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Hillsborough teachers share insights on reviewing other teachers

TAMPA — Even after observing 60 teachers, Paul Goodland still gets nervous when he enters a school.

He doesn't know if he'll meet a sea of friendly faces or a wall of resistance. He might learn things he can use in the classroom.

Or he just might ruin a teacher's day.

At 50, Goodland is on the front lines of education reform, Hillsborough County-style. He's one of 132 teachers trained to evaluate other teachers in a system that's radically changing the way school employees are treated, a model districts are watching around Tampa Bay and beyond.

The job keeps Goodland up nights, literally.

"Nobody wants to hear criticism of what they're passionate about," he said. Crafting the written report that follows the observation, alone, can take hours, sometimes days.

"You agonize," he said.

So far his reviews have brought smiles and no one has cried. Yet.

• • •

Emotions ran high this month when Newsome High School teacher Joseph Thomas publicly refused to be evaluated by a peer whose background was mostly in elementary school.

Defenders of the process say that difference shouldn't matter all that much. "Good teaching is good teaching," said Christie Gold, a former high school journalism teacher and now a peer evaluator.

As public servants, teachers have long been paid according to seniority. That system helped them move comfortably to new assignments. But it also opened them to criticism that public schools lacked accountability.

Deep down inside, Gold, 45, knew she wasn't as good as the perfect ratings her principals kept giving her.

"I'd say, 'Come on, there are clearly things I need to work on,' " said Gold, the district's 2001 Teacher of the Year. "But anybody knew this was how it was done."

So when the Hillsborough district won a $100 million grant from Bill and Melinda Gates to revolutionize teacher training and evaluation, Gold gladly climbed aboard.

Unlike other Florida school districts, which this year fell under a state mandate to move toward performance-based pay, Hillsborough has the benefit of the Gates money and more than a year of planning with its teachers union.

Those advantages have made them the envy of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, whose leadership wants the district to move in that direction.

"To do it the right way would cost money that we don't have," said executive director Marshall Ogletree.

Hillsborough officials emphasize that the Empowering Effective Teachers program is a work in progress. "I know how committed everyone is to getting it right," Goodland said. "There's just too much at stake"

Still, the transformation isn't easy.

The evaluation document is supposed to measure teaching qualities that are universal, regardless of subject or age group. And most of the time, Hillsborough officials said, they match teachers with evaluators whose backgrounds are in similar age levels and subjects.

But with about 12,500 employees to evaluate, perfect matches are not always possible. Peer evaluations also create the uncomfortable prospect of one teacher judging another.

So before they watch a teacher in action, peer evaluators talk to them. What do they want students to learn?

Goodland tries to "break the ice and develop some camaraderie, if I can, with each teacher."

Even then, it's hard to predict which lesson will click and which will fall flat.

And, despite more than 40 hours of training, Goodland and Gold said, you never know what you'll see in a classroom.

• • •

Sometimes the lessons seem tailor-made for their visits.

A young child remarking "we should do this more often" is a dead giveaway. Or there are whispers that a teacher has bribed students to behave.

"There's nothing I can do to prevent that," Gold said.

Nor can they anticipate a teacher's reaction in the follow-up conversation.

Some are pleasantly surprised. Others are clearly distressed. And a few display a surprising lack of knowledge about the evaluation process.

And then there are the struggling teachers who become defensive. Gold recalls one from last year. "She knew she was in trouble. And she would challenge me on everything I said."

When her evaluation is unfavorable, Gold reminds herself that she is doing what's best for the children.

As for Goodland?

He wants to be able to run into the teacher in public and not feel embarrassed.

"If I do my post-conference right, I'm not afraid to talk to anybody again," he said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3356.

Hillsborough teachers share insights on reviewing other teachers 11/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 12:33am]

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