School is out for the year in most places. Teachers are sleeping in. Parents have arranged for child care. Students are spinning fidgets or playing video games or getting in my way at the zoo (I don’t really know what students do with their free time anymore. I used to watch Matlock in the summer). Many teachers received gifts from the parents of their students during that last week of school. I saw them on Facebook, and I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t greatly appreciate them. In a world where genuine appreciation is as rare as political bipartisanship, even a token thank you stands out.
Gift cards, coffee mugs, thematic baskets, chocolate, and thank you cards are all great, but there is one way parents can thank their children’s teachers that beats them all. Few teachers receive this gift, even though it costs nothing, takes only a few minutes to put together, has lasting positive effects, and you can do it at any point of the school year, even now, when it’s over.
What is this wonderful, simple gift?
An email to the teacher’s principal.
Teachers Get Evaluated
Many parents may not be aware that teachers are evaluated yearly now. This is a relatively new thing, at least in practice. While there have always been teacher evaluation systems, the old ones were mostly formalities. The principal would let the teacher know he was coming, the teacher would teach, the principal would fill out a quick form that usually lacked teeth, and they’d all go on their merry ways.
Then, for lots of mostly bad reasons, politicians decided teachers were the main cause of society’s failures. They decided to weed out the bad ones. To do that, they needed some kind of system to identify the bad ones. They wanted to use test scores because test scores produce numbers and people like numbers. They seem objective. But then the forces of good convinced them that including principal observations should be part of the system, too.
So what does all this have to do with writing an email to the principal?
Principals Are Human
The system described above is meant to be objective, but it isn’t. Humans are involved. Humans have values and prejudices and feelings and all kinds of other humany things that make evaluating others objectively impossible. Two principals watching the same lesson will judge that lesson differently. Two principals will measure the value of teachers in their buildings differently.
In practice, the system actually works like this:
– A principal likes some teachers more than other teachers.
– The principal brings these biases with him when he observes teachers.
– Charitable view: Although he tells himself he’s being fair, his preference for one teacher over another shows through in his ratings.
– Less charitable view: The principal decides beforehand which teachers are going to get lower scores and then, no matter what he observes, he rates teachers accordingly. In other words, he says to himself, “Well, if the district is going to lay people off this year, I better make sure they lay off the teachers I’d rather not have in my building. One way to do that is to rate them poorly on observations.”
Humans Can Be Influenced
It is human nature to complain about things that annoy us and keep quiet when we’re satisfied. That means that if principals hear anything of the teachers in their buildings, it’s likely negative. The feedback principals receive about teachers either confirms or challenges their opinions.
Fortunately, positive feedback works the same way. Most principals are unaware of much of what happens. They can’t be everywhere all the time. They may not know anything about how well a teacher communicates with parents, or how a teacher inspired Timmy to read more at home, or the way a teacher makes learning fun. A principal might not notice the rapport a teacher has with her students. But if he receives three emails from parents praising the relationships their children have with their teacher, he’ll start to.
All of us are influenced by the opinions of others. It’s what makes hit songs, bestsellers, and blockbusters. It’s why one restaurant thrives while others close. It’s why I don’t admit to people that I don’t care for Monty Python, Wes Anderson movies, or Meryl Streep. When you hear from lots of people about how great something is, you start to think you’re the weird one. You keep those opinions to yourself. You question them. You look for evidence you’re wrong.
That’s why satisfied parents should email their child’s teacher’s principal. The more a principal hears good things about his teachers, the more likely it is he’ll start to believe them or at least question his own beliefs.
Don’t Just Tell the Teacher
Most years, I get a card from a parent thanking me. Often, the card will say something like, “Ivy really enjoys having you for her teacher. She didn’t like school before, but she’s excited to come this year.”
I love getting these cards. But I’d also love my principal to hear that, too.
Principals who hear good things about teachers will be less likely to evaluate those teachers poorly or considering moving them to different buildings or positions within their districts. Pissing off parents who have proven they’re willing to write emails to school administrators is one thing most principals will be very reluctant to do.
So if you think your child’s teacher did a good job this year, write an email to the principal saying so. It’s fast, easy, free, and will help the teacher more than anything you can get at a store.
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It’s bad enough that part of teachers’ evaluations are based on student growth. This growth, usually based on just a few poorly designed assessments and for which students are not personally held accountable, can be affected by a number of factors completely outside the control of the teacher, such as student attendance, motivation, technical issues, and whether or not a kid remembered his glasses or whether or not mom remembered his medication on the critical day.
