Making the Grade is a series of blog posts written by teachers that charts the progress of evaluation roll-out in each of their school districts. The teachers will address what's working well and what remains a challenge, and will offer recommendations for getting the most out of new evaluation systems nationwide.
Today's blog post is by Carla Zils, a Boston Public Schools teacher.
"Okay, I got you Ms. Zils. It's kicking in now!"
Ah, the joy of teaching 8th grade algebra. And I don't use the word 'joy' lightly. These 'ah-ha' moments are what keep me in this profession.
As an 11-year veteran of teaching math at the Thomas A. Edison K-8 School in Boston, I know the challenges that go along with educating middle school students. The Edison has approximately 850 students representing 65 countries. Our students speak 23 languages; 98 percent of them receive free or reduced lunch.
This year, along with the ongoing classroom challenges of creating lesson plans and reaching all our diverse students' needs, Boston Public school teachers faced two new challenges: working towards proficiency under the new Massachusetts model system for educator evaluation, and implementing our curricula according to the new Massachusetts Common Core State Standards. As another school year wraps up in Boston, it's a good time for teachers like me to reflect on all the changes we've tackled this year.
Back in August, before school started for the students, our principal met with most of the Edison staff in the hot basement of our school to explain these new initiatives. She asked us to take deep breaths and try to embrace the changes waiting for us this school year. Suddenly, she opened an umbrella over her head and used it as a symbol to ease our anxiety regarding these changes. "Changes?" she asked. "Bring 'em on. We got this!"
But despite her assurances, my head was spinning when I left that meeting. I called a colleague to discuss my concerns. My friend reminded me that under the old evaluation system she had not been evaluated in four years; no classroom visits, no feedback, nothing. She was looking forward to being observed and improving her practice, but she was also nervous. I took her positive attitude as a signal that we were all going to learn from this and would ultimately become better teachers.
Though some have pushed back against these big changes, I myself have had a very positive experience. Teachers like me have been apprehensive--rightly so. But after a year, my experience has proven that the new system has the potential to bring about real school change.
The evaluation roll-out required a year-long commitment. In early September, we started by setting our school-wide goal of moving the bottom one-third of our students ten points by the end of the year. Then, in November, we came together to set grade-level goals. Teachers setting our own goals for our students and schools is a key part of the Massachusetts evaluation system--and one that has great value as a model for other states. This teacher-led goal-setting process really empowers teachers to make the best decisions for our students.
When I sat with my 8th grade team to begin crafting a student-learning goal that would support our schoolwide goal, I wasn't sure we could do it. Sitting around the table were math teachers, English teachers, special education teachers, English as a second language teachers, social studies and science teachers. With such a diverse group, each with our own curricula and style of teaching, how would we ever agree on one team goal? Our evaluations would hinge on our success. We discussed, brainstormed, and threw out dozens of 'what ifs' until a clear theme emerged: our students need stronger reading comprehension skills. As a veteran math teacher, my first reaction was, "What? A goal focused on literacy?? Our students need stronger number sense skills too." But taking my cue from the collaborative culture of my team, I began to shift my mindset and look more at the whole picture. What could I do in math class to strengthen students' reading comprehension skills?
My team's goal discussion, prompted by the new evaluation tool, was a springboard for positive changes in my teaching practice and positive outcomes for my grade level team. Our uniform grade level goal provided our team with a common language, enthusiastic sharing of best practices, learning and implementation of new strategies, and effective collaboration. As a math teacher, I learned about a specific reading comprehension strategy called close reading. I was able to observe my 8th grade colleague implementing this strategy in her English classroom and considered how I could incorporate it into my math class. I took on instructional risks to teach something totally new, and this self-challenge pushed my practice. Instead of fighting the new evaluation system, it became a way for me to try out powerful positive changes in my instruction.
In turn, my evaluator was able to collect data through classroom observations, observations at grade level meetings and interviews with my students. I received frequent, valuable feedback that fueled my fire to continue to become a better teacher even after 11 years of teaching. Because of the new system, I not only experienced changes in my own practice, but I saw other teachers make strides as well. As a teacher leader, I supported a colleague who had received a rating of "needs improvement" to improve her work, based on the prescriptives in her evaluation, and saw her receive a rating of "proficient" by the end of the school year. The hallways and staff rooms were buzzing constantly with conversations about artifacts, action steps, goal progress, and instructional risks.
In the spring, I circled back to my colleague who hadn't been evaluated in four years. I asked how it was going and shared my excitement about my experience with the new system thus far. Her reaction almost mirrored mine. Our conversation was peppered with shared tales of how this new, more comprehensive and engaging system was making us better teachers and ultimately making our students better learners. As much as I love witnessing my students' "a-ha" moments, I love it when my colleagues and I have them, too--and the new evaluation tool has given us plenty of them.
Carla Zils teaches at the Thomas A. Edison K-8 School in Boston Public Schools. She is a member of the Teach Plus Network.