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Taken By Surprise

Amethyst Hinton Sainz Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Uncategorized

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One joy of parenthood is a surprise from your children. More than once I have come home to a miraculously clean kitchen, or a “restaurant” in my honor. I love it when my kids make big plans behind closed doors. They worry I will ruin the surprise by peeking. But I like surprises! I go out of my way not to spoil the fun, and they know it.

However, some things should not be a surprise, namely a teacher’s evaluation and next steps. Having changed schools three times in the past seven years, it has become very important to me to receive ongoing feedback from my evaluator.

I never worried about evaluations for my first fifteen or so years of teaching. Like everyone, I felt the pressure to plan a great lesson for pre-scheduled observations, and I did get butterflies. But I never really worried about the outcome, because I felt valued and worked hard.

My assistance and feedback came largely from my peers, the people from whom I would beg, borrow and steal so that I could try their ideas in my classroom. Those were the days. Career ladder is long-gone, and the time and freedom it takes to develop authentic critical friends groups has been replaced in many schools by more prescribed data teams and Professional Learning Community models. Still, my colleagues provide much needed guidance and resources.

In the past, I never worried about the evaluation process, because I worked hard, but also because evaluations were somewhat of a formality. During those years, the only times anyone came by to give me feedback were the scheduled observations and minimum number of walk-throughs. Unless I had completely alienated myself from my students and colleagues, I could predict that I would end up “effective” (three on a four-point scale, proficient) like pretty much everyone else.

Things are different now. Administrators are encouraged to make the evaluation process more meaningful and more evidence-based. They are held more accountable for this, and I’m guessing they feel pressure to make sure that not everyone has the same “effective” score. I’m guessing that in this age of continuous improvement, administrators feel that they need to do more to use data to show improvement over time. The idea is to help teachers develop professionally, and also I suppose, to weed out the very few teachers that really shouldn’t be in the classroom.

None of this is really a problem, and in fact, most of these changes are probably good things, provided that one crucial piece is in place: Ongoing feedback. Having been through a variety of evaluation processes, I know what it feels like to have an administrator who springs an individual plan of improvement on me without having ever let me know about his or her concerns. I felt how a student in my class might feel who is working day and night on my classwork, hands everything in, does not receive any graded work back, and then receives an “F” on the report card. It felt like an ambush, especially when questions or concerns could have been addressed early on.

Our mindset frames how we see situations. Who knows how many observations in my classroom were framed within the concerns and questions this person had never voiced to me, thereby denying me a voice and an opportunity to improve?  I certainly don’t know, because those conversations never happened, at least, until I was forced into backflips to document my effectiveness.

Take that same situation, and insert ongoing feedback, beginning back when the administrator’s first concerns occurred. It is hard to say how the situation would have played out in the end, but I would bet that I would not have felt betrayed. I bet that I would have had a more positive relationship with the administrator in question, with my academic coach, with my department, with my principal… and probably even with my students. Because when a teacher has her legs cut out from under her, the blow to her confidence must have a ripple effect on her practice.

I bet that if I had had feedback early on that year, I would have chosen to stay at that school.

This year, I have had the benefit of ongoing feedback. If my evaluator does a walk-through, he drops me a note. If my evaluator has questions about the way I handle a discipline issue, he asks me. I have even asked that if there are any concerns, I would really appreciate a conversation. And so far, no surprises. I know there must be incredible demands on the time and attention administrators can devote to these processes, but I am more convinced than ever that ongoing feedback for teachers is crucial. For me, every year teaching is a year of personal and professional growth, and all the people around me contribute to those processes, if they choose to.
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I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years. My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM. In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me. I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

  • Sandy Merz

    I can honestly say that outside of my first year or so, I’ve never had a meaningful evaluation,I get no ongoing feedback from any administrator who observes me. I don’t blame the admin team – they are swamped putting out fires – often related to problems in other classes, and I pretty much have control over my teaching and classroom. But still in nearly thirty years, it’d be nice to have someone come by and watch and coach.