Accountability in schools is something that we teachers talk about but rarely own. More often than not, “accountability” is interpreted as “explaining why I did something wrong.” In other cases, it becomes synonymous with evaluation, which comes with a different set of red flags. But with the right school climate, not only can accountability be seen as not scary, it can lead to the growth of teachers in practice, and students in achievement. We have no problem asking students to be accountable for their actions or their studies, and we must model to them what it means in such a way that makes it safe for them to follow our lead. A
recent post from Robert Kaplinsky, a mathematics teacher specialist in Southern California, mentioned a teacher who posted a sign outside of his classroom inviting anyone to observe him at any time he was teaching, and offering three points on which he would like feedback. Kaplinsky turned it into the
#ObserveMe campaign. I loved this idea, and immediately put a similar sign outside my own classroom. That was three weeks ago, and do you know how many observers I have had? Zero. I have, however, spread the idea to a colleague at another school in my district, and her principal stopped me one day to tell me what a good idea it was. But, I’m a little disappointed. I
want that feedback. More than that, I want teachers at my school to feel that they can give and receive feedback to one another without fear of consequence.
I’m a career-switcher. Before becoming a teacher, I managed a record store. Immediately upon entering education, I was taken aback by the resistance to the evaluation and self-reflection process. In my previous field, employee reviews were common—twice a year formally, and almost biweekly (and unscheduled) in between those dates. I learned to prepare every day as if someone were coming in to judge me and those who worked under me. I continue to carry that mentality into teaching. Many younger teachers coming in do not seem to have the same aversion to feedback as career teachers. Still, too often, I hear teachers complain about the views of people who are not in the classroom—whether they be policymakers, parents or administrators. Those can be valid arguments, to be sure, but my challenge to educators is to respond by taking matters into your own hands. Open up your classroom to your colleagues, with three quick items of focus:
Specify What You Want Observed. When students come in with a vague, “I need help” statement, you will naturally prompt them to be more specific. The same applies for teachers. Don’t have a colleague watch everything in a 45-minute period. Give them one or two things on which to take notes and provide feedback. For example, I know that I sometimes (OK, many times) catch myself talking to students instead of with them. I do not have enough dialogue in my instruction. But, I only pick up on it late into a class period. I need someone to call me on it as it happens.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Everyone. If your school culture doesn’t yet seem ready to make this a priority, find a group of like-minded colleagues and do it among yourselves. Then, other conversations in faculty meetings or lunchrooms may open up more doors. They may like the idea, but don’t want to be the first ones.
Involve the Students. When someone new comes in the room, students notice. Be upfront with them and tell them what’s happening—even if you need to leave some details out. When students see that a teacher is constantly trying to improve themselves, it sets the tone for them to follow suit. If your school is one that is adopting a growth mindset, it can make a wonderful lesson and lead to many teachable moments.
If the goal is to improve your craft, then there is really no better resource than the professionals in your building. Books, professional development courses and research can all be helpful (even the occasional blog post!), but none of those will deal with the exact set of students, staff and circumstances that you deal with every day. When we allow others into our world, and we are willing to visit the worlds of others, all worlds improve.
Kevin Cormier is a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow. Kevin teaches seventh and eighth grade math at Nissitissit Middle School in Pepperell, Massachusetts. He has served as a math teacher leader since 2012, and has expanded this role to head up data collection and analysis for the entire North Middlesex regional school district. Kevin was an ECET2 National Convening Attendee in 2016, ...