observe once a year. She said if things went well and nothing else came up, that was sufficient. She suggested her time and energy would be better devoted to teachers who were actually in need of assistance. That makes sense to me, and I'd hope we could get as close to that model as possible.

Another thing that makes sense to me is hiring administrators like Burris. If you want to be in charge of teachers, you should be super smart and outright supportive of people who serve children. We all know administrators who don't speak as plainly or logically as Burris. In New York City we have the remnants of Michael Bloomberg at virtually every level of administration and alas, Bill de Blasio has done nothing to change it. Thus we have people like this in positions of authority.  I don't know exactly how you remove this level of sludge from administration, but having insane people run the system is not how you help children, let alone those of us who serve them.

Although Sue Edelman at the Post finds and exposes a lot of the corrupt administrators, the public has not made the connection. Also, vindictiveness and incompetence alone don't get you on page 6 of the paper. You have to not only be corrupt, but also get caught. Those of us who actually do the work know this is more far-reaching than most of the public knows. And the public, after reading years of stereotypes about us, continues to focus squarely on teachers. With all this, how do we correct the evaluation system?

I'd favor dumping the law, which is based on sheer vindictiveness on the part of Governor Andrew Cuomo. I don't envision that happening, and I'm not sure exactly how we make the case to the public. Many eyes are on the percentage of teachers with poor ratings. Leadership's best argument to maintain the status quo has been to tout the very low percentage of ineffective ratings. Our enemies use these same statistics to say the system is not vindictive enough.

A real teacher evaluation system ought not to be vindictive at all. An effective system will focus on teaching teachers how to better serve students. If will not be a ridiculous checklist that suggests physical education teachers ought to have the same instructional approach as science teachers. And though that's an extreme example, I could see how there would be disparity even between academic subjects.

For example, I teach English to newcomers. New York State does not feel English is actually a subject, saying the only reason we teach it is to prep students for core subjects, but I look around me and say, wow, we sure use English a lot. I mean, I do, I just walked my dog, and I spoke to people along the way. I want my students to be able to do the same, so I stress conversation. I also hope people won't say, "Hey, who's the idiot who taught you English? "so I teach and practice structure with them.

I guess that works, because Danielson likes interaction. I could imagine perhaps less interaction in a math class, and if students were learning the math I would not conclude the teacher sucks because there's less interaction. I mean, I love the way Carl Hiaasen writes, but unlike Danielson I don't conclude that anyone who doesn't write like Hiaasen sucks.

As far as observation reports go, it's pretty clear to me that the old observation method was superior to the current one. If you have a professional and competent supervisor, that supervisor need not be restricted to a checklist, That supervisor can observe the lesson, decide what helps the students, and decide what needs to be expanded upon.

Unfortunately, we have many supervisors who are neither professional nor competent. Now here's the thing--if you have supervisors like that it doesn't really matter what the observation method is. They see what they want to see, write what they want to write, and their decisions are utterly worthless. Because in some nether region of their icy cold hearts they know that, they tend to blame those they observe for their own shortcomings. Until we deal with that, whatever observation mode we choose will be fatally flawed.

Cutting down the number will be helpful on multiple levels. First of all, teachers will be marginally less terrorized. That will make teaching better all over. Second, competent administrators won't have to waste their time observing teachers who don't need help. This will free them to help those who need it. Alas, incompetent supervisors help no one, and will continue to help no one. They're the elephant in the room, and every thinking teacher knows the last thing we need in a classroom is an elephant.

We can make things a little better, and hopefully that will be part of our new contract. But I work in a school that's massively overcrowded, spilling out onto the streets, and even when we get an annex we won't have enough space. Of course we'd have more space if we didn't insist on keeping elephants in rooms. There needs to be a much-expanded look at incompetent supervisors. Now I have nothing against elephants. Real elephants are quite intelligent.

Here's my proposal--let's ship all the Boy Wonder supervisors off to game preserves, where they can learn from real elephants. Once they complete their studies, we'll leave them there. They can be regularly evaluated by the elephants. And because we are thoughtful, we won't force the elephants to use Danielson's rubric. We'll trust elephant judgment just as competent supervisors trust teacher judgment.
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