Psychosocial Milieu of Teacher Post Observations
Jonathan T. Jefferson & Veronica L. Schauder
“I’m saved everyday by the intrinsic value of the work I do, which I truly enjoy.” Al Jarreau
For more than 15 years, I have been in the unenviable position of having to observe teachers with the goal of providing them with constructive feedback that they could use to improve instruction. Each school district I worked for had different requirements related to teacher observations. These requirements were based on their collective bargaining agreements (teacher contracts). Some districts only required tenured teachers to be formally evaluated twice per year; others once. Similar differences exist regarding non-tenured teachers; additionally, some agreements forbid formally writing up unannounced observations, while others encourage it. In my experience, the unannounced observations were more authentic. Teachers needed to shine all of the time, as opposed to giving the occasional “horse and pony” performance.
The past few years have witnessed a seismic shift in how tenured teachers respond to their formal observations. Due to state education departments (e.g. New York) tying teacher evaluations to the results of student performance assessments, a wave of anxiety has entered the profession. No longer does it appear that tenure is a safety net protecting teachers from everything short of being excessed or facing criminal charges. Now, my post observations with teachers have gone from an exercise that each of us check off of our list to a deeply rewarding or disturbing encounter with another human being.
When my current district first began using the Danielson rubric to evaluate teachers, I had one teacher’s rating as developing. Before our post observation, the teacher attended one of my department meetings where I demonstrated how with minor changes a lesson can move from developing to highly effective. Immediately after that department meeting, during our post observation, the teacher said that he now understands what is expected of him. Since then, the same lessons he has been delivering for 20 years have vastly improved. This is an example of how a post observation can be rewarding.
Surprisingly, a teacher who routinely delivers better than effective, and often highly effective, lessons engaged me in a rather disturbing post observation conference. The lesson I observed was typically better than effective; however, this teacher was so upset about the score affixed to the lesson that she became visibly emotional. When it was clear that the emotionality would not move me, she instantaneously settled down. She went on to inform me that she checked on other teachers’ scores (I assume they shared that information with her), and she asked me if I thought this was the worst lesson I observed her teach, and she was shocked that I missed evidence that would rate as highly effective.
Yes, I was annoyed, but I tried to get a few points across. Firstly, do not allow external measures determine how you choose to value yourself or your work. I also get evaluated on a four point scale, but my evaluators will never know the true scope of what I do, so their opinions do not sway me. Secondly, I formally observe only one of the several hundred classes each teacher teaches every year; therefore, if you know that you do what is best for your students, keep doing it. Lastly, no matter how much evidence an observer writes down, they will never see everything. The only remedy for this is to video record a class from multiple angles, and watch the video countless times.
Wanting to better understand and address highly effective teachers who behave as this one did, I reached out to a colleague who deals with psychosocial issues professionally. The following was her feedback to me:
There are so many variables that influence a person’s ability to receive progressive feedback. I considered my own experiences managing offense and defense in the post observation conference. Here are my top three takeaways;
1. Tame the Temperament.
The success of the post observation conference is contingent on two wildly varied temperaments searching for synchronicity.
Does the person in front of you align with your intensity, share your favor for consistency or eagerly approach new situations and challenges? Are they impulsive, restless and strong-willed? Maybe they are serious, cautious and slow to adapt. What if they simply prefer a quiet and caring atmosphere and require an awakening of interest to spark creative problem solving?
The post observation conference is a contemporary stress that can trigger the fight or flight response. A danger signal pops up, nerves start firing messages to prepare the body to escape, fight, or freeze. If the highly effective teacher also has a highly intense or anxious temperament, the conference facilitator may need to shift the perspective to assist and compensate as needed.
This dance of temperament is best met by taking inventory of the other person’s character traits. The success of the post observation conference depends on a significant exchange of ideas that influence each person. The conference dyad can prompt deep impact or estrangement. Take stock of sweaty hands, shaking legs, and racing thoughts. My throat gets slightly tight before the conference even begins. It is my reminder to breathe deeply, listen carefully, and speak with confidence.
Temperament is a continuum that impacts our adjustment to everyday life. Those on both sides of the desk who recognize the signs of an activated response system and understand temperament are better able to navigate this tricky emotional balancing process.
2. Adaptation = Emotional Evolution.
You have to love the simplicity of adaptation. Stretch, change, modify, do what is necessary to function in a situation and ensure survival.
Seems easy enough, until you have to put it into practice. If your temperament is of a rigid nature, and the other person in the conference is making a suggestion that brings a chill up your spine, your response system is activated and the strategy being proposed now feels like a swift kick to your ego. Time to exercise your emotional flexibility.
I recently heard Dr. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, speak about the relationship of managing emotions and business success. If you are brave enough, try the free emotional agility quiz on her website. Her quiz reveals how you navigate emotions and how aligned you are with your values.
As the systems in our world continue to change, a myriad of agendas and policies can challenge the most even-tempered achiever. The ability to govern limiting thoughts and mindfully respond to emotional triggers increases emotional agility, flexibility and adaptation. The tools of emotional intelligence should be shared thoughtfully to be embraced graciously. We are introducing the RULER Approach to Social and Emotional Learning, from the Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence, to our staff and children.
All parties have to do their work to catch their thoughts and emotions mid air so the post observation conference can be postured for meaningful exchange of ideas, promoting growth and development.
3. Mindfulness makes the Moment Matter.
So how do we make ourselves fully present for the process?
A mindfulness practice helps put space between our thoughts and responses. If you pay full attention to the moment you are in, without judgment, you reap the rewards of feeling the full force of this crazy thing called calm. Learn our primal response system, identify temperament traits and work out the emotional flexibility muscles.
Take a try. Observe the moment just as it is- a moment. Begin a slow, deliberate breathing pattern. If any judgmental mind chatter starts messing with you, let it pass. Create a safe word or phrase to restore your focus. Enjoy the sweet release of neurochemicals activating the relaxation response and inducing a sense of well-being. Now you are ready to rock your world.
As I was writing this, a coworker had just completed her post observation conference. She was pacing with a smile. Her body and mind weren’t yet synced, I could tell she was still processing the experience. I checked in on her later in the day. She was restored to a place of quiet confidence. As she reflected, she realized she needed to hear the words spoken in her conference. She is an amazing teacher, and the children love being around her. She saw that by stretching out of her comfort level, she could elevate her teaching practice and deliver information with compassionate structure.
Her level of self-awareness supported her emotional registry of the critique.
She acknowledged the physiological responses triggered by the conference, her even temperament availed her time to process and she welcomed the strategies to improve the quality of her situation. It took a few deep breathing moments to abandon any unwarranted influences. As soon as the emotional coast was clear, she could mindfully embrace her natural superpowers that make her shine. She took the information and made it work for her.
By the way, I took Dr. Susan’s Emotional Agility quiz. It was pretty insightful. I, like so many others, need to practice my values. They recommended I make some changes to my habits so I could see greater levels of growth and development. By enduring the short-term discomfort of effort to implement these changes, I will be rewarded with greater opportunities to thrive.