Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Feedback for new teachers

I just finished writing up a precis of my check-in conversations with all our new faculty, and I am giving ourselves a big pat on the back not only for a program that has so far kept these good people free from huge surprises but also for having done two things pretty thoughtfully and, it appears, well.

The first is hiring. Our main thrust for many years has been to find people who are really well matched in values and skills not just with our subject-matter teaching needs but with our school. The administrators who do this read lots of folders, talk to many, many candidates, and engage in a very intentional process of informed consent with finalists. I'll write more about this at a later time, but in a nutshell we don't shy from telling people what is hard about working at our school--mainly the need to be passionate about and attentive to both students and the craft of teaching--as well as what the rewards are.

The second is a kind of full-court press of support. The new teachers have all been in department meetings and divisional meetings in which the subject is pedagogy and best practices, and they have all been visited by now by both a department head and a division head. These are not formal evaluative observations but rather opportunities for administrators to understand the classroom cultures that are forming and to offer warm feedback and input based on what is observed.

As a school we seem to be moving hopefully toward what I would call an open-door policy, where colleagues and academic administrators are in and out of one another's classrooms all the time, normalizing the "adult in the back of the room" as a friendly part of the landscape of a learning community.

All I can think of is my first years of teaching. In the first school, no administrator or supervisor entered the building where I taught, much less my classroom; my close friend who taught in the classroom next to me was in and out of my classroom, as I was in and out of his. Together we moved by trial and error toward what felt like but may not have been competence. I'm still in the biz, but he left after a year. In my second school a walkabout head poked his face into my room pretty regularly, but only once did I receive direct feedback and only once, in my third year, was I formally observed, in response to a "problem" (which was easily and painlessly solved). The next school was about the same, as was my current school for the first eight or nine years I was here.

Steve Clem, of AISNE and "Eloquent Mirrors" fame, likes to point out that he might have been a much better teacher much earlier in his career if he had received feedback on his work, and I feel this just as acutely. We serve our teachers badly and our students even more badly when we don't do everything we can not just to give teachers the materials they need and goals to meet but also immediate, regaular, and clear feedback on their work that will help them realize their potential as educators as quickly as possible.

It seems quite silly (and worse) in retrospect when schools fail to make an early and positive effort to make sure that the new teachers they are at such pains to hire are both comfortable in their work and given the real, immediate feedback--on curriculum, on classroom management, on professionalism--they need to take their work to the highest level.

So if you are an administrator reading this, check in with your new faculty soon. Drop into their classrooms, find out how things are going, and let them know how you think things are going, based on some real observation. It's never too early to start, but after a while it may be too late.

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