Bring on the Dog-and-Pony Show

Approaching teacher evaluation from a variety of perspectives

By: Perry A. Finch


The term dog-and-pony show, in reference to teacher evaluation, frequently denotes a false presentation by a teacher to demonstrate instruction that is only done for the sake of the evaluation. I understand the perspective of Marshall in the article "Let's Cancel the Dog-and-Pony Show" (2012, Phi Delta Kappan, v 94, no. 3, pp 19-23), which states, "To put it bluntly, an evaluation process that relies on announced visits is inaccurate, dishonest, and ineffective." Though that could be the case, depending on where the teacher is on the continuum of instructional enlightenment, the dog-and-pony show might be beneficial for some teachers. A varied approach with different types of evaluative observations is a perspective I have developed through my experience as a middle school administrator for more than a decade.

Opportunity for Growth

Teacher evaluation is arguably the most important role of a school principal just short of hiring the highest quality teachers. In spite of this importance, teacher evaluation, if addressed at all, involves a swift walk through Charlotte Danielson's (2013) The Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument with a presumption that the rubric is easily understood by both teacher and administrator and relevant only on observation day. This mindset casts the evaluation process as a finite event that occurs then ends—an item to check off a list—not an ongoing professional development process. If done with a growth mindset, this practice can be a benefit for all involved.

Through years of working with teachers in evaluation cycles, I have grown to realize the purpose of teacher evaluation is not to label or categorize teachers; it is to challenge teachers to improve their instruction. To establish trust and confidence in this system for growth, evaluators need to recognize the positive practices in place prior to passing judgment and suggesting instructional adjustments. Whether an educator teaches 25 to 30 students the four core subjects in a self-contained model or provides instruction for 100 to 150 students in a one-content departmental model, teaching is simply hard work when done right. Regardless of previous evaluation ratings, teachers in every setting or instructional model are capable of improvement. Maintaining the belief that even the best teachers are capable of improvement enables administrators and teachers to view the evaluation cycle as a supportive event with the purpose of improving instruction, which might lead to greater student understanding.

When conducting teacher evaluations, administrators should always remember past benefits and crimes associated with their own evaluations as teachers. What was learned from those experiences? Was there value in the time spent preparing for and reflecting on the evaluation events? I recall getting evaluation feedback as a teacher that was so precisely detailed that every line in the three-page single-spaced document was time stamped. I remember thinking to myself: Wow, this guy really worked hard on this. And he did, but it didn't help me improve as a teacher. This is the measure evaluators must live up to in this process. An evaluator's job isn't done until the teacher receives something new to consider in their instruction. It's not just about gathering and presenting data; it's about leading teachers to the risks that push them outside their comfort zone. This type of approach is not always greeted with enthusiasm and gratitude as teacher evaluation can bring with it baggage from unsuccessful and negative past experiences.

The Foundations for Learning

There is no greater joy in my day as a principal than to walk into a classroom where a master teacher is honing their craft. These types of classrooms are not perfect places but places where teachers truly care about their students. These teachers are passionate about their content and possess heightened situational awareness of their students' academic abilities and social and emotional capacities. These teachers have built a home in which learning can occur. This instruction aligns with two fundamental components of an effective classroom that is recognized in Charlotte Danielson's The Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument. In this rubric, the creation of an environment of respect and rapport and a culture for learning are detailed in Domain 2. The establishment of these elements in instruction allow for the unlocking of what is needed for student learning—positive relationships and a purpose and urgency for learning. Once this environment is established, instructional risk-taking that incorporates student interest and needs-based instruction paves the way to increased student engagement.

What then is needed for adult learning? Consider the same things that benefit student learning—trusting relationships and an environment that supports inquiry. To establish a culture for learning with teachers, it may help to determine whether a teacher is instructionally enlightened or a dog-and-pony show teacher. In Drago-Severson's book (2009) Leading Adult Learning: Supporting Adult Development in Our Schools, she describes several different types of learners that help support learning with teachers. Informed by Kegan's constructive developmental theory, Drago-Severson proports several ways of knowing that include instrumental—a pleaser who is bound by societal rules, socializing—someone focused on others' ways and a need for acceptance, self-authoring—the person who is cognizant of other perspectives and able to accept differing perspectives, and self-transforming—one who recognizes the value in being changed by others to create an original perspective. An introspective search as to how best teachers ascertain and apply new information might increase the chance that productive changes in instructional practice occur in the evaluation process.