But even more egregious is that a large percentage of a teacher’s evaluation comes from administrator observations.
A principal is given a huge checklist of “best practices,” and is supposed to assess the teacher in real-time on each of them. They might do this a couple of times each year. Of the more than 1,000 hours that teachers do their jobs in a year, their evaluation may rest on just 80 minutes of observed teaching. In other words, a teacher’s entire year is judged on about one-tenth of one percent of her efforts.
That’s not the worst of it. Because in the case of observations, it’s not what districts are doing that proves teacher evaluations are meaningless. It’s what districts are not doing.
What Districts Won’t and Never Will Do
See if you can imagine your district doing the following:
On a day in May, say a week or two before you are to receive your end-of-year evaluation, the entire staff is invited to a one-hour professional development session. The topic is “Why Your Teacher Evaluation is Credible.” You all gather inside the high school auditorium. A huge screen is hung over the stage. In the front row sits every administrator the district employs.
The Superintendent walks to the microphone and says, “Valued educators, we know that many teachers feel stress over their evaluations. Today, we are going to alleviate some of that stress. We want you to know that the tool we use to evaluate you produces consistent results, no matter who uses it.
To prove it to you, we are all going to watch a 40-minute video of a lesson. In this case, you’ll be seeing a sixth grade social studies class. Each administrator will complete an observation–just like they do for all of you–while they watch the video. When the lesson ends, I will collect each principal’s observation and I will show them to you. That way, you will see that no matter who uses the tool it produces very similar results. You’ll know that your teacher evaluation is a true reflection of your abilities as an educator, and not the subjective result of an unproven process that encourages you to employ different strategies based solely on the whims and preferences of the person who happens to be your supervisor this year.”
At which point the video starts and the principals start tapping things on their iPads.
The fact that none of the above happens in any district I know of (and never will) tells teachers everything they need to know about the objectivity of the observations they’re forced to endure and are asked to believe in.
If you have a system that relies on the opinions and values of the individuals doing the scoring then you have a system that can’t be trusted.
Treat Teachers Like Gymnasts
Gymnastics recognizes this. Gymnastics, like teaching, is more art than science. Two people watching the same routine can honestly disagree about which was better. That’s why gymnasts are scored by multiple judges who have deep knowledge of the sport and receive rigorous training on how to evaluate routines. They’re given strict guidelines and add points for required elements and difficulty, while deducting for execution and artistry.*
And still they don’t agree. That’s why the high and low scores are thrown out and the rest are averaged. FIG recognizes that relying on the judgment of one person ruins the credibility of their sport. No viewer would trust the results of a gymnastics competition that was judged by a single person. The gymnasts wouldn’t trust those results, either.
Neither should teachers. It says something that we care more about getting it right for gymnasts than for teachers. It says something that school districts will never allow its teachers to see how subjective their administrators’ observations truly are. It says something that American teachers’ jobs are in the hands of one judge, who bases his or her evaluation on one-tenth of one percent of a teachers’ working hours.
Better hope it’s not the Russian.**
* I simplified Olympic gymnastics’ scoring for ease of reading.
** I’ve got nothing against Russians, except that they cheat in the Olympics.
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Evaluations are in. All of your good intentions, hard work, and personal sacrifice have been boiled down to a number and a label. Are you “highly effective” or “innovating,” or merely “developing,” like you’re an insect in its larval stage instead of a professional educator?
Whatever your label or your number, you shouldn’t take too much pride or allow yourself to feel any disappointment or shame over it. Your evaluation is meaningless.
My district uses Marzano and everything is entered into iObservation. The last step in the evaluation process is for me, the teacher, to go in and “acknowledge” my scores. Why this is necessary is a bit of a mystery, since I am in no way allowed to question or challenge my final score. The state of Michigan gives districts total power when it comes to teacher evaluations. No due process. No appeals. No presumption of effectiveness. It’s all very democratic, and obviously designed to help teachers get better (he said sarcastically).
Once I acknowledged my rating, I was then provided the opportunity to leave a comment. I guess this is iObservation’s way of throwing teachers a bone. We may not be allowed to tell our principal, “Actually, the stupid learning goal was on the board. You just didn’t see it,” but we can sound off in the comments section. As a reminder, that’s the section nobody reads.
