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We Have Student-Led Conferences. Why Not Teacher-Led Evaluations?

Andrea Hernandez

Teacher, learner, parent, change-agent… Evolving.
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As the ideas associated with growth mindset continue to spread, schools are envisioning and experimenting with new forms of assessment that highlight the growth process and the individual path of each learner. One example of this is the student-led conference, which is quickly replacing the outdated model of parents and teachers discussing a student while he or she is not present. In the student-led conference, learning takes center stage. Students prepare by reflecting on their academic and social growth, work habits, and behavior. Together with their teachers, they set goals that are personally meaningful and achievable.

At the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, we are working toward creating a culture of learning that includes students, teachers, and parents. We believe that, when it comes to learning, what is good for students is good for teachers, and vice versa. When we adopted the student-led conference (SLC) model, we did so because we believed in the core values of student voice and ownership, ongoing assessment, and the importance of the reflective process. Students and parents, skeptical at first, quickly realized the benefits of this type of conference, and the SLC became the school's new normal.

In contrast, our teachers were still being formally observed and evaluated by a twice-yearly, high-stakes, model lesson. Teachers dreaded this inauthentic "show," some even bribing their students to behave. The process did not support growth nor accurately encompass the depth and breadth of a teacher's work throughout the year. We decided to experiment with adopting a teacher-led conference (TLC) based on the same core values that we embrace for students.

Why Should Schools Upgrade Teacher Evaluation?

It is well documented in the research on teachers' professional growth that the biggest challenge is not learning about a new practice but rather the implementation of that new practice in the classroom. In order to become better, teachers need a supportive environment that provides the opportunity to experiment, time and space to reflect, and meaningful feedback. Failure is part of the long-term growth process, and teachers must feel safe to try things in their classrooms and then reflect and refine as they move toward mastery. The old-school model of teacher evaluation focuses on teaching as opposed to learning. It does not encourage goal setting, reflection, or stretching oneself to attempt that which is new and challenging. Teacher-led evaluation, in contrast, exists to support teachers as learners, motivate risk taking, and recognize the necessity for personalization.

How One School Changed the Model

At the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, we started by creating a target designed by a committee of teachers to make explicit what we believed high-quality teaching and learning should look like. Each separate area, represented by a cog, has an associated rubric that outlines steps toward an end goal of what, for example, "learning is engaging" would look like in terms of classroom practice. Teachers were asked to self-assess using the target and define a personal plan for professional growth. As part of the process, each teacher was required to observe another teacher, as well as have one of his or her own lessons recorded on video for self-evaluation.

Teachers are responsible for documenting their learning and compiling artifacts that show evidence of growth (photos, videos, student work, etc.). During twice-yearly meetings with an administrator, teachers share selected artifacts and reflect openly on successes, works in progress, and next steps. Specific prompts for discussion include:

  • What are my successes?
  • Is there room for improvement?
  • What artifacts do I have as evidence of my learning?
  • What tools or resources do I need to continue my professional growth on the Learning Target continuum?

Take a look at these examples of teacher-created presentations and sample artifacts through the lens of what type of thinking and reflection is required:

Feedback for the teacher-led conference is provided in narrative format, as opposed to a checklist scale of "distinguished, good, etc." and contains meaningful suggestions, as well as questions designed to elicit deeper thought. Administrators, with their whole-school perspective, are able to connect the dots in helping teachers find resources and colleagues who are on a similar path or have expertise to share.

Most teachers prefer this form of evaluation, despite the fact that it requires much greater preparation than simply sharing a lesson plan and teaching a model lesson. The focus on learning and growth, the personalized goals, and the opportunity to reflect and receive feedback and support make the process valuable. Much like the student-led conference, teacher-led evaluation meets each teacher where he or she is and recognizes that learning is not one-size-fits-all.

How can other schools tinker with upgrading the process of teacher evaluation? What does your school's teacher evaluation process communicate about the school's core values? Are teachers allowed to be learners and risk takers, or are they acknowledged and rewarded for sticking to what worked in the past? Is teacher evaluation tied explicitly to professional learning and student outcomes, or is it a once- or twice-yearly show put on for the evaluator?

Please share your answers and thoughts in the comments section below.

