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When Indiana’s new teacher evaluation law passed, educators across the state had fairly similar reactions. Being the assigned person in our district to lead the implementation of the new evaluation process required by law, I got to hear most of those reactions personally.

Many teachers expressed anxiety about having someone in their classroom frequently evaluating their every move. They also worried about their student data being compared and that the new system would cause less collaboration as colleagues vied for merit pay bonuses. School administrators had different anxieties. They were absolutely frantic about having to add 6-10 more hours of observations, pre and post conferences, assessment approval work and data analysis to the packed schedules of each staff member.

The overall expectation was that nothing good could possibly come from all of this additional required work. We thought we knew everything there was to know about our teaching practices. More importantly, we thought this process would entail a lot of hoop jumping for nothing in return.

We were wrong. Not wrong on all counts. There is a ton of additional work that goes into observing each teacher multiple times a year: scripting the entire process, rereading and matching what happened to a detailed rubric that breaks complex human performance into smaller steps, and setting, monitoring, and reviewing data on student performance and achievement levels.

What we were wrong about was that the new process and workload would not be beneficial. It has. A few of my colleagues still believe that some data collected simply validates what their professional instincts already told them about the effectiveness of the teachers they screened, hired and watched for years. However, nearly all would agree that the new process changed our collegial language and upped the bar for holding ourselves accountable as professionals – both those performing in the classroom and those evaluating the performance.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard many colleagues in districts across the state say vaguely, “Well, I don’t know if the results are all that different than we thought under this new system, but we’re having some really good conversations.” What does that mean? What does it look like? A conversation doesn’t sound like much of an outcome for the staggering effort…

In our school district, this means we took the state’s RISE rubric at the end of our first year of implementation and revised it with a level of attention that defines what good practice is. This means that every month for the last two years, a team of twenty-two of our school administrators gather for a few hours. Each gathering, they look at videos of teachers teaching across our district and thoughtfully discuss what they think is effective or needs improvement about the performance.

Our conversations might sound like the following. “You’re the only one who marked that as highly effective. Why do you think that’s highly effective? He’s using a graphic organizer projected on the board. Our indicator says ‘utilizes technology as a tool in ways that significantly increase student engagement, extend learning and access unique resources, the way he’s using it doesn’t do that.’ Okay, I see what you mean. But for him this is a real step toward technology use, so I think it’s important to be encouraging.”

Or something like, “Well, his use is effective according to the rubric. See here? It says, ‘Integrates technology as a tool when appropriate to deliver information,’ but the next step might be to help him engage the kids more. Could you get someone to help him learn more about the Smart Board or could he go watch someone who’s using it well?”

While we’re talking about the clips of our teaching staff and their practice, we want to recognize that our school district is seeing a part of teaching we never did before. For example, while on quick classroom walkthroughs or during annual “what were your goals and how did it go?” conversations. We’ve been dissecting the craft we all learned and love. We share a language for talking about expectations and possibilities. As leaders, we’ve had discussions about what it looks like for work given to students to be “meaningful” or “rigorous.” We’ve argued if it matters to have the goal or objective of a lesson on the board if no one bothers to talk to the students about it. We’ve defined what it means to use anchor charts effectively vs. just creating them. We’ve discussed whether it matters if a teacher asks open-ended questions without leaving much wait time for students to think about the answers or guide them to ask their own back. We’ve also been asking deep questions from teachers about their leadership, planning, assessment practices and families.

These are just some of the conversations we’ve had among our relatively small leadership team here at Zionsville Community Schools. Each of those leaders will then go and have five or more similarly detailed conversations about instructional practice during the course of the year based upon multiple in-depth observations of them in action. The data we collect in those observations often drives the conversations, as do the protocols for our beginning, middle, and end of year conferences.

The process may be time consuming and tedious to gather and reflect on the data. It can even be uncomfortable at times to be honest about practices that need change, but the conversations really pay an honor to the complex and challenging work that is teaching. Conversations are the true “merit pay” of this new system.

Jenny Froehle, a district administrator in Zionsville Community Schools, wrote this article. She has served in a variety of district roles including high ability coordinator, teacher evaluation project leader, facilitator of leadership team training, and coordinator of various district communications, policy, grant writing, professional development, and curriculum projects. For the past three years, Jenny has been the district’s leader of the transition to compliance with new state laws regarding teacher evaluation/compensation. In that role, she serves as secondary evaluator for eighty teachers, oversees all evaluation procedures for the district’s 350+ staff members, trains the district’s evaluators and liaisons with the IDOE and district legal counsel regarding evaluation policy/procedures.

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