I honestly do not know.
When I started teaching, the idea of being “evaluated” was a foreign – almost bizarre – concept. As a doctor who had completed my studies and subsequent internship I was deemed “qualified” to treat patients. For fifteen years no one ever stopped by my office to check-up, or to observe, how I practiced. My success was based on outcomes – the improved health of my patients. It seemed normal – one might say logical. It was the same for all professionals I worked with: orthopedists, radiologists, physical therapists, and physiologists. Our training, followed by successfully passing of both national and state boards, qualified us to diagnose and treat patients. No one ever looked over our shoulder to see if we were “practicing” correctly. We were judged on the progress and outcome of those we treated. We never questioned our professional competency. Teachers should feel this way as well.
Fast forward fifteen years. I begin my second professional career in education. Only this time my qualifications serve only to secure employment and I am now subject to regular observations – both announced and unannounced – which will determine the security of my employment. Teacher observations, based less on outcome – student progress and achievement – and more on “demonstrations” cover a narrow range of teaching skills. Student trending and progress are not routinely factored into the evaluative equation and only the final grades seem important. I have been fortunate and have always earned “satisfactory” evaluations, but many excellent teachers have not been so lucky.
Being observed was weird at first – and it is still weird today. Here I was, a doctor who dreamed of passing his expertise on to young minds. I interviewed (twice), then the demo lesson, was hired and given a room. Life was good! Given my extensive background of diagnosing and treating thousands of patients, I was showing my middle-schoolers things that they would never see anywhere else. Then came word that I was going to be “observed.” Really? But you just hired me! Is now the best time to gauge if I know what I am doing – after you hire me? I thought you hired me because you thought I was qualified. Apparently not.
Was everything OK? Did I do something wrong? Could they look through my facade and see I wasn’t a teacher, but just a guy who knew a lot about science? Could they see that I was really a fraud? I didn’t know the answer then, but 15 years later no matter how it is presented – this is just how the observation feels – like they are looking for something.
Since I was new to this profession, I was also visited by a union rep who reassured me that everything was fine and this is just standard operating procedure. S.O.P.? How could that be? In fifteen years as a doctor, no one ever came to my office to observe or evaluate me – to watch and make sure I was doing everything correctly. And if anyone should have been evaluated, wouldn’t it be someone whose job it was to manipulate your spine? She reassured me everything was fine. So I took it in stride and acquiesced – as if I had a choice – to being “observed” (even the term observe is a bit sinister). From then on, I never truly understood why I needed to be checked on… several times each year. The key take-aways I have gleaned from my post-observations have been procedural points I omitted, but needed to include during the next observation. (Observation still sounds sinister!)
And so began my journey of asking, “Why are teachers observed?” Fifteen years later, I am still asking.
I ask because it is difficult to understand why there is no other profession that observes or evaluates their professionals the way we do in education. Why is the “courtesy” of professional competence afforded to your doctor or your dentist, yet not afforded to teachers?
So often the same principals evaluate the same teachers for the same skills or tasks year after year. Do they think teachers will forget how to do these things? Why can’t they assume – as they do for other professionals – the teacher’s mastery actually develops and improves with time? And if they are unsure about how qualified we are, isn’t that what our internship (“student teaching”) was supposed to evaluate? If you can’t teach, wasn’t your supervising teacher supposed to help you to improve? So why the need for regular classroom evaluations once you are hired? Isn’t student improvement the gold standard for school success?
Most every professional does an internship where they develop skills sufficient to demonstrate competence in their chosen field. Student teaching is our internship. Let’s take a look at a few other professions and see how their internships compare:
- Surgeons – How many of us have sought out our doctor based on the time they have been in practice and how many times they have successfully performed the surgical procedure we require? Internationally, doctors are required to complete anywhere from a 1-2 year internship under the supervision of an experienced physician. After that, they are free to practice their profession. This is similar to our 6-12 month period of student teaching.
- Lawyers and accountants – We might ask either of these professionals, “How long have you been doing this?” to determine their competency. That usually suffices. In the case of lawyers, we want to know if they have successfully represented our type of case before we retain their services. The requirements for lawyer internships varies from a certain amount of hours to unpaid summer internships at established law firms. Accountants have no such requirement, but in both cases interning is invaluable in bridging the gap between classwork and fieldwork. After that, they are free to practice their profession. This is similar to our 6-12 month period of student teaching.
- Dentists – Like doctors, dentists are required to intern, some programs up to a year. After that, they are free to practice their profession. This is similar to our 6-12 month period of student teaching.
So why – after completing the required university work and subsequent internship – are these professionals not evaluated yearly the same as teachers? Some professionals in groups or large practices might be evaluated – but not for their professional acumen, or expertise, but solely on their contribution to the organization. Their results. So why are teachers – equivalent in professional standing – required to undergo regular evaluations to merit competency?
To that point, “Why, in spite of successful 30 to 35 year tenures, are veteran teachers still evaluated?”
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