Teacher Evaluations

I recently received an email from a teacher out of my state concerning her upcoming teacher evaluation.  I'm not going to copy her message, as it was surprisingly honest and vulnerable.  I will say that what it portrayed to me was beyond frustration, but more of a sad complacency in her position as an educator in an inclusion environment where she felt unsuccessful connecting with the students and general education teachers.  She was most concerned with her disappointing teacher evaluations that may lead to her losing her job.

Obviously, the ultimate goal is not to pass the evaluation, but a passing evaluation is an indication that you are meeting the ultimate goal of being a successful teacher.  Reading between the lines, I saw weak relationships with coworkers and a lack of rapport with students, and there are many different factors that can lead to this kind of a situation.  The pass or failure of an evaluation is only a symptom of a bigger problem.  Still, when it comes down to maintaining a job, evaluations can be very stressful.

I don't know the specifics of this teacher's situation, but I do know that there are some things that teachers can do to make themselves better at their profession, and in turn, it will reflect in their evaluations.  Essentially, it comes down to communication, clarification, self-evaluation and of course, planning enriching lessons.
Evaluations can be very stressful for special education teachers for a few reasons.  First, the evaluation systems used by most states are written to evaluate general education teachers.  In Texas, teachers receive two 15-minute evaluations and one 45-minute evaluation each year.  The 15-minute evaluations can happen any time during the year, unexpected, and the 45-minute observation happens any time within a two week window.  There are many, many things on the checklist that the administrators look for, and they go down the checklist while they're in your classroom observing.  Here are a few thoughts that might go through the special education teacher's head:

1.)  If I'm an inclusion or co-teacher, I hope the administrator comes when I'm in the room with the teacher who allows me to collaborate, and not the teacher who doesn't want me in the room and treats me like an assistant.

2.)  If I work with students with significant behavior needs, I hope they don't come in right after a student has had several morning meltdowns and the only thing that keeps them calm is sitting on a bean bag.  Oh no, I don't want someone to come in and see kids sitting around, but I spent all morning diffusing aggressive behaviors or emotional outbursts, and they are finally content & using their calming strategies.  If I try to teach this student right now, he'll explode.  Please, oh please, don't do my observation right now!!

3.)  If I'm a resource teacher, I'm not going to hit barely any of the check boxes that they want to see.  I'm supposed to be teaching very scripted programs.  These programs are designed to be scripted and repetitive because data has shown that this is what this group of students needs.  Still, I'm going to get knocked for not using technology, for not using creativity, for not.....you fill in the blank.  This is the job I have, but I'm set up for failure with my evaluation.

So, we're going to be graded off of a system designed for general education teachers.  That's the way it is until there is more CHANGE.  How do we cope until that change goes into effect?  I'm going to give a few suggestions, and none, one or more may apply to you.

COMMUNICATION

"My students don't want to be called out." (from her email)

This is a hard one the older students get.  Students absolutely don't want to be singled out as special education students around their general education peers.  Believe it or not, this is even an issue in a specialized support setting, but it is one of the biggest challenges in inclusion.  You're trying to tackle a huge social hurdle.  Some students would rather fail than have you near their desk.  This is so frustrating for teachers who know how much support their students need.  How is it possible to be discreet?  Well, you definitely don't want to pull them out of the classroom.  That's even worse.  To be successful, you have to be the teacher available for all students in the classroom.

I encountered this issue as a co-teacher.  I made it a point to initially spend just as much or even more time with the general education students.  I made every attempt to not park a chair next to anyone.  Even when I could see one of the students in special education struggling with an assignment, I knew I had to build rapport with the whole class in order to be embraced and effective.  It also helped me to build rapport with the general education teacher.  When the entire class saw me as a resource, I slowly began to spend a little more time with the students who needed my time without having as aggressive of an approach.  I was available to ALL students.

Now I know the cynics will chime in with the fact that this will limit their ability to collect the data they need to collect on certain students.  If the students you're supposed to be supporting are rejecting your help, are you really collecting good data anyway?  Be subtle and sneaky :)  Just like your own kids at home, don't let anyone know which one is more challenging.  Love them all.

"...nor does the regular ed. teacher want me in the classroom." (from her email)

Whew.  This one stings.  As a former co-teacher in an inclusive environment, I understand how this can happen.  In a perfect world, we would be provided lesson plans by all general education teachers the week before, along with all assignments and assessments, so that we can review the week and have time to individually accommodate for every student.  We don't live in a perfect world.  It's very difficult to be effective when we don't know what's planned, and we're somewhat dependent on the general education teacher's plans in order to do our jobs successfully.  These tiny points of tension can build a wedge between teachers.

Still, there are other reasons why the general education teacher might not want you in the room.  Here are a few personality profiles that we may work with:

1.)  I've begged for more support in my room and I love that you're here, but I just don't have the time to get you the plans and assignments early.  I post them right before 8am Monday morning.  I hope you have time to look at them before class.