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Violeta Val's picture

Well, to be completely honest, I think that the whole teacher evaluation issue is a bit demeaning and disrespectul to professionals. For example, physician doctors or architects or engineers do not have to undergo this type of evaluation. The watched-lesson is in itself demeaning and deprives teachers of whatever power they might have worked to build in the classroom. I think that the best way of evaluating a teacher is through the students' performance. But if a teacher has a degree it means that he or she has already been tested in methodology classes, in watched lessons. I don't see the necessitiy in evaluating teachers once they became professionals. I have had unpleasant experiences with abusive school principals intruding in my lessons just to show off their power.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Hi Violeta, so sorry to hear about your past experience with evaluations. That's definitely not how it should be conducted. I have to say for myself, when I started teaching I was looking for that reaffirmation that I was on the right track, and my chair had very little time to visit me in the classroom. We had student evaluations but because of the format (a scale with no comments) it didn't give me much to reflect on my pedagogy. For me, teacher evaluation gives me a chance to reflect and revise on my practice to improve my strategies in the classroom. I think if it's done with kindness, respect and with a mutual goal in mind that this isn't about judging, rather, it's about constructive feedback, it should benefit everyone involved.

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Andrea Hernandez's picture
Andrea Hernandez
Teacher, learner, parent, change-agent… Evolving.

@Violeta-
I agree that the evaluation process can feel demeaning. While other professionals may not be evaluated, as such, I think teaching stands apart from other professions in that our "clients" (the students) often do not have the option to take their business elsewhere (which, if you think about it, is sort of the ultimate evaluation). I also think teaching is, in some ways, more complex than being a doctor or an architect (although I don't really know, as I have not worked as another type of professional).

Teaching is a craft, and it can take years (or a lifetime) to become excellent. The idea of having someone provide feedback and support in the process can free the teacher to work on elements of his/her craft in order to continue growing.
There are also issues with evaluating a teacher based on student performance as there are always elements beyond a teacher's control. As a reflective practitioner, I am always thinking about what I can do better, and I like being in charge of my own learning!

Michael Paul's picture

Thanks for the article! I would say our school has a hybrid of a traditional model and one that is based on a growth mind-set/Teacher Led Conference. We still have several observations - based on what observation cycle you are on (affects the number of observations and whether they are announced/unannounced or full class or part of a class). We also have a goal setting meeting at the start of the year, a follow up in the middle of the year, and then an EOY meeting. Our principal does a great job of letting us have input on our final "check-list". I feel like I can take risks although I could see how having a more personalized goal/reflection/conference would push me to take more. I am definitely going to pass this along. Thanks!

Annie Rutledge's picture

It is great to read about supportive evaluations that encourage reflection and meaningful feedback. I particularly love the fact that feedback is provided in a "narrative format" as opposed to a checklist scale. More often than not I have observed that even when there is a section to write comments in checklist style evaluations, it is left blank.

Pamela Rowe's picture

Our school has the option to do self directed or collaborative coaching once every three years. I find this to be a great alternative. After teaching for more than twenty years, I am my own evaluator on a daily basis just because I have a personal goal to strive to be a better teacher and appreciate the opportunity to really focus on a key issue with a colleague.

mmansuy's picture

I find the traditional teacher evaluation process to be more on the demeaning side and, honestly, not very valuable in terms of improving teacher practice. The teacher-led evaluation concept, on the other hand, honors professionals as learners and seems to me to be a much more authentic approach to improving practice. Traditional evaluations are done primarily for compliance. It's refreshing to see an evaluation system that is centered on and encourages real teacher growth.

Cynthia Garay Villibord's picture

Personally, I find your article very interesting and I think that the TLC model will be an excellent approach for teachers. Not only students are the ones who need goals, resources and new methods. In my country, as a bilingual school teacher, we know the challenges of guiding and engaging our students in a second language acquisition, using and creating strategies and forms that will lead to an effective learning. Both, SLC and TLC will reduce the stressed environment and increase motivation and effectiveness! Thanks!

smbittELA's picture

This makes so much sense! In college, we had to give presentations with artifacts and reflections at each step of the student teaching process to prove our readiness to move on to the next stage. It would be so beneficial to continue this process as a teacher and reflect on the year showing growth with artifacts of your lessons and student work.

KU's picture

This is a great opportunity for teachers to not only replace old evaluations, but also learn and improve for their students. I'm not completely sure of the evaluation process at my high school, however, I feel the theory behind the new evaluations was more incorporated into their teaching. So they self-reflected constantly to become better. I feel this type of self-reflection comes from really wanting to help students to think as well as being in an environment where we are always trying to learn. This new form of evaluation has potential to create new environments that encourage more active reflection and improvement.

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