A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Useless Drivel

I was recently asked to review the observation file of a young teacher who is worried that he will not receive tenure. Reading through the inane drivel of a half dozen administrators charged with evaluating this teacher, I was reminded of the essential pointlessness of much of the written evaluation of teachers and the urgent need to figure out a better way of determining the fitness of the people in our classrooms. We have huge cadres of administrators spending a significant portion of their days working at a process that is more about coercion and control of teachers than it is about improving instruction.

The typical observation devotes one or two pages to a narrative of the observed lesson. It begins with things like the teacher’s welcoming of the students and proceeds to step by step record the details of the lesson. The often very poorly written narratives are interspersed with allusions to the latest faddish expectations. Nowadays, this usually means references to the state standards, the use of technology and one or more education theories. This is followed by a listing of what the observer deems commendable aspects of the lesson which in turn is followed by a listing of needed improvements. This latter list often takes the form of what the teacher might have done. As my partner Judi always says, “I might have decided to dance naked on my desk, but I chose not to on that occasion.”

Read carefully, most observations say more about the observer than they do about the teacher being observed. Good observations are experienced by teachers with relief. Bad ones tend to arouse more anger than reflection. In all my teaching years, rarely did I see anything worthwhile grow out of this process. Rather, the quirks of observers became universally known and lessons were developed to cater to them.

I’m not unaware of the need for some kind of record upon which to base employment decisions about teachers. I’m not sure I know what that record should be. What I do know is that the current model doesn’t do what is claimed for it. I’ve known terrible teachers with outstanding observation portfolios and very fine teachers who were unable to get tenure. I do know that part of a more valid system entails using universally recognized outstanding teachers. So many of the observations I’ve read over the years were written by people whose words reflected a lack of understanding of the art of teaching.

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