2.)  This is MY room, and I'd rather not have other teachers in here.  I work best on my own, and I don't like to collaborate.  Those students over there are special needs, so that's where you can put your chair.

3.)  I'm excited you're here and we're going to be a great team!  ...oh wait, a student with behavior needs is requiring your time elsewhere?!?!  You can't do that!  What are we going to do here without you?!?!  You've abandoned us!!!!  The principal said you need to be with that student?  Well, you better figure out a way to get another teacher in here!!!

4.)  Your time is spent in so many rooms that you couldn't possibly be effective anywhere.  To me, you're an assistant, because you either don't have the knowledge to teach general education, or you don't have the time to prepare for what you need to do in my room.  Sorry.  Your job is useless.  I'm not going to utilize your talents.

5.)  There's a personality conflict.  I don't really want to work with you.

As a special education teacher in any of these scenarios, you may want to scream out, "I can help these kids!  I can do this!!"  A lack of communication is a roadblock, and this will eventually decrease the morale and feeling of worth for any teacher.

I want to point out that it goes both ways.  The only way to improve upon these situations is by being completely honest about the various situations that teachers are put in on many, many campuses.  To be fair, I'll point out some vents I've heard about special education teachers from general education teachers.

1.)  I never know what time the special education teacher will be here.  If I could depend on them, then I could plan their instruction for lessons.

2.)  The special education teacher who comes into my room just sits in a chair and doesn't say anything.  They don't seem to be passionate about their job.  They don't know the kids or what they need.  I really don't know how to work with them.

3.)  The special education teacher in my room seems like a great person who is excited to help, but I don't think they know what they're talking about.  They don't know the strategies that I'm trying to teach the students, and they make more work for me than they do help.

4.)  The special education teacher who comes into my room has a very limited understanding of their role as a teacher.  They think it's only to answer questions, only to administer tests, only to teach strategies, only to redirect behaviors, only to make copies and laminate, etc.  I have to do so many tasks, and they seem to think that they have only one role.

5.) The special education teacher in my room is too demanding!  They act like I haven't spent hours planning for the best possible lesson.  They want to change things and they don't take into account all of the responsibilities I have as a general education teacher.

Is your head starting to feel hot?  There is a lot of miscommunication going on here.  If you're a special education teacher, then you're probably all over the place, and you need to keep your coworkers informed.  Earn your peers' respect by consistently touching bases with them.  If you're going to be late or away from their room, let them know immediately.  Give them more information than necessary, and don't make excuses.  Special education teachers need to be masters of communication.  Our schedules and duties are unpredictable, and a general education teacher in a classroom, not seeing us there, doesn't know that we may be handling a volatile situation.  All they see is that we are not there.  Securing a safe environment for a student or other students who need it takes precedence over everything else, but we need to communicate this to other teachers who are counting on us to be there.

If you work with several different teachers, or if you're trying to build stronger communication with one or more teachers, there are a few things you can do:

1.)  At the beginning of the year, make sure that you provide all general education teachers with the accommodations and modifications for all special needs students in your room.  Make sure that you have teachers sign a receipt of special education records, as I promise you it will come in handy if a teacher says they were never provided this information.


2.)  Schedule a meeting with the general education teacher to discuss all of their students' behavior and academic needs.  Discuss what kind of supplemental aids you plan on using during the school year, and brainstorm with the teacher other supplemental aids that they think might be useful.  Be educated about what you're providing, as some aids can be made available during instruction but not during testing.  If you know what you're talking about, you'll earn the respect of the general education teacher.

During this meeting, ask the teacher what role they'd like you to play in the classroom.  This is a good chance for you to feel out how active they see your role.  Remind teachers that if they would like you to play an active role in the classroom, it's crucial that you receive lesson plans and assignments in a reasonable amount of time.  If the teacher prefers that you work with only special needs students, point out that, the older a student is, the heavier of a social stigma is attached, and the less impactful your instruction will be.  If students are still young and can be pulled to a small group table without social stigma attached, ask where your work station will be and how comfortable they are with you supplying that area with the materials you will need.

Ask the teacher who will be the one to notify parents of issues and how it will be done.  Ask the teacher how and when you'll be able to access their lesson plans.  Make teachers aware of anything you know about why and/or when you may be pulled from their room for a pressing matter.  Make teachers aware of your ARD/IEP meeting times.  Discuss with teachers the kind of data you will be collecting and the data you will need them to collect.  If you need teachers to collect data, train them on how to do it, and don't assume they already know.

