Conversation is essential to evaluation

by Claude Oppenheim | Oppenheim Education Consultants & SchoolAdvice Affiliate  | c.oppenheim@schooladvice.net

Conversations make the evaluation process rich, meaningful, and credible.

When evaluating teaching, the evaluator must work to understand and appreciate, what the teacher is doing, and the reasons for the choices the teacher has made. While the reasons for some may seem obvious, many will not be. It is in the post-observation conversations that these will be explored.

Teaching is an exceedingly complex process. Any lesson comprises many teacher judgements: Most fundamentally, what is it that the teacher wants his students to learn? Of the universe of activities and materials that could be included in the lesson, which ones does the teacher judge will be most likely to help those particular students at that time most effectively achieve the lesson’s goal? Will activities be assigned to the whole class, individuals or groups? If there is to be group work, how will the groups be structured? How many students will there be in each? What factors will be considered in assigning students to groups? How much time will be allowed for each activity? Will a major activity be chunked into smaller components? And so on.

While conversations will help the observer better understand the rationale of the lesson, they will also often stimulate ideas for doing things differently. In my experience, those ideas more often come from the teacher rather than the evaluator. Alternative ideas emerging from the conversations does not necessarily imply that that there was anything “wrong” with what was done, or that the new ideas will be better, whether for some for all the students in the class. They may simply add to the teacher’s repertoire of approaches, providing for variety, or being useful in future situations.

While evaluators should be excellent teachers and should have a sufficiently deep and broad understanding of education and teaching to be able to appreciate the nuances of the teacher’s practice, an evaluator may not be a “better” or more knowledgeable teacher than the one she is working with. This is more often so when the teacher is very experienced and skilled, and/or has different subject and grade expertise than the evaluator. Conversations, particularly those immediately following observations, allow the evaluator to more fully appreciate what has taken place in the classroom.

Here’s how noted education consultant Patrick Flynn describes “collegial conversations:

“. . .targeted conversations with a teacher about practice to help support an evaluator’s understanding of what the teacher knows and is able to do and a teacher’s understanding about the type of practice that embodies the vision of teaching within a school.”
(Enriching Teacher Evaluation Through Artifacts and Collegial Conversation”, Revision Learning blog, April 21, 2014 , https://blog.revisionlearning.com/2014/04/21/enriching-teacher-evaluation-through-artifacts-and-collegial-conversation.)

Conversations also promote a “community of learning” element to the relationship between observer and teacher, demonstrate respect for the teacher’s expertise, and allow both to learn from the experience. The more collegial and relaxed atmosphere will tend to make the teacher less defensive and appreciative of the process rather than resentful of it. The feeling of mutual respect that develops will make the teacher more receptive to any suggestions that the evaluator might make, and more likely to consider implementing them.

It is inadequate, even arrogant, for an evaluator to simply rate items on some standard checklist and call that an evaluation. That is not to deny that checklists might be useful, but their completion should not be the central evaluation activity. I have used checklists to help remind me of important aspects of practice that I need to consider, and that I might otherwise ignore.

Charlotte Danielson, a recognized authority in the area of teacher evaluation, quoted a grade 4 teacher “Carla” compare her experience with a “checklist” evaluation and one involving meaningful conversation:

“Before, I had no idea what my principal was looking for—I had to be a mind reader! So I just played it safe, taught a familiar lesson, one I knew would go well—but did the process improve my teaching? Not at all! In my old school, the principal just came in with a checklist, but we never really talked. But this time, we had a great conversation about how to help my students want to write. It really made me think. As a result, I’ve got a new approach: I’m going to engage some students around the things they’re passionate about and have them try to convince their classmates about the value of such interests.”
(“Evaluations That Help Teachers Learn”, Educational Leadership, December 2010/January 2011, Volume 68, Number 4)

In the post-observation conversation, the observer might ask such questions as “I noticed that some groups were single gender, while other were mixed. On what basis did you assign students to groups?”
Or, “at the beginning of the lesson, the students seemed strongly engaged. Did you feel they were as engaged as the lesson progressed?”; “At what point of the lesson did their attention seem to wander?”; “What might be worth trying another time to keep the engagement strong?”, and so on.

Did you notice the tentative language of “what might be worth trying ?” It is so important to recognize that there are few guarantees about the efficacy of any teaching approach with a given student or group of students and at a particular time. Possibilities are being explored together. Directives are not being given. (Although directives are sometimes appropriate when there is clearly poor practice such as the teacher continually yelling or treating students disrespectfully. But in my experience, thankfully, one does not today very often encounter such situations.)

My formal evaluation process usually includes at least three full-lesson observations. I try to schedule those so that a conversation, typically of between half-an-hour and an hour, can follow each observation on the same day, ideally immediately following the lesson. Then the lesson is still fresh in both of our minds. Also, the teacher will want to know what the observer thinks about the lesson, and delays exacerbate anxiety.

Conversations demonstrate respect for the teacher’s expertise and strengthen the relationship between supervisor and teacher. It is impossible to imagine a good evaluation process without the integral role of meaningful conversations.

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