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Published On: Tue, Dec 12th, 2017

Who will bell the cat?: Case for holistic teacher evaluation

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By Adetola Salau

When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself.” – Louis Nizer
My late grandmother had a favourite saying. She would always say that the rats asked each other who would bell the cat. I struggled to understand as a child why she loved this saying. Now as an adult I have finally understood it. It is easy to complain about creating change but it is a different kettle of fish to actually enact the change.
I need to start from the premise of stating that I am not against evaluating teachers or having professionals accountable. There are positives to evaluating teachers, as criticism can be positive and provide teachers – those who are new or experienced – with new perspectives and sometimes pertinent feedback that helps them grow and perform better.
When I started teaching in the Bronx (New York City) over 15 years ago, I received feedback that dramatically changed my teaching. Now that I am a consultant working with other teachers, I utilise those lessons that were passed to me by the supervisors who helped to guide me in my growth. My discomfort comes from narrowing teachers within confined boundaries, evaluating them through strict guidelines, and failing to take in the different variables that make a teacher effective in the classroom. I desire to respect their dedication, experience and human dignity.
There is a push, right here in Nigeria, for streamlined certification and evaluation models. My worry is that some schools and districts would use this to determine whether teachers are being effective in the classroom or not. I have a hunch that they would then tie the ratings on these evaluations to performance pay and bonuses.
If we decide to place a lot of emphasis on regimented evaluation models, then we should also ensure that the consequences are well thought out. I have experienced living with the fear and excitement of using these models. When I had a non-supportive supervisor, it was a living nightmare. It wasn’t about the children’s learning but about her maintaining control and power over all of her subordinates. I experienced nervousness, feeling sick to my stomach, as I thought of how to create lesson plans that would please her, under these conditions.
When I had an encouraging supervisor, I looked forward to his feedback on how I’d become a master math teacher as it was what I strove to become. I know what it is like to teach under the pressure of being observed using such evaluation criteria, and I have gone through seeing how data collected using an evaluation tool was utilised, sometimes for one’s growth as a professional and other times for personal vendettas.
I will present areas we need to tread with caution, on the basis of my experience and research.

Who Decides What Criteria Demonstrates Effective Teaching?
The evaluation models I use when I work with schools to raise the bar of excellence that I desire for our teachers is based on my experience and derived from research. The one that I lean towards more is the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model, which is a tool attained from 5,000 studies over a period of five decades and a correlation analysis between teaching strategies and students’ achievement.
It is an advantage to have established criteria, as it enables stakeholders with a common language and a shared vocabulary. For example, a principal talking with teachers can refer to a common language when communicating expectations. The main crux is that it should have input from the classroom teachers who are being evaluated using it. We should encourage the expression of the voices of our teachers in the system that they dedicate themselves to. They shouldn’t be forced to mould their teaching styles, pedagogies, philosophies, resources, and environments to match an imposed criteria.
When I worked with the supportive principal, he gave all of his teachers the freedom to express themselves in their different teaching styles. He made his evaluation process flexible, as his ultimate aim was the improvement of the learning and understanding of students. The traditional models ask for a teacher-directed classroom, while 21st century models lean towards student-led classrooms. Now, which is the better option? Each has its place, depending on the concepts being taught and the teacher seeking to produce results (e.g., high student performance, engagement, improved test scores). This, more than anything, should be the deciding factor in how teachers express themselves. We should allow for a teacher’s individuality, creativity, and strengths.

Narrow Observation Timeframes
My other concern with the current way that we observe teachers is the fact that teachers teach for almost 200 days a year but are observed a maximum of three times, with the observation time not being more than two hours. A summary of the teacher’s work would be determined from data collected during that time. It is pretty much about a teacher being asked to pack a school year’s worth of experience, knowledge, and performance into a very small window. While observing a teacher several times during the academic year is better than nothing, I think teachers would be better served if evaluation is done based on long-term data that more accurately capture their performance. The way forward would be to have teachers being observed several times but also allowed to complete portfolios that feature video-recorded lessons, students work, reflections, and other information that could be used by observers to make better informed decisions.
We could incorporate the use of technology to observe how teachers use technology such as WhatsApp video calls, Skype, video recording via smartphones, to gather additional evidence on whether teachers are meeting expectations. In using a more holistic approach to collect evidence, a teacher’s experience, hard work, and skills, will be more valuable to the learning experience.
We support the evaluation of teachers, but we must tread carefully to ensure that we are building up our teachers and not tearing them down. A great analogy of this is the fact that a shovel is a tool, which can either be used to bang someone over the head or to build great things for people. It’s all about how it is utilised.

Adetola Salau, Carismalife4U@gmail.com, an advocate of STEM education, public speaker, author, and social entrepreneur, is passionate about education reform.

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