This past week I was observed by a district level administrator. Technically it was not an official evaluation. Nothing went into my file, but it sure FELT like an evaluation to me. When someone that high up takes the time to spend an entire class period watching you, taking notes, and then meeting afterwards during your prep, all of the elements of a formal eval are present, except the documentation. Official or not, I wanted to make a strong impression because I understand that person is making a personal evaluation of the type of teacher that I am.
The entire class did not go entirely as planned. I had scheduled the observation to be in the middle of my first project so students would be settled into a new routine. Then we had 3 snow days the week before. I shuffled some things around so that I was teaching something that I wanted him to see. I also implemented a new seating chart that day. All of these disruptions meant students took a bit of settling in. It was not a bad period, by any means, but it lacked the impact that I was hoping for. I am extremely critical of myself and beat myself up in reflection during our post meeting.
As a kid, I always dreamed of being the hero in a high pressure situation: hitting a home run with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th in the 7th game of the World Series or launching a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win March Madness. As an adult, I realize that I am not a person who performs well under pressure. Actually it’s exactly the opposite. I am at my best teaching when I am well-rested, and my life is balanced, relatively free of stress. I don’t believe that this is anything to be ashamed of. Life should not be high stakes at all times.
This doesn’t mean that I can’t function under stress at all. Everyone has to deal with it at times, and the past two years of the pandemic have amplified and created new stresses for teachers at work and in their personal lives. But for me, at least, evaluations are a special kind of stress that make me less effective in the classroom.
I think that I have something similar to PTSD from previous administrators. To be crystal clear, my current principal is 100% supportive and low key. For the observation this past week from the district admin, I was assured repeatedly that it was not an evaluation and not to worry about it. BUT due to several negative experiences with poor administrators in previous districts, I am paranoid and untrusting of leadership. So even though I am in a good place right now, my psyche takes over from the past and stresses me out.
This stress of evaluations makes me less effective with my students. It is not a constant effect, but for the last two days I was less patience and more on edge with students. The day after the observation, I jumped to conclusion that a student was off task, when he wasn’t. Throughout the day, I quickly got frustrated with typical 6th grade behaviors that normally I roll with. At one point, I felt anger welling inside of me and had to stop and take a breath. I told myself to remain calm and move on.
At the end of the day, I FELT like it had been a poor day and was glad it was over. But students had completed their work and were showing understanding of the concept we were studying. There had not been any discipline issues. It was a typical day in my classroom, except for my FEELINGS about it. Why was I pressuring myself to be perfect? That’s when it hit me that I was still compensating for feeling inadequate from observation the day before.
Yesterday I read this article from Harvard Business Review about how feedback is not necessarily helpful. It confirmed what I already know. Feedback, especially unsolicited from an authority figure over you, is rarely helpful. Any criticism feels judgmental and punitive. On the other hand I relish feedback from trusted colleagues and my students. The difference is a combination of trust level and the power dynamic.
So my plea for administrators, especially right now, is to give grace to your teachers. Reassure them that you are supportive, not punitive, of them. But also realize that no matter how genuine you are, some teachers may struggle to believe you due to past experiences. Find ways to celebrate the hard work that everyone in your building is doing!
This effect that evaluations have on me is temporary. Adults can’t model SEL unless they are taking care of themselves first. After resting a ton this weekend, I will be fine on Monday and back to my usual self–that is until my next observation gets scheduled…