The Dog and Pony show

I’ve got my classroom observation coming up soon.  We only do them every three years for veteran teachers, so it’s been awhile for me.  I serve on the evaluation committee and have long been interested in teacher evaluation because it is a process fraught with errors and has potential to really harm a school’s culture and its teachers.  That being said, something that comes up all the time in regards to observations is the so-called “dog and pony show.”  There is such concern among school leaders that their evaluations are marred by these dog and pony shows rather than seeing the real thing.

Here’s the thing about these dog and pony shows.  If an observer watches a teacher put on a show and perform some excellent teaching, why is that a problem?  Doesn’t that indicate that the teacher can fulfill the expectations of the observer/leadership team?  If the school is pushing for student centered learning, and the produces a student centered lesson, bravo!  What that really means is that the teachers is capable of doing what is asked.

Of course the argument is that they aren’t doing this all the time.  To which I say, shouldn’t we ask why?  If teachers aren’t dong it all the time, doesn’t that indicate that they teacher does not feel that it is the right thing to do all the time for whatever reason?  Sounds to me like that is a leadership issue.  Instead of trying to subvert the observation system and “catch” teachers teaching improperly, leaders should be working on convincing teachers to do this all the time.  Fear of being caught is not going to make this happen.

If in your observations you are seeing a lot of “dog and pony shows,” maybe you should reconsider how you are selling your product.


Students shouldn’t study for tests

Last week I gave my juniors a test, and of course, the day before the test I reviewed what would be on it and its format, and in each class someone asked “how should I study for this?”  And it got me thinking, in some ways we are doing our students a disservice by telling them to study for the test.

When we tell students to study , we usually mean a couple of things: review your notes, or drill with flashcards, or practice problems again.  What are we really saying there?  When we tell students to study, aren’t we really telling them to read, and reread a bunch of facts/information?  Practicing problems (I’m thinking math here, but it applies elsewhere) is a bit different.  Shouldn’t tests be more than just reproducing facts and information?  or doing the same problems students have already done?

I don’t like to give a test until I am pretty confident that students know the material and can discuss it or work with it in some deeper way.  If you know it, you shouldn’t have to study it, right?

There is a place for “drill and kill” in schools.  Memorization is important to some extent.  Yes, you need to memorize verb conjugations in foreign languages.  Yes, you need to memorize the list of pronouns in English in order to do any more in-depth grammar.  That requires studying and students should be quizzed on their memorization, but the final summative test should include much more.  Students should be well past the memorization phase.

How do you study for my test?  You don’t.  You already know it.

Find successes to appreciate

One of the aspects about education that has always drawn my interest is what leaders do to attract, keep, and encourage great teachers.  An obvious means of doing this relates to praise and appreciation, and school leaders everywhere are looking at how best to show their appreciation of teachers while pushing for changes.  This is actually a pretty delicate task for school leaders: on one hand praise teachers for doing things well, but on the other hand push for massive changes in curriculum and teaching.

To that end, I was recently reading a blog post (I really should save these things so I can link to them, but I never think of it in the moment) written by a principal encouraging teachers to share their success stories.  He argues that by sharing your stories about what works well in your classroom, he and his administrative team can more easily praise and appreciate you.  After all, how can he praise your great accomplishments if he doesn’t know about them?

In some ways our current evaluation system at my school is set up on this model.  If a teacher wishes to strive for “distinguished” on the evaluation tool, the teacher must be able to provide evidence.    We aren’t required or even expected to be distinguished, but it is an option that teachers can strive for if they want to.

I struggle with this.  To me, there is a certain sense of humility with education.  I am reluctant to share my success stories.  That’s not to say that I never do, but I don’t generally like to broadcast what I think went well.  And often times when other teachers tell their stories, it comes across to me as bragging.  Maybe this is just me.  A legitimate question I have is: do other teachers feel this way?

