Know your role..And teach lights out: Understanding evaluation standards for improvement

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Like many other educators, I have always kept the essential question “What do I want students to know or be able to do?” in the forefront of the instructional decisions I make.  This is not uncommon, but what might be is the idea of whether or not educators (and leaders) really, truly, know their own criteria for what they should know or be able to do when it comes to the responsibilities of their profession.

Several years ago, Wisconsin rolled out its new Educator Effectiveness Model (evaluation tool), and as a teacher at the time, I still remember the confusing explanation of the ratios of rubric scores to objective setting and thinking, “Here we go again. The plane is still being built while already being flown.” At the time, there was concern about movement to pay for performance, teaching to a test, and the fear of a value-added model which, as most know by now, research says does little to improve student learning. My favorite study (of which the reference I cannot find) is one in which teachers in Tennessee were offered something like a $15,000 bonus if a certain percentage of their students attained benchmark/growth targets and not one teacher was able to collect. Of course, it wasn’t for lack of motivation or bad teaching, but there’s just so many variables when it comes to kids and learning. Perhaps this is best illustrated in Vollmer’s Blueberry story linked here.

What got lost in all this was the heart of the matter: let’s figure out a systematic way to give all teachers meaningful feedback and an opportunity to grow. When Wisconsin adopted their new model, schools began using one of two evaluation rubrics: Danielson’s Framework for Teaching or the “Goals and Roles Model” which is centered around Stronge’s Qualities of Effective Teachers, 2nd ed.

These are tools that I have gotten on board with because one of my personal beliefs is that the reason why school organizations, like Wisconsin’s,  needed to move to a more consistent, rigorous evaluation system was not because of ineffective teachers, but because of ineffective evaluators. If administrators had been getting into classrooms consistently looking for specific elements that impacted student success/learning and provided teachers with meaningful feedback for improvement, the ability to attack and argue about public schools employing “a bunch of bad, lazy teachers who can’t get fired because of tenure while the rest of the real world has it so much rougher” may not have come to exist. Imagine how different the landscape of education, teacher unions, collective bargaining, and health care (those Cadillac plans for public employees!) could look now, but I digress.

As I’ve evaluated and coached educators the last two years using the Danielson Framework, I have that rubric, and its expectations, burned into my brain. I also know that I would be a far better classroom teacher now than I was when I left the classroom because I know that rubric inside and out. In fact, some of the things that I know are great practices, I wish I could go back and try on a regular basis. Actually, what I really wish was that I had paid more attention to the rubric when I was being evaluated and focused on growing through that evaluative process. Perhaps some of that comes from having an administrator who is there to support you and help you grow in the classroom – which is what I strive to do for my staff every day. In the words of @Bethhouf and @Burgess_Shelley in Lead Like a Pirate,  it’s important to drop ANCHORs so teachers know they are valued, we, as leaders, add value to their work (through the evaluation and coaching process), and help push practice forward in the conversations we have with them about teaching and learning!

Every time I look at, or visualize, the descriptors in the teacher evaluation rubric, I get excited about the possibilities for teachers and students in the classroom. Check this out:

On Establishing a Culture for Learning:

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 11.27.28 AMOn Communicating with Students:

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On Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques:

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 11.27.57 AMOn Engaging Students in learning:

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On Using Assessment in Instruction:

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If educators get just close to implementing these descriptors, that is the kind of classroom I would want to be in as a teacher OR a student, and as an administrator, a school full of classroom with those attributes excites me to the core. Format of evidence collection and evaluative systems aside, when we get to the heart of what we are trying to achieve as educators, the potential level of student learning and achievement is thrilling to think about and ABSOLUTELY attainable. We just need to have urgency and be intentional about what we do, but that all starts with knowing the criteria in the first place. We have our “why?” – to make schools engaging places for learning. Now we need to be sure to focus on the “what?” and our “how?”

Take time to get to know your evaluation rubric, and don’t just jump hoops, know your role (or evaluative standards) and teach lights out!


Brain matters: Growth change, and thank goodness for neuroplasticity.

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“On every single day of school your students’ brains will be changing. When their brains change, so do their levels of attention, learning, and cognition. Whether they are changed for better or for worse depends heavily on the quality of the staff at your school.”

