Editor's Note: Emily James is an English teacher at a Brooklyn high school in the New York City Department of Education.
As the new year is upon us in New York City, we are getting ready to adopt a new change in our evaluation system, a sort of re-boot in terms of how teachers are evaluated.
New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) Chancellor Richard Carranza and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew are challenging both teachers and administrators to have real conversations about teaching and learning.
The idea is to turn what had often been an empty exercise into an insightful, professional conversation. It’s a shift both sides negotiated in the new teachers’ contract.
And here’s the big one: Effective and highly effective teachers will only be required to have two observations. This is a big win.
When talking about evaluations in the classroom, there’s always talk about growth, improvement, development, progress. And that in itself is undeniably important, especially for teachers who are new to the field and learning day by day.
But there’s another aspect of evaluating that is overlooked, and I think as we approach 2020, it’s time for a paradigm shift. So, let’s try something crazy — let’s try to put teachers in the same light as we would other professionals.
I think, most importantly, what I, and many of my colleagues are hoping to see change, is the real recognition of mastery in our profession.
Think about a restaurant. Restaurant critics come in, they take a seat, they taste the dish. And sometimes, they give the restaurant five stars, because things are going extremely well, and that’s it. They aren’t pressured to suggest the next dish, to suggest another method of presentation, another mixture of spices.
Master teachers are like master chefs. They know how to create and serve up something incredible.
It’s a mystery why the NYCDOE seems afraid to define some teachers as having achieved excellence. Teachers who have been highly effective for many years — not just because they’ve done the same thing over and over — have mastered the art of being educators, of keeping their fingers on the pulse of the students in their room and consistently pushing them to rise to their potential.
Teachers who have developed such an extensive toolkit of strategies are changing and evolving in their practice each year on their own, adapting their craft and constantly perfecting it. They observe students each day and understand exactly what the students they teach need.
So let’s be bold and say there is such a thing as mastery in teaching, just as there is such a thing as mastery in every other career.
And no, I’m not talking about the handful of “master teacher” positions allocated within the NYCDOE, that come with tedious application processes and expiration dates. I’m talking about the humble teachers that come in everyday and do their jobs, whose students love and respect and learn from them.
So why can’t we value teachers enough to let them live inside the mastery they have achieved? Why are we so afraid to tell them they are doing just fine?
In terms of our evaluations in the classroom, I wonder if sometimes, the recommendation should be: "Maintain. You have built a successful classroom which is no small feat in this day and age. Congratulations, keep doing what it is that you are doing."
The pressure that administrators feel to always have something to recommend, to always push a teacher to grow in a (very possibly) non-organic way is ruining evaluations and frustrating good teachers, which is a dangerous thing to do.
This is not a call for complacency. Great teachers never let themselves become complacent. And the work they do is rarely to impress an administrator, it’s to keep up with their main priority — their students.
And what if we took it one step further and made it OK for our principals and assistant principals to say, "Hey, I can also learn from watching you do this."
Imagine if evaluations became a more symbiotic relationship where learning went both ways — a place not only for teachers to receive feedback from their administrators, but also where administrators could learn best practices from teachers.
Administrators have to focus on so many aspects of a school community — budget, parents, discipline, school culture, testing, enrollment, special accommodations, grants — it’s endless. The reality is, it’s impossible for a principal to continue to be an expert on every single subject and every single instructional practice year after year. And why should they be expected to? How could they ever have as extensive of an instructional toolkit as the highly effective subject-area teacher who has been doing great work in the same area for five, 10, 15 years?
Time to change the narrative
As we approach 2020, it may be time to change the narrative around who has the potential to learn from who. Good teachers are an asset to administrators, and should be recognized as such. There’s no point in a power struggle when we are all here and all benefit from helping students grow.
But the push needs to come from above our administrators. So many of us have had principals dig for suggestions and recommendations at the end of our observations because they are told by their higher-ups at the NYCDOE that recommendations are required. Imagine if higher-ups weren’t constantly asking, “What have you done to move your teachers?” but instead, “What great strategies have you mined from your teachers?” Then, wouldn’t our administrators come into the room looking for what works, instead of searching for and often feeling pressure to invent what doesn’t?
Just imagine this change in focus and the ripple effects it could have on a school community.
An administrator coming into a classroom could focus on what works well and help to share these tactics with other staff members. Ideas and strategies are not a finite amount of currency. They can be spread without losing anything from where they originate. This shift would surely change the way that teachers and principals work with each other, value each other and respect each other.
We need to keep our eye on the word “evaluation” itself, and remember its root — value. As a system, we should not be afraid to view our successful teachers as masters and valuable assets to our schools. We should not shy away from making it our focus to keep them comfortable and happy so that they last.
But most of all, it’s time to make it OK to give our great teachers five stars, to recognize those who have developed into incredibly talented and brilliant professionals and treat them as such. To say thank you for the meal, I will recommend this room to my friends.
Who knows, maybe we would create a culture of teachers who are happy to be observed.