Remember, special education students in inclusion are the responsibility of both the general education teachers and the special education teachers.  It will take a collaborative effort to set these students up for success.  Don't take it all on your shoulders, and don't put it all on the general education teacher's shoulders either.  These kids need a team.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with a teacher evaluation.  It's all about collaboration.  If you are comfortable with your peers and your peers are comfortable with you, then planning will be easier, teaching will be more fun, and your administrator who visits your room will feel that magic.

We can get so caught up with our students, that we don't think about building rapport with our peers.  A cohesive working environment must be created with coworkers in order to be an effective team teacher.  In many ways, you must see this as a professional marriage.  You are tied to this person, and they are tied to you.  Neither of you can succeed without the other.  If there's discourse, you have to make it work, for the kids.

I feel for so many special education teachers, because our day can get watered down by having to be at too many places with too many students.  This is how special education teachers reach a point where they walk into a room feeling unwanted and feeling that they're not teaching to their potential.  No one dreams of showing up every day to a place where they are not wanted.  To piggyback on that, people don't usually want to be the reason why someone else is having a horrible day.  People just don't usually realize they are making others feel that way.

Building solid professional relationships is easier for some than others.  If you find that you're just not getting in your groove on a particular campus or with particular people who you must work closely with, something must be done about it.  Be proactive.  If you're deep into the year and you're hitting communication roadblocks, set up a time when you can meet to discuss your role in the classroom.  Come prepared so that you can make the meeting productive.  Ask for clarification on things that might be confusing for you, and ask how you can better support the learning environment.  Share ideas that you have and talk about goal setting, both for yourself and for the students.  Let the general education teacher know what kind of a role you would like to take in the classroom.   I'm not suggesting everyone become best friends.  I'm just saying that time and effort should be paid toward building a relationship of mutual respect.  Make yourself valuable.

If you're an inclusion teacher and you're in your evaluation window, you MUST communicate the importance of this to your general education teacher.  Whatever communication roadblocks you may have had in the past might be remedied by expressing your needs at this point.  Plan activities that showcase your talents and include you more in the classroom.  Doing this might also open the general education teacher's eyes to your value in the classroom when planning in the future.


CLARIFICATION

Every state has their own evaluation system for teachers, and like I said, most are designed for general education teachers.  This is why it's important for special education teachers to be familiar with the way in which they will be evaluated and then ask for clarification on areas in which they think they may score low.  If your administrator doesn't seem to be using any sort of a consistent system to evaluate you, then this needs to be addressed.

I recommend meeting with your administrator when your evaluation window opens and discussing the process.  Be familiar with the components of your state's system of appraising you, and be prepared to discuss what they may not see because of your setting or role as a teacher.  Also be prepared to point out what they WILL see that isn't in your evaluation template.  A fair administrator should realize that your setting and role as a teacher is going to be different, and they should take that into account.

Get clarification on what they are specifically looking for in your appraisal.  If you have concerns about a component of the evaluation, express those concerns to your administrator.  For example, if the administrator is looking to see how you use technology in the classroom, but you do not have access to technology, you should probably ask about this.

When meeting with your administrator, be sure to point out issues in a very positive way.  If you have students with emotional outbursts, be sure to explain (without venting), that you have a student who has significant behavior needs.  Although you have planned a lesson, there may be an interruption that will cause you to stop the lesson, in turn not allowing your evaluator to observe everything they came to see.  If your administrator comes in on a tough day, for example, they may observe a student lying on a bean bag chair.  This isn't because you "parked" the student there.  It's because this is the break time that the student needs.

If an administrator comes to observe you on a day when you have had significant behavior challenges, politely explain that it's one of those days, and ask if they can come back on another day.  There's nothing more frustrating than knowing how much hard work you invest in lessons and then being observed on an "off" day when students won't allow you to teach them academics.  You've probably spent most of the day teaching important social skills and calming strategies, but those components aren't on the appraisal.

Beyond a face to face with your evaluator, the only way to truly know what you are being appraised on is by becoming familiar with the actual appraisal system for your state.  If you're a Texas teacher, I'm posting several guides that will help you.




SELF EVALUATION

Assess your classroom and your role as an educator.  In what areas are you strong and in what areas could you strengthen?  We all have both.  The best way to do this is with a rubric or a checklist.  I'm posting several options that may help you.

I evaluate myself constantly, and when I do so, I post it for everyone to see.  "These are my strong areas, and these are the areas I'm working on.  It's my goal to strengthen this area by X date and that area by Y date."  Rome wasn't built in a day.  Visitors to the room, including an evaluator, will respect your reflection and goal setting.  As they say in special education, if it's not documented, it didn't happen.  There's no credit for stuff in your head!

If you don't have your own room, find the teacher with whom you're most comfortable, and ask for a small area where you can showcase your accomplishments and goals.  This is a great example to set for your students as well.

