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Teacher Voice

Why This Educator’s Tough Evaluation Made Him a Better Teacher

Guest Post: Tom Bergen is a social studies teacher at North High School in Denver. He has been a teacher for eight years. His professional goal is to “create the next generation of rebels who have historically challenged our thinking, ideas, and institutions.”
My experiences with teacher evaluation systems have me sweating just thinking and writing about it. However, for the first time in my career I feel like I’m working with a teacher evaluation system that is fair, clear, and growth-oriented. In eight years as a high school teacher, I have seen teacher-evaluation systems go from perfunctory to career-building. I started my career in a neighboring district that gave me “exceeds expectations” in every metric, deserved or not, as a first year teacher. During my first year, my principal observed me once for only 10 minutes, once in my second year, and twice in my third. The convergence of overworked or distracted administrators with an outdated evaluation system gave me great scores, but no true feedback on how to improve my teaching. I would have loved some coaching on sheltered instruction, to better support the English language learners I was teaching in two of my class periods. Those early evaluations taught me that I was a great instinctual teacher, but when asked how I achieved high proficiency scores or how to create a positive classroom environment, I didn’t have the vocabulary or know-how to explain it. The measurement tool was archaic, long, lacked specificity, and was more like a grading rubric than a growth tool. I unknowingly checked the boxes that made me a great teacher, but felt as though I had no idea what I was doing. We also were able to choose when we would be observed, and for which class. Anybody can be an “exceeds expectations” teacher when they get to control when they’re observed and what the administration sees. At that stage of my career I was just glad they didn’t see the 95% of other classes.

Bad Evaluation Tools Lead to Bad Morale

However, other teachers in my school experienced evaluations that could only be described as hit jobs. People who had been department chairpersons and highly respected veteran teachers suddenly found themselves under intense scrutiny. The feedback was focused on what was not done, or what was not there, instead of how to grow. Even though I continued to show strong classroom results, this system caused tremendous stress and pressure, wondering when it would be my turn. Teachers suffered serious health problems, took sick days, and morale could not have been worse. I blew out of that district in dramatic fashion after becoming a union representative and trying to stick up for my colleagues. The experience left me with a very negative view of teacher evaluations and of the relationship between teachers and school leadership.

A New Kind of Evaluation

After joining Denver Public Schools, I was concerned to learn that under the LEAP system (the DPS teacher support and evaluation system) teachers would have four full observations each year. My first observation was terrifying. It was one of those sweating-through-your-shirt experiences. I explained my defensiveness and stress to my evaluator. To nobody’s surprise, I was not an “exceeds expectations” teacher that day, but merely an “approaching effectiveness” teacher. At first I was confused, but soon understood that the LEAP framework was not a “gotcha” system. It felt to me like a sincere attempt to describe what good teaching is and then provide the necessary feedback and support. It had concrete steps that I did my utmost to follow and do well. As a result I grew after each observation, improving my craft, and eventually earning high marks. What LEAP excels at is coaching people on continuous improvement instead of merely assessing a teacher’s performance on one day. You don’t know when you will be observed, and when it does happen, it is one of many opportunities for feedback. If you score “approaching,” you are coached on how to make the jump to “effective.” If you score effective, you are coached on jumping to distinguished. If you are distinguished they ask to videotape your lessons to create a library of highly effective teaching to be shared with your colleagues. For example, an approaching teacher “focuses on misbehavior of students but occasionally recognizes positive behavior.” Whereas an effective teacher “focuses on the positive behavior of students and intentionally recognizes positive behavior to reinforce expectations.” That can be coached. LEAP’s language makes it very clear what that looks like. It takes some of the ambiguity out of observations.

Evaluation Is an Intentional Process

Now when an evaluator comes in, my first emotion is no longer dread, but is more neutral. I have become more open-minded, and hopeful for positive feedback. Undoing the Pavlovian conditioning is a very intentional process. Each observation is better than the one before it. That’s progress. LEAP isn’t perfect, and there are still kinks. The system needs to better define what professionalism looks like, and what separates “approaching” teachers from “effective.” District leaders still need to build trust with teachers who question whether the new system is fair and unambiguous. I’m confident the district and the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, will continue to work on these issues. But here’s what I know to be true for me:  My practice is improving in myriad ways, every day. Asking probing questions, providing scaffolded supports, anticipating student hang-ups, sharper entrance routines, and 100% engagement strategies have all been strengthened and refined. Because of LEAP, I am a much better teacher.
Tom Bergen
Tom Bergen is a social studies teacher at North High School in Denver. He has been a teacher for eight years. His professional goal is to “create the next generation of rebels who have historically challenged our thinking, ideas, and institutions.”

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