School leaders have to do a lot.  There is no doubt about that in my mind.  And I say this as somebody who has not had the responsibilities of a school leader; I have only participated through an internship which obviously limits my exposure.  That being said, isn’t part of being an educational leader looking for what is worthy of appreciation?  Praise is far more meaningful when the leader sees something praiseworthy and acts upon it instead of me saying “look at what I did!”  I know leaders have very full plates, but isn’t this worth their time?  To find, appreciate, and encourage good teaching?  Actively doing so could change the entire culture couldn’t it?

I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t share their stories.  I’m not advocating that teachers take no responsibility for putting out their accomplishments, but don’t school leaders have a responsibility for finding those accomplishments as well?

Standardized testing

This week my students are busily working on the Smarter Balanced Test–the newest version of the state test for NH.  I’m lucky in that for the most part, my students are great and are taking the test seriously.  I’ve been teaching for 9 years now, and I have proctored some sort of standardized test every one of those years, and I haven’t always had students work so diligently.  NCLB became law while I was completing my undergraduate degree, so I have never known teaching without some form of standardized testing.  I’m going to be real honest; I’m not one of those teachers who absolutely hates standardized testing.  It is certainly inconvenient and there are definitely students who don’t put forth a great deal of effort, but the data can be meaningful. The people who make these tests know psychometrics better than the rest of us.  The questions go through a pretty thorough testing process generally to ensure validity and reliability.

BUT, my problem lies with how we use the data.  (What a great follow up to yesterday’s post).  It is currently April 16th, and testing in my school continues through Memorial Day.  We will not see the results (data) until well after that.  What am I supposed to do with such data at the end of the school year?!  Teachers can use this data if they have it early enough that they can actually make decisions based on it.  Think of how great that would be if we knew what areas our own students performed poorly in, so we could direct our lessons there.  Unfortunately, the data will come much to late for us to make these changes.

Is standardized testing flawed?  No doubt about it.  You can find a lengthy list of flaws and concerns very easily.  Could we do something meaningful with testing results in education.  Absolutely.  But we need to find away to get the data when we actually need it.


I just came back from a committee meeting on teacher evaluation.  We’ve been working to fine tune our evaluation document to really focus on teacher growth and giving meaningful feedback.  All the conversation got me thinking about what leaders do in regards to meaningful feedback.  There is seemingly this real emphasis on constructive crticism and having administrators and/or department heads work with teachers in their areas of weakness in order to grow as a teacher.  This sounds great in theory, but the practice seems to fall apart.  To me anyway, it seems to focus on the negative.

This led me to start thinking about the culture of schools and how leadership praises and recognizes their teachers.  As a teacher, how often are you sincerely praised for something you have done that is meaningful on an educational level?  I’m not taking being praised for planning the annual holiday party or a blanket email to the whole school vaguely thanking everyone for their work with some such initiative.  I’m talking real and honest praise for a job well done regarding something meaningful in terms of teaching.
Like any school, our department heads and administrators do walk throughs from time to time (though not nearly enough).  Twice I have received an email afterwords praising me in somewhat vague terms.  I guess this is better than nothing, but I truly believe a culture where praise is given often and specifically can make a huge difference in a school.  After a walk through a simple sticky note on the desk that applauds a teacher for something specific can make a huge difference in how that teacher preceives that administrator or department head.
As somebody who has recently received his Principal Certification, I think often about leadership.  Leadership and management are not the same–but that is an issue for a different day.  Leaders have an incredible effect on the culture of a school.  I truly believe that one way leaders can better the culture of a school is through more honest and specific praise.  Maybe this is asking leadership to change their mentality as they go through their day, but I think it’s an important change.  Maybe it seems minor in the grand scheme of the job, but the effect isn’t.  I’d like to see leadership make a more concerted effort to praise their faculty in meaningful way; I’m betting it would make a world of difference in making teachers feel appreciated which makes a world of difference in how the school operates day to day.