You can review all of your state's guidelines for a teacher that exceeds standards, but a lot of it comes down to a few simple components.  If you're not passing your teacher evaluations, no matter your setting or role as a special education teacher, it's probably because your evaluators are not observing you:

1.)  incorporate technology.

2.)  give students enough feedback.

3.)  share your time with as many students as possible.

4.)  make learning fun or engaging students.

5.)  differentiate for students.

It's not that you're not doing this, but it isn't being observed at the time that the evaluator is present.  This is why it's important to keep your work documented and showcased.  It's also so important to teach from lesson plans that plan for all of these components.  Don't expect that it will all come at the right moment.  It's better to have a lesson plan prepared and not have it go as planned than to have no lesson plans and have nothing to say when the lesson falls apart.

You can use the following forms to evaluate your classroom.  You can also ask another teacher or paraprofessional to observe you and use one of the forms to evaluate you before your formal evaluation.





ENGAGE STUDENTS IN AN ENRICHING LESSON

A fun and educational lesson will engage most students and gloss over any blips in the observation.  We work in a world of variables.  Embrace the chaos, but also honor yourself as a professional.  Lesson plans are difficult to write for special education teachers.  Beyond student behavior being a variable in the equation, it's also difficult to plan if you're in multiple classrooms or if you don't receive the initial plans from a general education teacher.  This is still no reason to omit a plan.  No matter your grade level or subject area, create plans that engage and excite students.  Create a plan that you want to show off, so that rather than feeling your stomach sink when the administrator walks in, you're excited that you're about to show off your hard work.

Some might say that it's all of the variables that get in the way of being a good teacher:  the other teacher won't let you teach, the students won't let you teach, the setting doesn't allow you to get that perfect score......I'm here to tell you that it's still possible.  I've taught in co-teach, redirect, self-contained and alternative learning settings, and every year I've been rated exceeds standards.  I finished my first year as a special education teacher realizing the hurdles in front of me and feeling disheartened that perhaps I wasn't meant to be a teacher.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't seem to get a rhythm.

Despite any cynicism that may have popped into my head, I tried to always meet the students with positivity and excitement.  I went to work with the purpose of teaching somebody something with happiness, and every day the joy grew.  When I was having fun teaching a lesson, I found that the students followed.


When you are going to be evaluated, you MUST be an active part of the learning environment.  You can't be submissive, because this is your classroom too, and your job is on the line.  As I explained earlier, this can be done by genuinely connecting with people.  You are educated and prepared to teach students!  If you've been collaborating and planning, then you're ready.

Finally, try not to be nervous or over-think things.  At the foundation is making connections with students and other teachers.  If you've made those connections, then everything should flow, despite the unknown, which you've hopefully prepared your administrators for based off your own circumstances and preliminary meeting.

Whether you're beginning your career or finalizing it, finding your worth and place as a teacher means much more than an evaluation by administrators.  If you are an inclusion teacher working in multiple clasrooms with many students and multiple teachers, you really have to take control over your work environment, and you need to show people why they should respect your place in the classroom.  The system is set up the way it is because sometimes classrooms need more than one teacher based off the student population.  If that has been determined, then you have to make your place valuable.  You're the crucial piece that is needed to make the plan work.


My blog tends to focus on new/new-ish teachers, because this is the population that seems to be seeking the most support.  New teachers are searching for guidance and they tend to be open to new ideas.  The creeping claw of cynicism hasn't yet gotten its claws on their throats.

Seasoned teachers remind me of when I worked on a car lot years ago.  The people who had been selling cars for 25+ years were called "old dogs."  They knew every trick in the book.  They weren't going to be phased by pep rallies to sell or new ideas.  They were set in their ways.  At teacher trainings, these are the first people to raise their hand and argue with cynicism.  I get it.  Many things in education are cyclical, and it's reasonable that over the years, people can become cynical.  I appreciate these people, and I usually wish they were voicing their opinions on a stronger platform for change, such as with their teacher's union, and not toward the teacher training the group.  Teachers of trainings aren't usually as effective of an outlet as contacting people within your state who affect change, no matter how great of an argument.

There are a lot of things to complain about if you choose.  Most of these issues are not going away any time soon, but life would be worse without a job.  Steer your focus away from what you cannot change, and try to remember what you love about your job.

Change can be a great catalyst for future successes.  Change keeps us learning and evolving as educators.  What's important, when you find yourself in a world of change, is to not dig your heels.  A more satisfying and productive response is to be resourceful and seek the knowledge that you need in order to find that force of change within yourself.

You have a challenging and sometimes seemingly impossible job.  For this reason, there is a shortage of special education teachers in almost every state.  If you find that, even if you're working as hard as you can, you're not meeting expectations, then try something new.  Be an ambassador for change in a positive way, and meanwhile, enjoy your students every day.  Just like you do for your students, teach yourself a new strategy to make yourself successful!

No comments:

Post a Comment