Nevertheless, it was my only chance to offer any thoughts, so here’s what I wrote:
I continue to find the evaluations arbitrary, based on questionable data, and demoralizing to the profession. That 75% of any teacher’s evaluation is in the hands of a single individual should be cause for concern. That that individual, however well-meaning and effective he or she might be, bases most of his or her evaluation on a small sample size of a teacher’s instruction is also concerning. It’s a flawed model, operating inside of a flawed system, foisted upon professional educators who were given little opportunity to provide input to the flawed legislators who pushed for more accountability based on the flawed belief that American schools, and therefore the people who work inside of them, are failing. The whole thing is nonsense, and I therefore put no stock in the above numbers, whether they be high, low, or somewhere in between. It’s a shame that principals have to waste so much time on it.
To add to the above and to put everything in list form, here is why your evaluation is meaningless and therefore not worth hanging your head or puffing your chest over.
Your evaluation is likely composed of two parts: administrator observations and student growth data. Both have major problems.
- The student growth portion of your evaluation is likely based on cruddy assessments. Mine was based on screeners, which were never intended for teacher evaluations.
- Students are not held accountable for their performance on the cruddy assessments, which makes you wonder how much they really care about them, which makes you wonder how hard they try on them. (I’ll give you a hint: two of my students were done with the 30-question reading test in 10 minutes.)
- In my district, growth scores are harmed by students who start the year with already high numbers. They have the least room for improvement, and that lack of growth lowers teachers’ ratings.
- The whole thing sets up terrible incentives, which I try my best to ignore. Teachers in my district joke about getting students to bomb the fall screener to show more growth. You could actively lobby for the lowest students to be on your class roster to have a better chance of showing growth. There’s no doubt that some teach to the screeners, so kids get the idea that reading is really about saying words super fast. The list goes on.
- Those students who missed more than 20 days of school? Doesn’t matter. It’s somehow your fault they didn’t learn as much as they should have.
- Most of the evaluation is based on principal observations. I had two. If we only needed two songs to evaluate a band, Tesla would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- Observations are only as good as the people making them. They’re meaningless if principals across buildings and districts evaluate their teachers in different ways, which they do.
- Observations are only reliable if we assume that principals can shelve their personal biases when observing a teacher and rely only on their training (assuming they received any).
- Evaluations lose their meaning when those being evaluated are judged against different criteria. The current system assumes districts have at least a somewhat similar approach to evaluating teachers. They don’t. My wife’s district handles the whole thing differently than my district. An “effective” teacher in one district won’t necessarily be effective in a neighboring district. Some districts make it nearly impossible to be “innovating,” while other districts start teachers out there and only lower them for cause. That makes the system junk.
- Basing a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation on an administrator’s observations makes the system ripe for abuse. Observations might be an honest appraisal of your skills or they could be the result of office politics or personal grudges. If it’s the latter? Well, there’s always the comments section.
And why only observations and student growth, anyway? I’m a teacher, a service professional. Why don’t parents get a say in this? Why don’t the students?
I don’t mind being evaluated. I just wish my evaluation actually told me something, anything, about how well or poorly I do my job. Until it does, I find it hard to care. You should, too.
Because summer vacation should actually feel like a vacation, add these six items to your end-of-the-year to-do list and check them off before students leave. Getting them done will make your summer more enjoyable, and they’ll make the transition to a new year in the fall less stressful.
Get Rid of Stuff
Things accumulate. My stuff tends to pile up in three places: my teacher cabinet, my closet, and my filing cabinets. The hustle and bustle of our busy days means things don’t always get put where they belong. After a materials-intensive project, we might shove things into the closet just to get them out of sight. Worthless worksheets get dropped back into a file folder instead of in the trash where they belong. Dried out highlighters take up residence in our cabinets.
There are three reasons to get rid of stuff while students are still around. First, it cuts down on waste. Students will take just about anything home. A teacher’s detritus in the hands of a student can become a creative craft project. Let them have the empty stapler boxes and orphaned marker caps. Second, students are a source of free labor. Give them the tub of markers and have them test and throw out the duds. You’ll save time and they’ll enjoy doing it. Third, they’re done listening to you anyway. This will give them something productive to do.
Organize Your Files
I have Google Classroom and most of the documents I create throughout the year end up in a big mess. I make sure to find time during the last two weeks to open unnamed files and see if they’re worth keeping (and naming). I put every worthy file into a relevantly-named folder. This helps me find things much quicker next year when the search function fails because I named the file something stupid.
