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How about teacher development before evaluation?

Speaking at an education conference a few weeks ago, Chancellor Dennis Walcott (of the NYC Department of Education) said, “I believe that children have an unlimited capacity to learn.”

I love attending education conferences. Aside from the amazing workshops (scored a front row seat in a great session by the writing guru Ruth Culham (6+1 Traits of Writing), the chance to explore a new city (managed to snag a bite at Mission Chinese Food the night before—awesome), and the short line at the men’s room (in and out in less than 3 minutes, including a hand wash), my mind gets a chance to think about the broader issues in education that I sometimes overlook when I’m practicing (i.e. teaching).

And that’s where Chancellor Walcott’s comments come into play. Normally, I’d have acquiesced with the Chancellor’s comment—who doesn’t want to think children have an endless capacity for learning? A few questions later, though, when asked about the city’s battle over teacher evaluations, the Chancellor said something to the effect of, “Well, some teachers just aren’t cut out for this job.”

And that’s when my mind started churning. Regardless of my views on teacher evaluations–and I could spend days debating this topic–the Chancellor’s comments made me wonder: what happens between being a child and having an “unlimited capacity to learn,” and being an adult and having a “limited capacity” to learn to do your job. Certainly, if some folks aren’t cut out to teach, then they must be limited in their abilities, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

It makes for a great sound bite to talk idealistically about how 100% of our students can learn, while talking realistically about getting rid of the 10% of teachers that stink, so we can improve our schools. But from my experience, churn and burn has not worked.

During last weekend’s NFL Divisional Playoff games, I saw a Verizon commercial that featured a robot in a classroom that was operated by a student from his bedroom. So we have technology that can bring students into a classroom from, presumably, anywhere in the world. Why can’t we harness that same technology to bring great learning experiences to teachers anywhere in the world?

Amongst all the talk about evaluating teachers, there is little talk about real ways in which we can help teachers get better at their jobs. Unless you read the work of Jim Knight, Director of the Kansas Coaching Project, an organization that doesn’t get much press (aside from a piece in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande), yet they do amazing work preparing instructional coaches.

Let’s continue to bring amazing learning opportunities to students so we can test their unlimited capacity for learning. And let’s bring amazing instructional coaching opportunities to teachers as well, so we can test their “limited” capacity for learning.

At Sibme, we don’t pretend to know the best way to evaluate teachers. But we do know that more people should be talking about developing teachers before we stamp a rating on their foreheads. With our technology, we can do just that (um, develop them, that is…not the stamp thing. we don’t have any stamps around here).


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