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Mindset & Motivation, Productivity Strategies, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Nov 10, 2021

10 tips to relieve stress around teacher evaluations and ditch the dog-and-pony show

By Cindy Shapiro

Teacher & Instructional Coach

10 tips to relieve stress around teacher evaluations and ditch the dog-and-pony show

By Cindy Shapiro

This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Cindy Shapiro.

Being evaluated feels personal because you care deeply about what you’re doing. How could you not?  You spend countless hours working on lesson plans, grading, PLCs and data — not to mention the time you spend in the classroom interacting with students, striving to meet their needs. Of course it’s personal. Teaching is one of those careers that becomes a part of your personality and your identity — it’s not like being an accountant.

Right now, we are in a persistent era of high-stakes accountability. Post-COVID, this will likely get worse as more politicians sound the rallying cry of “learning loss” to drum up test preparation without raising teacher salaries. What this means is it is more likely for more emphasis to be put on the teacher evaluation, both for what can be observed in the classroom, as well as what can’t: data and test scores.

But don’t cry — not yet.

Observable behaviors sound well and good — but let’s be realistic: you may only be observed once or twice in a school year for 45 minutes a pop — a mere speck on the continuum of time spent working with students. It’s maddening — how can you be marked down for something that wasn’t observed when you’re hardly ever observed?

The way to go beyond survival and move towards triumph is to be strategic — and to shift your attitude.

My challenge to you: ditch the dog-and-pony show. Picture it: the week before, your evaluator schedules your observation — it will be on Tuesday during your fourth period class.  That week, you spend several hours designing and perfecting your lesson plan — this will hit every observable point on the rubric, you think to yourself. And then Tuesday’s fourth-period class arrives. And nothing. There you are, teaching your spectacular lesson — and no one arrives to see it. Later that afternoon, you get a terse email: there was a situation in the office. Let’s reschedule for next week — time and day to be determined.

And here’s another situation: any teacher who is on Facebook has seen this post in a collegial group: “Help me!  My evaluator is coming tomorrow and I need a really good lesson plan on XYZ!  Please share your best!”  The stress that teacher is radiating is fierce — but she’s going about it all wrong. Using someone else’s plan to ace an observation is disingenuous — and while it could result in positive feedback, it won’t mean much.

Instead, I challenge you to be ready for your evaluator to walk through your classroom door any old day of the week. And instead of reacting in fear, you react in smug satisfaction, thinking, Oh, it’s you!  Good — now I can show you how it’s done; I look forward to hearing what you have to say. That’s how it should be.

To learn how to go from tears to triumph, try these 10 actionable tips:

1. Make each and every day of class count.

Every single day that students show up to be in your classroom, there should be a purpose. This purpose should be identified per your grand plan (backwards design) that you (and hopefully, your colleagues) decided at the beginning of the year, after prioritizing your curriculum and taking into account your students’ needs. And no, your purpose may not always be academic: you must make time for building classroom community, too.

2. Know your students.

Yes, know them as people and care about them as people, but also know more: who is a strong reader and needs more of a push? Who struggles with supporting their thinking in writing? Who is great with reading fiction, but struggles with identifying claims in informational writing? You should know this. Being armed with this information and being able to articulate it will not only make you a powerhouse of differentiation and helpfulness in the classroom, but it will also impress your evaluator. You know what everyone needs, and you’re striving to meet those needs. What’s not admirable about that?

3. Be proactive.

You may be incredibly creative. You may have the coolest lesson plans of a PBL unit that would make the Buck Institute weep for joy and awe. But if you don’t tell anyone, it lives only with you and your students. You have to say something. No one will know about that guest speaker you have Zooming in to your classes on Tuesday if you don’t drop your evaluator an email a few days in advance and invite them to join you. Hopefully, they’ll find a few minutes to drop by and revel in your awesomeness. But even if they don’t, you just did a thing — you invited them in — and you let them know that you’ve got amazing learning experiences for kids going on in your classroom.

4. Create a Hyperdoc where you periodically link in some of your very best work.

This may sound peevish, but a body of evidence can be helpful at a post-observation conference. And really, it only takes a few minutes a couple of times a week, or maybe you just do it monthly.

Start by creating a Google Doc and title it “Body of Evidence” or something similar — something easy to remember and search for later on. You can get fancy, or you can keep it simple: create a three-column table and label the first column “Title,” the second column “Description,” and the third column “link.” You could also add a column for “Reflection,” if you wish. You can get fancier than that if you like, adding in standards and such, or you could start with the set of standards for your content and fill in your personalized chart as you go, linking in lessons that meet various ones. That’s up to you. But how this Doc serves you is that when post-conference time rolls around, you have something you can share with your evaluator to demonstrate certain things they may not have seen in person, and you also have a record of what you did that year, so that next year, if you are teaching the same subject and grade level, you can refer back to it and tweak, as needed. Of course, if all of this sounds too techie for you, you can use the old-fashioned manila folder approach, and bring your collection of papers with you to their office when the time has come. But let’s be honest: these days, no one wants to rifle through a set of papers.

