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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

The Power of Peer Appraisals

When teachers share in one another's appraisals, the result is an invitation for reflection and professional growth.

Instructional Strategies
On Monday morning the principal enters your classroom and asks if Thursday is a good day to schedule your appraisal. “Sure! Thursday is fine,” you answer.
On Tuesday you frantically gather materials. Wednesday is spent reviewing those Madeline Hunter notes that have been buried since your last evaluation. On Wednesday evening a pit begins to form in your stomach. By the time Thursday rolls around, you're so nervous you can barely think clearly. Yet, once again, you pull it off. You breathe a sigh of relief and figure out when you will have to go through this again.
Once an appraisal form is completed by the principal, shared with the teacher, and filed in the personnel office, what impact does it really have? Over the years, teachers develop a repertoire of techniques that are too extensive to be assessed by the general categories on traditional appraisal forms. When the same priorities exist year after year, what can teachers learn about serious improvement?

Launching Peer Appraisals

With the support and encouragement of our principal, George Mansfield, nine of our colleagues at Summit Elementary School began developing a peer appraisal process. What this group accomplished paved the way for our efforts and allowed us to build on their successes.
The members of this first group met socially throughout the year to establish trusting relationships, address concerns about the new process, and explore what they wanted to learn from the experience—both individually and as a group. In January 1990 the teachers began observing one another. The results of their observations—recorded in personal letters—were compiled into booklets that became part of each teacher's personnel file.
  • provide opportunities to socialize outside the school day,
  • train one another to ask hard questions,
  • work in teams of three or four, and
  • keep goals manageable.

Addressing Some Early Concerns

Developing a forum that would allow us to ask one another hard questions was one of our biggest challenges. Because maintaining an atmosphere of support was critical, we formed a before- and after-school discussion group rather than one-on-one conferences. Group size was another consideration mentioned by the previous year's group. Too large a number makes it difficult for one teacher to observe each of the others, and the possibility for productive dialogue is limited.
Keeping our goals manageable was an ongoing issue. We wanted to be able to write letters that reflected our efforts and incorporated the suggestions of the previous year's group. So we limited the number of total observations to four, and each of us planned to co-author two letters. To avoid daily distractions, substitutes were hired on the days we wrote to our peers.
During the first year a scheduling snafu resulted in two teachers observing a third teacher during the same time period. Because each observing teacher noticed strategies the other one missed, our group decided to use two observers. This innovation gave us an opportunity to collaborate on observations and appraisal letters.
One of the most time-consuming chores was devising a rotation schedule. We had an odd number of group members, and we also had to schedule observations around music, physical education, art, lunch, and recess schedules. Through creative planning, however, we were able to resolve this issue.
  • Does the teacher being observed want the focus of the observation to be narrow or broad?
  • How can colleagues deliver information honestly without compromising trust?
  • How long should each observation last?

Discussing the Observations

We visited classes during the second semester. Each time an observation was scheduled, we met before and after school for group discussions. Observing others prompted us to ask hard questions about our own teaching styles: How patient am I? Are some of the rules in my classroom necessary? Do I use techniques that appeal to different learning styles? Questions such as these formed the foundation for our discussions about a variety of shared issues such as individual organizational skills, common behaviors of children that can be difficult to deal with, and the possible role voice tone plays in classroom management.
The level of trust we developed throughout the year made it possible for us to support and listen to one another and to adapt our instruction based on individual needs. The following scenario is a case in point.
After noticing how an intermediate teacher arranged furniture in her classroom—in clusters of four desks—a primary teacher commented that the students in one cluster, which was fitted against a wall, were less attentive than the others. The observing teacher humorously commented, “It's just like being in a restaurant. Everybody wants a booth!” The upper grade teacher had never thought about this before. After she tried a different arrangement, the general patterns of student behavior improved. This teacher may not have accepted the recommendation if it had not come from one of her peers in this caring, trusting environment.

