The Hunt for Genius in Reforming Teacher Evaluations

Teaching creates all other professions.

~Author Unknown

I love being a teacher.  My fellow science teachers and I love the exploration of science in our STEM classrooms with our students. But it’s the roll out of the new long-listed performance criteria on the teacher evaluation that is causing a big ugly stir. One trainer explained an evaluation version that included 40 skills that are to be observed in a 30 minute period.

What? The future of my career stems around a 30 minute evaluation of how well I provide evidence of 40 skills? I have flash backs of The Price is Right and a ticking game show clock. I was never on The Price is Right, but I was on a different game show and won a van with way less professional skills under my belt than I achieved to become a middle school science teacher.

Our team of science teachers work hard to create a highly effective learning community in our student’s science lab and we would like more information about how we can super-hero our way through a fast 30 minute observation of 40 skills and long term learning gains.

Fellow teaching professionals had visions of a classroom version of Cirque de Soleil or an intense game of twister, with your toe pointing to the learning goal while you balance 39 other proof-points with remaining body parts as the clock is ticking. A sense of humor is our tonic to ease the concern. But seriously, the chasing-rabbits style of whomever is at the helm of our state’s teaching evaluation reform is generating a serious concern for this trained battalion of teaching professionals.

There are weekly hums of changes to the evaluation equation in our region. This spins an exhaustive spectrum of worry from the best of educators in the field and it isn’t pretty.

The poster-child-conundrum of reforming exactly how we assess teacher performance and measure the business of student learning-gains is in desperate need of a marketing genius; where is our “Peter Fisk” to market the need for this reform?

Science Teacher on the Hunt

As a STEM teacher, I went looking for the science behind the changes and the steady hand of successful examples to steer me and my friendly colleagues in the direction of “what am I doing already that is right and on target.”

Teach Future Work Skills-Summary 2020

I didn’t go too far into my journey without stepping over obvious reminders of the nature of change:  the need for changes in business, changes in economics, changes in research results, changes in teaching strategies. As teachers, we are linked to the change in each of these categories as demonstrated in the quote “Teaching creates all other professions.”

From the best I can access, it’s the way the changes are being managed, plus the range of messengers delivering conflicting and concerning new details that is creating a mountain of frustration. This unorganized roll out is stirring teaching professionals into knots of confusion. Please, give us our own grading rubric to hold onto for more than 3 days at a time. I could never expect my students to successfully perform under those terms and conditions. I respect my students too much to create that stressful environment.

My hunt for the science and success in the education reformation continued through other states’ reports and foundational research where I found a nugget of hope: a short list of five criteria for science and math teachers. Yay!

 Foundational Points Insight
1) The instructional strategies and activities respected students’ prior knowledge and the
preconceptions inherent therein.
A cornerstone of reformed teaching is taking into consideration the prior knowledge that students bring with them. The term “respected” is pivotal in this item. It suggests an attitude of curiosity on the teacher’s part, an active solicitation of student ideas, and an understanding that much of what a student brings to the mathematics or science classroom is strongly shaped and conditioned by their everyday experiences.
2) The lesson was designed to engage students as members of a learning community. Much knowledge is socially constructed. The setting within which this occurs has been called a “learning community.” The use of the term community in the phrase “the scientific community” (a “self-governing” body) is similar to the way it is intended in this item. Students participate actively, their participation is integral to the actions of the community, and knowledge is negotiated within the community. It is important to remember that a group of learners does not necessarily constitute a “learning community.”
3) In this lesson, student exploration preceded formal presentation. Reformed teaching allows students to build complex abstract knowledge from simpler, more concrete experience. This suggests that any formal presentation of content should be preceded by student exploration. This does not imply the converse…that all exploration should be followed by a formal presentation.
4) This lesson encouraged students to seek and value alternative modes of investigation or of
problem solving.
Divergent thinking is an important part of mathematical and scientific reasoning. A lesson that meets this criterion would not insist on only one method of experimentation or one approach to solving a problem. A teacher who valued alternative modes of thinking would respect and actively solicit a variety of approaches, and understand that there may be more than one answer to a question.
5) The focus and direction of the lesson was often determined by ideas originating with students. If students are members of a true learning community, and if divergence of thinking is valued, then the direction that a lesson takes can not always be predicted in advance. Thus, planning and executing a lesson may include contingencies for building upon the unexpected. A lesson that met this criterion might not end up where it appeared to be heading at the beginning.

It was easy for me to reflect and recall these five foundational needs this week as the structure from my lesson plans unfolded in my science lab. I specifically recall number 5 (direction of the lesson was often determined by ideas originating with students). Our learning goal was to describe, in order, the layers of the sun. Day two of our solar lesson began with a bell ringer review. “Please stand if you can name and describe the six layers of the sun.” Half the class was confident and stood up. “Only half?”, I thought. So I called the confident group to meet me in the center of the open area of our science lab. In a whisper I asked, “How are you going to help them remember the 6 layers of the sun?”

“Make them sing it.”

“They need to make a rhyme out of it.”

So off we went, down a path of rhyming lyrics that could be sung by one or all members of their team at their table. The courageous performers who took the microphone not only brought a memorable way to recall and associate the message of our dynamic sun, but also brought the light of joy and laughter to our learning environment.

Five: In my day of a thousand decisions as a middle school teacher, I can remember these five foundational needs that enrich the learning community in my science classroom.

With these five items, I can link the other 35 teaching skills on the evaluation, dancing through the lesson with a graceful goal that makes my thousand-daily-decisions look natural and smooth.With these five points of motivation, the spot light is taken off the teacher and back onto a purposeful exercise to build strong learners.

In 1998, President Clinton said, “

Every child needs–and deserves–dedicated, outstanding teachers, who know their subject matter, are effectively trained, and know how to teach to high standards and to make learning come alive for students.

More than a decade later, we continue the pursuit of defining the measure of a highly effective educator and struggle with the math of that equation.

As we know, teaching creates all other professions. But there’s a gap in how some parents, some students, and some politicians equate the importance that we bring to our community. The blighted pay scale of teachers is a popular talking point, but a neglected reality on paper. Now the arduous task of raising the bar as a standard in this important profession is being rolled out without an ounce of marketing savvy.

Those in charge are changing the teacher performance grading rubric after the roll out and it is changing often. Perhaps the variables that are missing from the rigorous algorithm and is most concerning for teaching professionals are that not all students, not all families, not all teachers, and not all communities are alike.

While those in charge sharpen their pencils and whittle down their erasers in their own pursuit of a measured teaching reform sweeping across our campuses,  a few of us will hold steady with these five foundational points to guide our way through the maze of weekly changes.


It’s a great time to love to teach!



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