-Eric Jensen

In education research and practices today, I feel like the term metacognition and whether a lesson allows students to “think about their thinking” is a bit of a buzzword. I don’t mean that negatively, I just state it as fact. After all, that level of cognition usually leads to deep engagement in content, and authentic, meaningful learning experiences – the gold standard of education and what we strive toward. It dawned on me, however, that while we are asking students to think about thinking and to notice how that thinking changes through reflection, we may overlook the fact that in that process, their brains are changing too. We are cultivating knowledge, skills, actions, and a way-of-being through physical development of neuropathways that has a significant impact on who students are and who they can, or will, potentially become.

In the context of Jensen’s statement, which comes from his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, he speaks about the impact adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have on a child’s brain development, how poverty tends to amplify the frequency of those experiences, and how schools can work with families to change the negative impact. What was striking to me about what he wrote was that I began to think about how much my brain has changed through my life experiences, and how those experience have shaped me into the person, educator, and leader that I am now. I’ve never really taken the time to fully understand the impact this has had on me as a person on a wholistic level (mind, body, and soul, if you will). Furthermore, this sudden realization made my understanding of Jensen’s work even deeper and increases my urgency to ensure I am creating an environment that meets the social and emotional needs of students so that their brains are ready to move past survival and onto learning.

I remember beginning an assignment as a high school band director a few years ago, and coming realizing the impact my practices and interactions with students had on them and, (now) subsequently, their brains. I was a really good teacher, understood good pedagogy, set clear expectations for students, and built really solid relationships/culture with them. So I thought.

I can be an intense person at times (those who know me well, I’m sure, would agree), and I noticed that on evening of the first concert, my ensemble members were really tense, anxious, and even a little nervous. It isn’t uncommon for young musicians to have butterflies before a performance so I didn’t think anything of it. The concert went well (so we thought), but when we listened to the recording as a reflective exercise a few days later, the overall sound quality wasn’t good, and I could hear that tension in the tone of their instruments. Students also heard the less than stellar tone quality, and I knew when I saw the disappointment on their faces that something different needed to be done.

A few weeks later,  a colleague gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received as a teacher when he told me, “I don’t know what you do with those kids, but I have never seen a group of students want to work so hard or be so good for a teacher.” At the time, I thought about that on two levels. 1) I was proud of the relationships I built with those students and how quickly I done so, and 2) I asked myself if I had inadvertently created a stressful or toxic environment in which students were so desperate to not let me down, it caused their performance to suffer. That compliment, and reflective question that came from it, led me to take a new approach to the performance elements of my discipline which I always held secondary to the musical growth I wanted my students to experience anyway.

We began focusing on breathing and fundamentals more to establish good habits and routines that would override any anxiety or stress. This was in response to the fact that when people experience higher pressure situations, they default back to the unconscious, and usually destructive, habits they have. Building coping mechanisms was important. I also never again let students play an entire piece during the dress rehearsal before the concert so that A) they wouldn’t burn out/get fatigued, and B) we could create a healthy excitement about getting to finish the polished work. The students would get so mad because they would be playing so well that morning or day before, and I would cut them off right before the end, I’d only let them start in the middle, or we wouldn’t even play their favorite measures. This built a fun suspense for what was to come on concert night. It was a healthy anticipation of showing off our hard work as opposed to the notion that everything we’d done has led up to this one moment and if we don’t get it right (fill in the rest). Finally, I emphasized to always live in the moment of the music and focus on what you see, hear, and feel around you.

Was this approach right or the best way to go about making change? Maybe or maybe not, but we got the results we wanted. The ensemble improved immensely, I grew enormously as their teacher, we had more fun, accomplished more, and most importantly, students had a healthier image of performance preparation and developed coping skills for high pressure situations which some told me they used for presentations in other classes. Winner!

The point in all this is that, as educators and leaders, the experiences we create each day in our schools or classrooms have a truly profound impact on brain development, thinking, and the type of people around us become. And it goes far beyond academics. This gives a whole new meaning to the term “learning environment” or “school culture.” As Jensen points out, it comes down to the quality of the educators, or people, we and our students encounter. As relational beings, we can develop the habits of those around us, and it is important to the take the awareness of who we are, and the impact we have, to a whole to level so we understand that we aren’t just shaping thinking, we are shaping brains that are impressionable, moldable, and need to be guided in a healthy direction each and every day.

