Just like testing is a part of education for our students, teacher assessments are an inescapable part of our jobs. This begins, of course, when you are student-teaching and – in today's education system – never ends.
Teacher assessments used to be infrequent and carried few consequences; in many parts of the country, the opposite is now the norm.
Understandably, this is upsetting to many teachers. However, for some perspective, I encourage you to talk to your friends who are working for large corporations. You will find that they are assessed even more frequently than teachers and have had to learn to live with the reality that their continued employment can be called into question at any time based on their performance… and union protections are quite rare in cubicle-land.
I'm not saying that it's an ideal situation (after all, elementary education is different from the standard cubicle job) but I am saying that it is inevitable. Therefore, you need to understand how to survive and thrive in this culture of teacher observations and assessments.
As with so many things, it starts with attitude.
The teacher observation attitude
You have a choice to make when it comes to teacher evaluations. You can fight against and agonize over them for the rest of your career, or you can learn to live with and even benefit from them without undue stress.
Notice I didn't say you had to “like them.”
Nobody likes to be criticized. No matter how skillful an evaluator is in giving feedback, it will still feel like criticism. That's why you are never actually going to like being observed, but you can get to the point where you don't spend sleepless nights with your stomach churning prior to observation days.
How is that accomplished?
Forgive yourself for not being perfect
Yes, step one is making a decision up front that you are not going to be your own harshest critic, no matter what anybody else says. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has trouble implementing the latest and greatest classroom requirement that administration has handed down. Everybody has off days when their children are not on their best behavior and lessons don't go well.
You are going to have to make the decision that you are doing your best and that even though you are always trying to improve, you will never be a perfect teacher. And that is entirely okay; imperfect people change the world all the time, don't they?
Forgive your reviewer for not being perfect
This is very important. We are all human, and, just as you are not a perfect teacher, the vast majority of people evaluating you are not perfect at being evaluators. It can be a very difficult skill to learn what to look for and how to document it. But, it can be an almost impossible skill for some people to learn how to deliver feedback in an empathetic and constructive way.
This is so difficult that you can always expect that any time you receive feedback, it will have some sharp and jagged edges that will rub against your psyche in ways that the reviewer does not intend. No matter how angry they are making you at the moment, or how insecure you feel, take a little bit of time to forgive them for not being the greatest at a difficult task.
Accept that you are not perfect
This sounds a little bit like the first one, doesn't it? But it's not. Forgiving yourself for not being perfect is different from accepting that you still have things that you can work on in order to improve as a teacher.
During much of our young lives, we are used to being constantly evaluated and criticized, both informally and formally. But, after we enter into our professions, we no longer feel like we are in official “learning” mode, and therefore it's not okay to be imperfect.
That's when evaluations begin to sting.
You are in the field of education, so you are going to have to decide that your learning will extend for the rest of your career. And, since you are in perpetual learning mode, of course you will be making course adjustments along the way.
Getting feedback from observers is a very important part of this… just like your feedback to your students is very important for their improved performance.
Think of it this way: you are setting a good example for your students by reflecting upon constructive criticism and figuring out how to do things better.
Those are the fundamental steps to having the proper attitude about evaluations. But we can do even better by adopting a proactive approach that puts us more in control of the process.
It is very common for teachers to feel like they are targets when being evaluated. I mean, literally feeling like you are standing down at the end of the shooting range and the observer in the back of the classroom is taking dead aim at you.
You feel helpless and powerless in the face of a process in which you believe you have no input, and therefore you have no control over the outcome.
That, my teacher friends, is absolutely not true.
If you adopt the attitude of inviting feedback in order to improve (as I have suggested), then you are automatically placing yourself in the position of making evaluations a collaborative process rather than a judgmental one. How?
Ask for evaluation
This approach applies particularly to student-teachers. There will be a few formal assessments throughout your time in a mentor teacher's classroom, but not nearly as many as you need. In order to truly prepare for your future, you should ask the principal of your building to give you an evaluation of your teaching. I'm not kidding!
If you want to know what it's like to be a real teacher, then you need to feel what it's like to be observed by the administration.
But this approach is not only for student-teachers; new teachers can also ask to be evaluated informally sooner rather than later. Instead of waiting around for a few months to get hit with your first assessment (at which point you may complain that you never knew you were supposed to be doing certain things), think of the power you can gain by asking for an informal evaluation up front.
You are in learning mode as a new teacher, and this is a golden opportunity to figure out the administration’s philosophy and hot buttons before it really counts for anything.
Seriously, all you have to do is go to your principal and say:
“I'm pretty confident in my math lesson planning and delivery, but I would really appreciate it if you could find fifteen minutes to sit in my classroom and give me an informal assessment of how I'm implementing my mini-lessons.”
If your principal doesn't drop dead from shock, she should be happy to accommodate you.
Acknowledge your weaknesses up front
We all know what our weaknesses are in teaching, don't we? Well, assuming that you actually want to get better in these areas, involve your observer in the process:
“I would really like your feedback on how I'm redirecting a few of my students who have difficulty staying on task during my mini-lessons. So, no matter what else you are looking for, if you could keep an eye on that, I would love to discuss it afterward.”
See what you’ve done? You've demonstrated to your principal that you are actively looking to improve as a professional educator and that you are being honest in your self-assessment.
You have also made the post-observation discussion much less threatening because you already know that you're going to be talking about some shortcomings, and you've mentally prepared yourself to accept input. This will soften any other aspects of the observation that are also revealed to you.
… and keep acknowledging them
You can carry this approach through to the next assessment. When you've been given some feedback that you perceived to be negative after an evaluation, it will take you a few days to calm your nerves and be able to think about it objectively.
If you arrive at the point where you admit that there could be at least a grain of truth in it, then you'll make a plan to try to improve. Good for you! Now take it to the next step.
Before your next observation, tell your principal what you've been working on and ask him to give you feedback on how you are implementing your improvement plan. Again, this makes the observation much more collaborative, and it will feel less judgmental.
Another huge benefit: It will demonstrate to your administration that you are a teacher who is constantly striving to improve, not a teacher who is constantly resisting improvement. It’s never an individual observation or evaluation that will put a judgmental stamp on your teaching career; it's the trend of your assessments.
There will be some ups and some downs, but as long as the trend line is moving in the right direction you will always be fine when it comes to any scoring system that may be in place. Teachers who are constantly striving to improve tend to move the scoring trend in the right direction.
And, human nature being what it is, administrators will be more lenient toward your imperfections if they see you actively working to get better.
Student-teachers: I want to be certain that you understand the critical importance of assessments during this phase of your career.
Within a few months, you are going to have all kinds of people watching you: students, principals, aides, parent volunteers. At that point, they will all be expecting you to know what you are doing and your full-time job will be on the line. Student-teacher evaluations will seem easy by comparison!
I want you to take full advantage of this golden phase of your life when you are expected to mess things up. Remember, this is one long interview. Many teachers have gotten their first job in the same building in which they student-taught. Demonstrate that you are easy to work with and open to feedback.
Throughout this website, I stress the importance of not only being open to input, but also being self-reflective when you are given that input. This doesn't apply only to formal assessments, of course. It is very important to constantly be asking yourself what you can do better so that your children receive the best education possible.
Every teacher I know is constantly questioning herself on a daily basis. Resolve to not only question yourself, but to improve yourself and act upon the input from the harshest critic in the world: you.
You don't want to get on this critic’s bad side by failing to make progress! So buckle down and do it.