Saturday, August 22, 2015

The 300 Days: Part 8 - Observations and Investigations

"Well I don't belong here
Don't fit your style
Felt your left foot,
Now feel my right..."
- Chevelle - The Meddler

The unique experience of a 2013-2014 educator was largely dictated by a series of new systems.  The first, and most well-known, was the implementation of the Common Core Standards as well as new learning standards for Science and Social Studies.  The most stressful and time consuming was that of the new Teacher Evaluation system.  Carefully concocted in the guarded kitchen of ODE, this new method of evaluating teachers took the old method and pan seared it, rolled it in cayenne pepper, stuffed it with habanero peppers, and shoved it up the rectum of the lifeless corpse of Guy Fieri, whose culinary prowess and E.T.-like body could not withstand flavors that far “out of bounds.”
In short, every teacher was to be observed twice per year (one each semester) by his/her superior.  Prior to the 45 minute observation, a 45 minute “pre-conference” was necessary, in order for the teacher to more or less outline the expectations of the lesson.  Then AFTER the 45 minute observation, another 45 minute “post-conference” was necessary in order for both teacher and supervisor to discuss the lessons, the pros and cons, and everything in between.  In order to fully prepare for these three “phases,” an electronic outline was filled out by the teacher, detailing things such as lesson goals, tools, class expectations, methods of differentiation, the whole works.  For many teachers, it took six hours to complete everything.  Needless to say it was exceptionally time consuming and nearly redundant:  can a principal truly tell how effective a teacher is in just a 45 minute snapshot?  Or, can a teacher truly fool a principal every year by creating lovely lessons full of “jazz hands” just to keep up on appearances?

For every evaluator (typically the principal and sometimes assistant principal), they must meet with each teacher two times a year a total of three entire class periods (one for pre-conference, one for observation, one for post conference).  By applying the lessons learned from algebra, this means that six class periods are devoted to each teacher.  Now, multiply six times the total amount of teachers that need to be observed and the days begin to add up.  Oh, and also the “observation” window is only like 2-3 months every semester.  Oh, and there are also snowdays in the winter, causing meetings to be rescheduled.  Oh, and there’s also that parent that’s still pissed about that one thing that happened.  Then there’s all the committees they’re on, the meetings before and after school, and it all adds up.  In short, there is unnecessary tension, stress, and time needed on both sides.

As always, Will was an ambitious learner, and set his first evaluation in late October, near the beginning of the “window” allowed by the state.  His intentions were to get as much feedback as possible, to throw himself to the wolves so that he could show ample growth.  He purposefully scheduled one of his “rougher” classes, near the end of the day.  Will knew it was pointless to schedule his best behaved class, as he would be only fooling himself.  What would be the point?  What would he learn?  Sure, stacking the deck in his favor would be advantageous.  But Will didn’t want to just have a good evaluation; he wanted to be a good teacher.
Will was always receptive to feedback, his undergraduate university supervisor calling him “the most coach-able educators I’ve ever worked with.”  So when Will completed his first observation, he was candid. “It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped,” Will spoke honestly as he outlined the things he saw and the things he would change.  Part of being a good educator was being self aware, knowing one’s limits.  The classroom can be quite unpredictable, so even if a lesson goes sour in some ways, a good teacher will be able to point out those things.  As Will sat and discussed the lesson with Mr. Evans, pros and cons were outlined.  Mr. Evans gave some things for Will to work on, even mentioning “I’d like to pop in before Christmas break, too.” Will thought nothing of it.

Second semester rolled around, and Will opted to get his 2nd evaluation completed early on the window once again.  There was one thing that Will despised, and that was the looming threat of a deadline.  The sooner he completed his observation, the better off he would be.
His approach to was quite simple:  continue building on the strengths and improve upon the weaknesses outlined from the first observation.  Once again, after hours of paperwork, Mr. Evans returned to Will’s classroom to observe a lesson on the Law of Superposition (geology).  It was fun, it was interactive, it was thought provoking and challenging.  Will knocked it out of the park.  
The next day, Will sat down in the guest chair of Mr. Evan’s small office, and they went through the evaluation rubric together, with Mr. Evans providing his grade for each domain, and what he saw from the lesson.  Mr. Evans even noted the aspects in which he wanted to see improvement, and indicated that Will had “swung into the next domain over.”  Will felt his confidence soar.  The meeting lasted approximately 40 minutes, and the first 35 went great.  The meeting then took an abrupt turn as Mr. Evans’ tone changed.  “I noticed you called on (Student 1) multiple times,” and “Student 2 finished a portion of the lab with minutes to spare, and she pulled out a book and was reading.  We can’t have that.”  With seconds to spare in the meeting, it was concluded with “I would like to do another observation.”
The alarms begin to sound inside Will’s brain, and he began to hallucinate little red flags flying at every turn.  The cause for concern was twofold:  1) Will had spent HOURS preparing the lesson - and a good lesson at that - only to have it shat upon in the closing moments of the meeting, and 2)  Mr. Evans was willing to sacrifice his own valuable time as a principal at a rather large middle school to meet with Will before, during, and after a lesson, on top of properly filling out all of the paperwork he was required to complete for the state.  In short:

The soft glow of his alarm clock illuminated half of Will’s bedroom, creating a blue shadow on everything.  12:04 the clock read.  Will had less than 6 hours before he would wake to begin his psychologically damaging drive to work.  Will’s brain ran on full steam as he pondered why Mr. Evans insisted on yet another observation.  So, Will sleuthed.

The next day, Will scoured whatever documents he could find:  board policies, Ohio Department of Education, and the Ohio Teacher Evaluation website, where he would find his answer.  There, in small print at the bottom of the observation template:  “Teachers subject to non-renewal may be observed a third time…”

Will felt a burst of warmth fill his face, as his heart began to pulse blood at a much higher rate.  Not wanting his heart and brain to explode, he immediately emailed Mr. Evans and asked if he could meet after school the following day.  He obliged.
The next day seemed to take forever.  Will felt powerless, and he opened up to Mrs. Handler:  “Have you ever heard about anything like this?  Should I be worried?  What can I do?”
Mrs. Handler seemed to kindly shrug, dejected that she could not help “I don’t know, Will.  But I think it’s good you’re going to ask him.  You deserve to know.”

The stampede of adolescents subsided, and Will waited anxiously outside Mr. Evan’s door.  A moment later, the door opened, and Mr. Evans kindly asked him to come in.  Will closed the door.
“So what’s up?” Mr. Evans politely asked.
“Well, to make a long story short:  I know that you want to observe me a third time, and I was reading up on the Teacher Evaluation System, and saw a little blurb about ‘teachers being subject to non-renewal may be observed a third time.’  Like, is this something I need to be concerned about?  I love teaching here, but quite honestly, my confidence is a little shook up at the moment.”
It took Mr. Evans about 3 seconds to respond, but Will had his answer in less than that.
In a split second, Mr. Evans looked down, and grimaced, through clenched teeth began “well….”  It was precisely that moment that Will knew that he was no longer welcome at that school and in the district.

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