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Picking My Classroom Observation Poison

Not long ago, teachers could put their energy into student-centered questions as the new school year approached. Book choices, unit topics, and effective instructional strategies always topped my list. This year, the two professional development days that traditionally kick off the school year were far more focused on the teachers. At my school, the main dilemma discussed was how we prefer to be evaluated.

Legislators and State Education Commissioner John King decided on most elements of the city’s new teacher evaluation system, but schools can decide on some specifics, and one area of the evaluation system is left to teacher discretion:  the manner and number of observations. As I delved further into the details of the observation options to decide which I would choose, I came to the conclusion that the matter of observations resembles a Hobson’s choice: an ostensibly free choice in which only true option is offered.

In theory, teachers have two options. We may either choose a traditional formal observation coupled with three informals, or opt for six informal observations. Formal observations are planned in advance and last at least a full class period; informal observations are unannounced and usually shorter. Both types of observations, of course, will be based on the 22-point Danielson Rubric, so teachers will be evaluated on all 22 competencies contained in the rubric.

After mulling over the options myself, I decided that I would select the one formal and three informals option. I’ve had formals my entire teaching career, and I feel more comfortable with them because they offer opportunities for real feedback and growth. Additionally, formals could actually improve under the new evaluation system. Administrators are expected to conduct pre- and post-observation conferences, as they were expected to do before the new plan, but now they’re supposed to tell the teacher in advance the specific lesson they plan to observe.

In my school last year, all we were given was given a two-week window during which the formal could take place. Even that is preferable to my previous school, where the assistant principal would announce during the first gathering on the day after Labor Day that our staff meeting constituted the pre-observation conference for everyone in the building, and that formals could therefore be conducted at any time from then until the last day of school.

Since I was already more comfortable with formals, and they may improve under the new plan, I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to have six informals, the other option. I decided to ask around. I polled some of my current and former colleagues, and not a single one of them to this point has opted for the six informals. The reason why? Primarily, it’s fear.

One of my colleagues described the informals as “Russian Roulette.” She was concerned that with six drop-ins, there were bound to be a few when she wasn’t at her best. We all have off days, she told me, and if an administrator happens by on that bad day — if, for example, the lesson isn’t going as planned or students begin acting out — it could adversely affect the evaluation. She was also concerned that vindictive administrators might purposely drop in at the most inopportune times, such as the last period before vacations, or that they would visit only a teacher’s most unruly class. She felt that the formal observation route at least offered her one opportunity to be in control of most of the variables.

Another teacher expressed concern that informals might be too brief (they only need to last 15 minutes) for administrators to truly gauge the flavor and impact of a lesson. I share her concern. No single 15-minute observation could possibly hit all 22 points of the Danielson rubric. Although teachers may submit “artifacts” to demonstrate proficiency in any points not met, the short length of the informals adds a layer of complexity to an already stressful and cumbersome process. In addition, there’s less genuine conversation following an informal. Evaluators have the option of using email, a phone call, or even a passing remark in the hallway as a “post-observation discussion.” As a result, some teachers are concerned that they will not have enough feedback to improve their lessons for the next round of observations.

State officials say teachers are being given a say in how we’re evaluated. But least for me and the teachers I spoke to, it doesn’t feel like we’re choosing between two real options, since we can’t imagine anyone choosing informal evaluations.

What’s more, we haven’t been given enough time to explore this unfamiliar evaluation option to see if maybe it could work for us. Many educators, myself included, were asked to attend “Initial Planning Conferences” before our students even arrived this week and make what amounts to a binding decision about which option we prefer. This decision could potentially spell the difference between a decent evaluation and a poor one, or, in the long term, between keeping or losing one’s job. As such, teachers seem to be clinging to the one element that is at least familiar: formal observations.

Of course, this may not be a genuine Hobson’s choice. But that’s the way it feels. And as odd as it may seem to put your teacher-centered choices ahead of everything else, that’s where the state’s teacher evaluation system has led us. So I’ll pick my poison carefully. My career may depend on it.

Tim Clifford teaches English at a large neighborhood middle school in Queens. He is the author of several education books, as well as children’s fiction and non-fiction.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.