Some Hillsborough teachers like surprise observations by peers, while others complain about stress

Published April 1, 2012

TAMPA — As the Hillsborough County school district continues to refine its new teacher evaluation process, one feature is raising blood pressure: the informal "drop-in" observation.

Joseph Thomas, a Newsome High School social studies teacher who ran unsuccessfully for union president, calls these short visits "drive-bys."

Michael Weston, a Freedom High School math teacher now running for School Board, used the word "torture."

The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association took care to protect teachers in this component of Empowering Effective Teachers, said executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins.

But, as with many aspects of the process, "it's hard to please 15,000 teachers."

Drop-ins — not to be confused with principal "pop-ins" that have always been around — are a new addition to Hillsborough's ambitious education reform effort, launched in late 2009 with a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The program seeks to reward the best teachers, give help to those who need it, and cut ties with those who cannot or will not do a good enough job. The seven-year process is largely experimental.

Teachers are given scores based 30 percent on the principal's evaluation, 30 percent on a peer evaluation and 40 percent on data that include student test performance.

Those involved in Empowering Effective Teachers point out that after it began, the Legislature ordered all districts to reward teachers for performance instead of seniority. It would not be possible to go back to the old way of doing things, which often amounted to a cursory review by the principal.

"People often forget that Senate Bill 736 required things that are worse than this in all the other districts in the state of Florida," Baxter-Jenkins said.

The peer component, for some, has been a tough sell. Teachers are in the second year of full observations, which use a structured grading rubric and conferences before and after the class.

This year the district added the informal observations, based on research that shows such visits provide a more complete picture of a teacher's classroom management and instructional skills.

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Months ago teachers pointed out that their contract protects them from impromptu visits from people outside their schools.

So the union negotiated a compromise. The protocol, Baxter-Jenkins said, is for the peer to send the teacher an email offering a window of three to five days' notice.

Logistics make it hard to be more specific, said project director David Steele, who compared the process to scheduling airline departures. Peers don't know if a teacher is giving a test, or will be absent that day.

But that's little comfort to nervous teachers. "A couple of teachers have said, 'They're playing a mind game with us,' " said Lynn Scott, who teaches social studies at Burns Middle School.

Weston told the School Board, "You have evaluators that will send out a notice to eight teachers to expect a drop in within the next four days. They drop in on two.

"Two weeks later that same evaluator will send out a notice to the remaining six teachers, telling them to expect an evaluation within the next four days. He drops in on two. This is just torture!"

Opinions are mixed among those who have contacted the union.

"I have heard people thank us profusely for giving us a heads-up," Baxter-Jenkins said. She's also heard people complain about stress. "More people have liked the notice, but it's close."

East Bay High School history teacher Dale Hueber said, "I'd rather they not call at all. Anyone can come into the classroom at any time." But it troubles him that there is no conversation afterwards. "I could be in the middle of a lecture," he said, although the system favors interactive lessons. "This is a history course. It's a survey course."

Teachers do have the ability to send their peers explanatory emails, or record their concerns in online journals if they feel something might have been misunderstood during the visit.

Between now and this summer's contract negotiations, Baxter-Jenkins hopes to get a better fix on how teachers feel about this and other aspects of the program.

"We definitely plan to survey our members on a variety of topics," she said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or