Writing Letters That Invite Reflection

At the end of the second semester, we discussed how to write letters to our peers: How much time should we allow for writing? How do we write supportive messages that contain more than “fluff”?
Although writing in pairs would take more time, we felt that this process would produce higher quality. Two peers paired up based on how frequently they had been in a particular classroom and the variety of lessons they had observed. Reading the letters generously shared by our colleagues from the previous year helped us establish content priorities. The most powerful letters were those that provided specific examples of how teachers interacted with students, raised questions about how the observing teacher was able to reflect on his or her own teaching, and included telling details about classroom atmosphere. By constantly running ideas by one another, we were able to spot generalizations and repeated themes.
The letters contained portions written by the pair jointly and sections written by each of the teachers separately. First, each pair of writers tried to capture the essence of the person they were writing about. Some letters had a formal tone, others were more casual, but all achieved the goal of personalization. For example: Observing you teach 1st and 2nd graders was an impressive experience for both of us. The deliberate steps that you take to provide your students with meaningful experiences were obvious. In a lesson on the value of money ... you were clear, concise, and methodical. Visual aids enabled the children to understand the intent of your lesson and helped children on all levels of understanding to grasp your concepts. A second pair of teachers wrote to another teacher: We were impressed with the number of lifelong skills and activities that were incorporated into a relatively short time period ... listening, reading, following directions, measuring, problem solving, dividing portions equally, and sharing responsibilities. Is this deliberate on your part as you plan your lessons? We know from being in your classroom on several occasions that you do this consistently.
Next, each of the writers recorded an individual response. Questions were raised that helped the observers to reflect on their own teaching. For example, our art teacher noticed how children received instructions as they sat in a group on the floor with the teacher and then made a smooth transition back to their tables. This allowed her to reflect about using this procedure in the art room. She shared the following thoughts: I was pleased to see you referring to the artist's illustrations and the writer's format in several books. This enhances what students learn in art about how artists work differently and how they tell a story visually. [The way] you use imagination activities and questioning techniques ... certainly helps children tune in to right-brain thinking.Closer association with you through our peer assessment has brought about a research project between the two of us and your class. With some applied kinesiology techniques we both integrate in our classrooms, we hope to improve reading and writing skills, as well as creative thinking and drawing skills.
Here's another example of an observing teacher's personal response to the same teacher described above: You and I recently had a conversation about tone of voice in the classroom. You were concerned about whether or not you were expressive enough when interacting with your students. Believe me, you captivate your students. In addition to your voice intonations, your facial expressions keep children glued on what you are doing.It is a humbling experience to witness your high level of organizational skills. Your day is carefully orchestrated for the benefit of you and your students. Will I ever be as thorough in my planning? You anticipate a variety of outcomes so that you can make adjustments for them.

From the Principal's Perspective

As in previous years, our principal's written perspective was an integral part of the appraisal process. He frequently observed our classrooms and made sure we were working within district and state guidelines. In both years, his appraisal documentation took on a more personalized tone than in the past, in part because of the letter format, but primarily because of the content of each letter. He interviewed teammates for their insights into each person's skills and, when requested, spoke with parents and students as well. These conversations provided insights about teachers' strengths in a variety of roles outside the classroom. Here are some examples of the principal's comments: ... is willing to take time with new people on the staff and help them with problems. She has a way of channeling energy and creativity into teaching and keeps kids on task and focused.... I have seen her adapt curriculum and instruction for special needs students. She is constantly searching for new ideas and techniques to use in her classroom.... has an unusual ability to read people—knows body language. Often in team meetings when she senses someone is uneasy, she will ask them: What do you think? The question and its answer will sometimes change our entire direction.... is a good role model for students because she is a good problem solver and helps children to become capable decision makers. She guides them and instructs them in the process.
Our principal described each teacher's contributions to the Summit community and drew connections between that person's interests and the ways those interests benefited the staff and students. An example: You are involved in the life of Summit Elementary School. You have taught two classes to the faculty: a computer class and one on drug education.... You have served on numerous committees, written Chapter 2 grants, taken several workshops, and served as a mentor teacher. You don't want to live in a closed system but rather would prefer to be personally challenged—to have opportunities—to take risks.
Finally, because he was aware of each teacher's career goals, our principal was able to address characteristics unique to those goals. One of our colleagues is pursuing a career in administration, so the focus of his appraisal was centered around his ability to problem solve. Your great skill in understanding how other people's intellectual processes work ... helps you to take complicated problems and break them down. You move out of the smoke and fire by not putting someone else's anger down or asking for more self-control. You're sympathetic to it, and let them talk it out—their way. You identify the real source of a person's hostility and find a way to connect anger to a point of view you can both discuss.

The Potential of Networking

We don't suggest that there is only one way to develop and implement an alternative appraisal process. However, we believe there are four prerequisites for any such process to work.
First, support from district and building administrators is critical. Supportive administrators recognize that experienced teachers, through their daily contact with students, provide effective role models for one another. Administrators who support teachers are aware of the importance of empowerment and see themselves as facilitators to that end.
Second, trust—the foundation for productive communication—opens the door for self-evaluation.
Third, as with anything else that we hope to learn and grow from, this process also takes time, sometimes above and beyond the school day. However, the time spent is well worth the rewards gained. We recommend hiring substitutes, whenever possible, to cover classes on observation and letter-writing days so that teachers do not feel these activities are an additional burden.
Finally, the alternative appraisal process should be voluntary. If teachers feel coerced by other teachers or administrators, the necessary foundation of trust will not exist.
Our new process is based on the premise that teachers will improve professionally when given the opportunity—that meaningful change comes from within. We believe that faculties who have positive working relationships can network and build on what they already have in place. The level of professionalism is raised when teachers, with the support and encouragement of their colleagues, are allowed to pursue areas for future growth.
The sense of individual and group pride that develops from this appraisal process is overwhelming. Teachers no longer take for granted what they and their peers accomplish each day in the classroom. They realize the strength that lies in diversity. Through networking, teachers discover they are their own best resources. This is the key that makes this process succeed.

Elizabeth Walen has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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