Here are some questions to ask about changing thinking and changing brains:

Have I taken the time to get to know others, understand who they are, and what their needs are?

Am I truly creating a positive, healthy environment for my staff and students?

Am I teaching or leading with empathy to move people forward?

Am I modeling and helping others develop good habits and routines?

Am I appreciating the fact that the human brain is malleable and that many struggles can be overcome?

Do I understand the power I have to help myself and others change for the better?


Stephen Schwartz: For Good from the musical “Wicked

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow





Build the puzzle, but…about those pieces?


Confession: I am a planner through and through. So knowing my first day as principal would be Monday, July 3, a day in which many of the year round district employees would be on vacation (and rightfully so) meant I was going to do some serious legwork ahead of time to ensure the first day would get off to a smooth start.

  • Appointment with HR to get my credentials and secure a district ID and keys for my building. Check.
  • Complete the necessary forms as soon (and as diligently!) as possible to ensure payroll and benefits would be in order. Check.
  • Meeting with retired principal and my new supervisor featuring building tour and lunch to ask questions about current school/district procedures, school strategic plan, and teaching and learning. Bam!
  • Plan to meet with the I.T. department to access to email, staff intranet, and other online portals to understand the district landscape of teaching and learning. Nailed it.
  • Night before: Load car with personal effects and a few tools for hanging wall art. Check.
  • Make lunch for the day (or lunches for the whole week). Overachieving now.
  • Load iPhone with education podcasts (50 minute commute). Smooth operator.

So imagine my surprise when I arrived bright and early to school Monday morning, enter the building (keycard works. Oh yeah!), take out the office door key, put it in the lock and…it DOESN’T WORK.  So much for plan A. Now, truth be told, it wasn’t a big deal because one of the custodians was on the grounds mowing the lawn and he kindly let me in to the office; however, when you are on the “world-beater high” thinking about all of the things that you are going to accomplish  – where you’ll start, what you’ll do, who you’ll contact first, making sense of that picture you can’t even see yet? –  you run the risk of getting checked right at the door. In this case, literally and figuratively.

It was a beautiful morning, and I really enjoyed my extra walk across the playground to greet my custodian and ask him to please let me in. We also had a great conversation about the history of building locks and keys. In a way, that conversation set the tone for a fantastic day working with great people on a weirdly timed Monday before district shut down for Independence Day.  By the way I think the unofficial theme of the day was “Let me check if they are here today.” Here’s how the day turned out:

The facilities personnel explained the situation with the keys, and in this case, patience turned out to be my answer. The Human Resources personnel I met with today pointed me in the right direction to get my IT and finance questions answered. The information services (IT) personnel went above and beyond to ensure my login credentials were in order and contacted my school support technician about my computer (since I didn’t have one in my office yet). The technician, who splits time in my building and another, came from the other building early to meet with me adjusting their whole day’s schedule and set up, not one but, TWO computers for me to use. The finance personnel answered my payroll questions, and last but not least, I had a great conversation with the communications department about the school’s webpage and use of social media. They even updated my school’s page late this afternoon after I put in an upload request.

Through all this, I was reminded of a few things:

  • It’s all about people and relationships. If you make plans, and they go awry, something or someone can get you back on track and/or help develop a new plan. (My custodian unlocked my office door.)
  • If you go out of your way to smile, ask questions, and get to know others, they will go out of their way to help you. (The IT department got my access, set up 2 computers and communications updated my school webpage).
  • If you aren’t sure where to start, just make a choice and the rest will fall in line. (I went to HR and they contacted other departments who were ready when I got there.)

You don’t always need to have all the pieces to see a complete picture because if you seek the help of others, they can bring pieces that can fill in the gaps. Keep in mind everything fits together when it needs to, and with a balance of organization, flexibility, and sincere, genuine consideration of others, an unexpected situation can be a opportunity for great things to happen.

I’m excited for what’s to come on day 2, and I want to end this post with a question:

What pieces were you missing on your first day, and how did things come to fit together?