Go through the filing cabinets, too. My rule is simple. If I haven’t used it in two years, it goes in the trash. I’ve gotten rid of entire cabinets with this rule. Again, have students assist. I have file folders with multiple copies of worksheets. The extras are taking up space. Have students pull the extra papers and put them in a box. That becomes scratch paper for next year, while your files stay nice and slim and easy to flip through.
Organize the Classroom Library
I used to come in a week before school started to organize my classroom library. Now I have my students do it before they leave. Assign five or six responsible students to return books to their proper baskets. Have them put books they’re not sure about on a back table. Those will be the only ones you have to organize. If labels have torn, students can make new ones. In fact, your classroom library might be ready for a total makeover. Pass out blank index cards, a tub of markers, some glitter glue, stickers, and whatever else you have around and let students design and affix the new labels.
Make Copies for Next Year
When’s the worst time to use the copy machine? When everyone else is using it. Most teachers don’t get organized for the start of next year until just before the start of next year. By getting a jump on the competition, you’ll save yourself the frustration of waiting for Joyce to figure out how to run a collated set of “Getting to Know You” worksheets. Since copy machines are often in less demand at the end of the year due to less student work and more teachers getting the hell of there because it’s gorgeous outside, it’s the perfect time to make copies for the beginning of next year.
I try to get two sets of copies done before I leave for the summer. I always want my open house packet finished. My district is notorious for running computer updates and having technical problems the week before school starts and that usually messes with the printing and copying capabilities. Having my open house handouts done and in a filing cabinet eases my peace of mind. I also copy anything I’ll need during the first week of school. That way, while other teachers are swearing at a paper jam and wasting their planning time waiting for their colleagues, I can focus on other things (and during the first week, there are a lot of other things).
Survey your students
Before students leave, you should survey them and get their honest opinions about your class. Information from surveys almost always makes me question my practice. For example, I learned that this year’s students really liked being able to work with partners. I also learned they liked reading or listening to e-books much more than traditional books. Their favorite activities were ones where they got to create something, even something as simple as a slideshow for their vocabulary words. As a result, I’m thinking of ways to incorporate more partner work next year and brainstorming procedures to teach to make that work productive. I’m also curious to see what research says about the effectiveness of listening to e-books. I’ll also want to find more ways for students to make things.
Do a Procedures Audit
Procedures will make or break you. They’re what separates a well-run classroom from a zoo. List every procedure that happens in your class, whether you wanted it to or not. This can be hard to do because it makes you take an honest look about what really goes on in your classroom. If students leave their seats when they finish their work, write that down. If some students continually come up to you or blurt your name across the room when they need your help, record that. Those are procedures, whether you wanted them to be or not.
Once you have your list, assess each procedure. I type mine up and then color code them. Procedures that worked the way I wanted them to are turned blue. I’ll be teaching them just like I did this year. Procedures that are in place but could be better I turn yellow. That’s usually an indication that the procedure wasn’t modeled, practiced, or enforced well enough. Procedures that drive me nuts become red. These are usually the result of not teaching the procedure in the first place. For next year, I’ll find time during the first two weeks to model how I want it done.
The benefit of doing this audit while you still have this year’s students is you can ask them why a procedure didn’t work. I teach in a portable, so we don’t have lockers. We have hooks on one wall. My procedure for this year was that students who entered the classroom first had to put their backpacks on the back hooks, while later students would use the front hooks. But students wouldn’t do it no matter how many times I modeled and stressed its importance. Every day I ended up with backpacks on the front hooks and on the floor. Nobody used the back hooks. It wasn’t until I asked that I found out why. No one wanted the back hooks because they couldn’t access their backpacks during the day. If they needed gloves at recess, the front hook backpacks were in the way. If they forgot their library book and had to get it, they had to duck under other backpacks, wiggle their way behind them, and then try to get their backpack open. To them, it made more sense to leave their backpacks on the floor where they had easy access to them.
Doing the procedures audit at the end of the year also means you’ll be more likely to remember what happened in your room and assess the procedures honestly. Once summer starts we tend to forget how annoying it was that Jill walked across the room to personally tell us every time she needed a Kleenex.
Get it done now. Enlist students’ help. Then enjoy your summer and hit the ground running when you return in the fall.
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