5. Be reflective.

As I mentioned before, you could reflect in a column on your Hyperdoc, or you could keep a one-liner journal, either online, in a little notebook, or directly in your lesson planning book, if you use one. Limit yourself to two lines: one for positives of the lesson and one for things to change for next time, if you were to do it again. You can also grade or rate yourself, if you wish. Being reflective and having a growth mindset is oftentimes something an evaluator is looking for. Also, if things don’t go exactly as planned in a particular lesson and it happens to be the one your evaluator observed, be open about it. Discuss how you had to pivot or adjust your plan to meet the needs you saw that popped up. We all know that teaching is not done in a vacuum — you have to be flexible. In fact, this characteristic is often part of the criteria an evaluator is looking for.  It’s called responsive teaching.

6. Give them something to look for.

Be upfront about your goal for the year — what are you seeking to improve, learn, or implement? You can skim your evaluation documents from the year before and pick out a particular indicator to work on, if you like. Maybe you are working on empowering student discussion in your class. Maybe you’re looking to improve collaborative groups. Or you’ve decided to give PBL a try after spending some time learning about it. Be open and tell your evaluator early in the year, maybe during your pre-observation meeting at the beginning of the year, if your school does that. Make sure it’s a genuine goal for you, and something you’re looking to improve in your teaching practice, to make it so it’s worthwhile for you.

7. Seek feedback.

If you get observed, whether scheduled or in drive-by fashion, approach your evaluator later on, or send a quick, friendly email to solicit feedback.  Show them that you want to grow.  You can say something like, “Thanks for visiting today!  I’ve been working on XYZ, and I’m really proud of ABC.  I’d love to get your feedback!”  By focusing the conversation on areas you care about, that can help make your feedback meaningful.  And isn’t that the point?

8. Ask for resources.

Think of it this way: when a student gets an essay back and the teacher writes, “Work on your organization,” but offers no help or examples, is the student going to improve? Probably not. The same goes with teaching — if you aren’t provided with resources, whether it’s PD, a book study, observing a teacher who does XYZ well, or coaching — how can you possibly be expected to grow? Approach your evaluator early in the year and say, “Hey, can you help me locate resources or help with XYZ? I’m really interested in learning how to apply it well in my classroom.” And of course, they should say yes. If they don’t, raise one eyebrow and go ask your colleagues or another administrator, or better yet, your instructional coach, if there is one. But don’t do nothing.

9. On the day of your evaluation, stay calm.

Relax — I’ve had police officers who deal with domestic cases and armed criminals tell me that they would be scared to teach. You do this every single day. You’ve got this. And it is just one day. If it goes south, be responsive. Remember: nobody’s perfect. And teaching is not about controlling learning, it’s about inspiring and guiding students to help them learn. If your observation doesn’t go the way you’d hoped, ask your evaluator to come back to see you again soon. Be open as to what didn’t work and how you would fix it, if you had it to do over again.  But don’t be so nervous you can’t be yourself. Instead, try to shift your mindset — be proud of yourself. Here you are, a badass teacher, helping society move a few notches forward. Celebrate yourself and be confident in the good work that you do.

10. Care less about your rating.

Now, I know — that sounds like crazy talk. How can you possibly care less about something that you care so much about? I’m not suggesting that you care less about teaching — I’m suggesting that you not get fixated on getting the highest score or the highest rating every single time. You know what — all teachers have at least one “highly effective” moment in their classroom each year — but you know how it goes: If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Who cares is the correct answer. Not all evaluators score a rubric the same way — subjectivity is rampant, as teaching is more art than science. Ever walk into a teacher’s room and five seconds into it you’re smiling?

Some elements of good teaching go beyond the rubric. You need to care less about what one person has to say about your teaching practice, and care more about what your students have to say. Want to know how you’re doing? Ask your students. You can give them a survey, whether written or on Google Forms, anonymous or not, and you’ll get a good indication of how you’re doing. Make sure to carefully craft your questions to allow for clear, useful information. Make it a habit to give your surveys a few times a year, when it’s still actionable.

If you only survey your students at the end of the year, you’ve lost an opportunity to help that group of students. And don’t worry — they won’t be vicious or cruel. If they know that you care about them and how they are learning, they will tell you what you’re doing well, and what they need. And if one little booger throws in a backhand, toss that one student’s answers out and focus on what the grand majority are telling you. They will be honest, and it will motivate you to grow, as a teacher. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

I’m not going to lie — someday, somewhere, you may have a bad experience with an evaluator. It may be that the evaluator doesn’t believe that anyone is ever effective until the day they die. Shame on them. Teaching is not about perfection; teaching is about learning — for students and for the teacher. I once knew a teacher who had been so beaten down by her evaluator over the years that she refused to open her evaluation to look at it. She had been broken by the process, and cried every year when she got her results. That shouldn’t happen.

Clearly, there had been a serious breakdown in the purpose of the evaluation cycle with her, and her distrust and fear of her evaluator was palpable. I hope by providing you with this list of strategies to try, you’ll never be in her position. And if you find yourself there, it may be time to reevaluate your situation at your school, or perhaps even consider a career change. No one deserves to be beaten up at work. Especially not when the work is as hard as teaching.

Teacher, you are awesome, and you can and will do amazing things with your students. Take pride in what you do, and remember: teaching is always about growth and learning — and not just for the students. You’ve got this — just make sure to arm yourself with approaches that will help you triumph rather than bring you to tears.

Cindy Shapiro

Teacher & Instructional Coach

Cindy Shapiro has been a teacher since 2001, with a two-year stint as an instructional coach, too. She believes in the work that teachers do, and is a big believer in collaboration and the power of "we." In 2020, she...
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