Greenbrier Public Schools in Arkansas has always had a strong focus on using classroom observation to encourage positive growth within our schools. When I joined Greenbrier Schools about 12 years ago as the deputy superintendent, I had spent almost 20 years as a classroom teacher and district administrator. I was thrilled to find that principals were expected to be in classrooms every day observing and coaching teachers, helping them improve their instructional practice, and creating a positive atmosphere regarding individual teacher accountability to students.
We know that one of the simplest and most effective ways to build a positive school culture and increase student achievement is to engage teachers and administrators in ongoing conversations about the improvement of professional practices and instructional strategies.
With Arkansas’ NCLB and Race to the Top awards, there was increased external pressure to hold both teachers and administrators more accountable for what was happening in the classroom. With Race to the Top, the Arkansas DOE implemented its own mandatory evaluation system, called the Teacher Excellence and Support System (TESS), based on the Danielson framework. As administrators, we were required to learn and implement this system, as it was designed to deliver the required data on teacher performance outlined in TESS.
Searching for a solution
But after two years of using TESS, we realized the data required by the state and the information we needed to help our teachers grow had some key differences. The system implemented by the DOE is effective for creating the data needed, but it had a major drawback—it was paper-based. The value of our informal walkthroughs was diminished as the paperwork kept our observers sorting through stacks of papers instead of working with teachers in their classrooms.
In addition, the paper-and-pencil model limited our ability to customize; so if, as a district, we were focusing on particular strategies to target our unique populations, we had no easy or quick way to locate that specific data in the forms.
This prompted me to look for an online system to streamline the process. We chose the web-based platform offered by observ4success because it fit all our criteria: customizable rubrics, web-based data collection and storage, user-friendly organization and meaningful feedback. With the new platform, when my principals left a classroom, there was a clear snapshot of what was going on and they could email the completed observation immediately to teachers.
Teachers told us they liked the new system because they got immediate feedback after an observation. It helped them better understand if they were meeting state requirements, and what they needed to work on. I also heard that it was helping to build trust between teachers and administrators by eliminating that feeling of “gotcha.”
It is invaluable and extremely effective that our teachers feel included in the observation process and also feel that they have control over improving student achievement. We also provide the teachers with the rubrics so they know what both the DOE and Greenbrier administration are looking for. And by giving teachers immediate feedback, administrators can more quickly start the conversation around what support can be offered to improve on weaknesses and build on strengths.
We also see our principals using data in team meetings to show trends over time, instructional strategies used or not used, classroom seating arrangement and emotional support. They can discuss with their teachers what is really happening in the classroom, what they want to see, and as a team come up with ways to improve it.
What we have achieved in just over a year has really surprised us. Students and teachers are now used to seeing principals in their classroom, and more open professional conversations are taking place. We have a greater sense of collaboration and teamwork, which had been lacking.
As a district we feel very fortunate. TESS and observ4success have delivered a way to communicate at a statewide level how teachers and administrators are doing. We have strengthened our community and collaboration—and our coaching has improved, resulting in more effective use of time, empowered teachers and increased student achievement.
Lisa Todd is deputy superintendent of schools at Greenbrier Public Schools in Arkansas.