Instructional Enlightenment

Teachers who have unlocked the doors of learning for their students or are self-transforming learners have achieved what I call instructional enlightenment. They share the responsibility for the successes and setbacks in their classroom with their students. These teachers are willing to accept the risk of making mistakes in exchange for doing something different—doing something better. By creating strong relationships and establishing an authentic learning environment, instructional missteps can be absorbed and overcome and even celebrated in these classrooms. These teachers view teacher evaluation as an opportunity, not a burden. Challenging this type of teacher to improve through the evaluation process can seem daunting to a new administrator. But when the evaluator makes the purpose not about rankings but about improving instructional practice, teacher evaluation fulfills its higher purpose. Once teachers stop viewing evaluation as affirmation or nullification, it frees them to reflect and try new things that might make them more effective with their students.

The Benefits to Teachers

Other teachers without a growth mindset, who are not highly reflective, might view teacher evaluation as something to endure, not as a catalyst for professional progress. I have certainly encountered teachers who fully encompass the dog-and-pony show mentality for their evaluative observations. These teachers make special arrangements to ensure their observed lesson reflects district initiatives or instructional best practices. These teachers put on a less-than-authentic performance for their evaluators in hopes of placing the experience behind them and perhaps focusing more on their Danielson ratings than anything else. Admittedly, such teachers do something different on "game day." These teachers change their instruction in a less genuine fashion than the previously described enlightened teacher who authentically strives to improve. This change may not come from their own imagination or gut that tells them where to experiment with their instruction. It may be the result of ignorance or stubbornness or the culture that exists in schools or districts. If they change their practice and do something different on observation day, there is some hope for their instructional enlightenment. It is this type of teacher that benefits from the excuse for change referred to as the dog-and-pony show teacher evaluation. Once this dog-and-pony show effort is made, it is the evaluator who must convince the teacher that these instructional improvements are valuable, sustainable, and expected.

Teacher Mindset

My co-principal and I have recently begun our relationship with all our new teachers by informing them that their jobs are secure as long as their philosophy of teaching does not clash with our philosophy. Our philosophy respects each student's unique set of needs that must be met through instructional best practices (e.g., explicit learning targets, differentiation, formative/summative assessment, actionable feedback, etc.). And as professional educators, we believe it is our collective responsibility to ensure our students learn what they need to learn before leaving our school. We tell our new teachers that we can support their instructional practice and their knowledge of curriculum and help them develop their assessment literacy. However, we can't change how they think about teaching. They alone own their philosophy regarding instruction and their personal expected outcomes with students. We have found that teachers who are at odds with our beliefs about instruction are not capable of wanting to do the dog-and-pony show. Once again, the classic planned teacher evaluation serves a purpose with this type of teacher. Any individual who cannot or will not purposely put on a dog-and-pony show because they refuse to contemplate how to evolve as an educator needs to reflect on why they want to continue teaching. These are the teachers who sadly will never reach the Promised Land and achieve instructional enlightenment. They do not view teaching as an ever-changing professional practice. So, though it is not good for everyone, I stand by the premise that the dog-and-pony show observation serves a purpose for some teachers.


References

Danielson, C. (2013). The framework for teaching evaluation instrument. Retrieved from http://www.loccsd.ca/~div15/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/2013-framework-for-teaching-evaluation-instrument.pdf

Drago-Severson, E. (2009). Leading adult learning: Supporting adult development in our schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Marshall, K. (2012). Let's cancel the dog-and-pony show. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(3), pp 19-23.


Perry A. Finch, Ed.D. is principal of Blackhawk Middle School, Bensenville, Illinois.
pfinch@bsd2.org
@perryafinch

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2019.

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