teacher development

Teachers, Innovation and the Evolution of Schools

Teachers, Innovation and the Evolution of Schools

April 3, 2014

Last Friday afternoon at the Business Innovation Factory, four teams of teachers, including a team from my network, shared their stories of collaborative design thinking. This “storytelling” event was the culmination of a six week project called TD4ED, in which teachers were given the space and time to consider a problem of practice and design their own solution.

While the four teams’ projects differed, a common thread appeared. Each team had clearly been energized by the autonomy given them and came out of the experience not only with a sense of empowerment and enthusiasm, but with a tangible product to improve their schools.

Their enthusiasm was catching; I can honestly say that I teared up more than once, overwhelmed by this reminder of the collective power of teachers–and perhaps saddened by the realization that I’m not doing enough in my role to create the necessary space for such sparks to catch fire. After all, when I explored the concept of “change-mindedness” many years ago for my dissertation, I found partnership with colleagues as a key factor in that mindset. And the empowerment of teachers as a key lever for change guided my work in building professional learning communities?

Yet, I know that I have not empowered this team as much as this experience did. I wonder, have my core values changed? Or is there simply an incompatibility between the structure of school and the nature of innovation? What can we collectively do to give teachers the space, time and freedom to not only solve the problems in front of them but also to devise solutions before they even arise and to allow for the free-flow of ideas as Steven Johnson artfully discusses in his phenomenal book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

In describing the impact his team’s work can have on his school, one teacher used the term “evolutionize”. Indeed, thinking differently about teachers’ work and support their sense of purpose, power and partnership can both revolutionize and evolutionize both the profession and the field. For my part, I thank the teams for powerfully reconnecting me with and reinforcing my values and beliefs about teachers’ capacity for innovation.

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Gorillas and Teacher Evaluation

Gorillas and Teacher Evaluation

March 5, 2014

Let me just say this at the start–I’m in favor of systematized teacher evaluation systems. Here in Rhode Island, we have taken elements of the Danielson framework and built a rubric for professional practice from it. In our network, we’ve spent considerable time focusing on the various sub-domains via Instructional Rounds and other forms of professional development and have conducted numerous partnered observations to norm our process.

The system itself has a number of imperfections. First, a teacher’s effectiveness level in any domain is calculated using a simple average. That means that a teacher who becomes more and more effective in one sub-domain over time is not rewarded for growth. (maybe reward is the wrong term–it’s better to note that the final rating may simply be inaccurate. As a fan of standards-based grading using complete or weighted replacement in which a student’s mastery in one area is determined by his most recent grade, the practice of averaging these teacher ratings perturbs me.

Second, while the process has forced some of us to observe and give feedback more frequently, it has also become another bureaucratic exercise–so much so that where I work we’ve actually separated the observation/evaluation process and our coaching and peer feedback process. I’d love a world where the elements of coaching, support, real feedback and self reflection were companionable elements of a constructive and meaningful evaluation system.

However, what really concerns me is the possibility that focusing on the elements of the rubric could cause us to miss –or misunderstand–other events in the classroom. If radiologists–highly trained viewers–can miss a picture of a gorilla superimposed on slides they look at when searching for cancer, then it’s certainly not a stretch to think that educators might miss important classroom events, teaching practices or student actions when framing the observation in terms of a (very good) rubric only. What’s the solution? Observe with an open mind. Use partners who can observe with little or no preconceived notion of what to look for. Leave the rubric behind from time to time. Try video which allows the teacher –alone or with colleagues–to view and debrief by starting with what they noticed, staying low on the ladder of inference. Let’s just look, rather than looking for something.

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