Being a first year teacher who is interested in getting a sense of the big picture of what is going on in my district and education in general, I was eager to join a district committee. When I received an email about the formation of a teacher evaluation committee it sounded like a perfect one for me to join, as I spent a significant chunk of time learning about the theory and implementation of teacher evaluation in a teacher leadership course that I took during my Master’s year. I was eager to discuss these issues in a real-life setting and to debate the pros and cons of various approaches with my colleagues.
We’ve had two meetings now and I would describe them as strained, awkward, and somewhat tokenistic. The participants include school board members, our school superintendent, principals, and union and non-union teachers and there is huge variation in knowledge about teacher evaluation in general and in levels of enthusiasm about serving on the committee. There seems to be a “we need to get this done” mentality that is trumping the “we need to do this right — even if it takes longer” mindset.
During our first meeting we had our work laid out for us. Our job is to create a new system for teacher evaluation that will align with new requirements from the state Department of Education and serve as an update to our existing method. Unfortunately, a previous committee already did the work of reviewing our current method and making recommendations about what a new model should look like, so our group did not have the opportunity to delve into this important work by examining where we’ve been and how we’re currently doing things. We did a sort of gloss over the recommendations of the previous group but no one seemed to want to really delve into them — my sense that I need to be timid as a new teacher held me back, too.
At our last meeting I was really off-put because it felt like a tokenistic enterprise. Our mission at the meeting was to review different sets of standards for teaching practice and choose the one that we felt best met our needs. For one of the models, we had a live webchat with a representative of that model and spent over 50 minutes discussing it. A second model (equally regarded in education circles) was glossed over in under 30 minutes. It was disheartening to feel as though the decision has already been clearly laid out in front of us and will likely be the one that the committee winds up selecting. While this set of standards is fine, sense of the democratic nature of the group is rapidly eroding. I don’t think that this is the fault of the leader of the committee, but rather the narrow mandates that are passed down that definitely privilege some forms of standards over others and make choosing another option a laborious and difficult process.
I do think that we will get a greater degree of dialogue going when we have conversations around VAM and actual implementation plans, but the foreclosed nature of the early stages of the committee really left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Again, I feel like the degree of latitude and agency that we all have is limited — I’ve never run up against restrictive mandates in this way before.
I feel as though committees that bring multiple stakeholders together are an integral part of running a successful institution — whether it is a school or an entire district. However, it is problematic when these experiences are not authentically democratic and the representatives have just been brought together to nod their heads at something that has largely been predetermined for them.
Often, I think that teachers are uncomfortable in these types of settings because they don’t want to be controversial — many participants on the committee say different things on the sidelines than they do in our conversations. (This of course includes me.) I wonder what it is about how these committees are structured that produces these outcomes — perhaps it has to do with trust and faith that what is said will be taken seriously. Unfortunately, even when something is said, the mandates can be so limiting that it almost doesn’t matter, because nothing can be done about it.
It would also be very interesting to map out the discourse pattern of these meetings — it seems like every comment is really made to the superintendent instead of to the group, which is an odd dynamic in a committee where it is clear that everyone has one equal vote. I feel I can sense my superintendent trying to steer but not direct and I wonder what it is that still makes everyone look to her as the director when I feel she has tried to level the playing field at our meetings.
I’m not sure how to make committees function more effectively, but I do think that their cohesion and willingness to delve into controversy definitely impacts both the culture of schools and districts, but also outcomes for teachers and students alike. I wish that the scope of agency that districts were given was far greater than it is — oversight is important, but not when it usurps genuine innovation or conversation.