Teacher Blog Posts

The following posts are authored by Teacher Leaders who participated in a VIVA Idea Exchange. The opinions expressed are their own.

When it comes to Common Core, content is what counts.


By Mark Anderson

The Common Core standards have provided rich fodder for outrage and tendentiousness throughout 2014, and will likely continue to do so in 2015. But why do we endlessly debate and polarize policies, instead of seeking to implement them in a way that best helps the citizens they were crafted to serve? (See early education, healthcare, etc., ad nauseam).

While folks are still arguing over whether Common Core is the hellspawn of all evil, educators at my school are working to revamp our curriculum and practices, using the new standards as a guide.

Last year, my ELA department elected to try Expeditionary Learning’s Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum, which has been made freely available on NY Engage. We found much to admire, but we also realized we had other areas of study we would like to explore further. For example, this year, all grades (6-8) are reading a dramatic text by Shakespeare, and each grade has dedicated a unit to studying poetry. We’re balancing the materials we developed around EL’s curriculum last year–along with curriculums we’re developing on our own–using the Common Core to steer our planning and assessments.

The standards are vague on details, so there’s a lot to unpack. What does it mean to “read closely”? Annotation must be an aspect of reading closely, so what expectations for annotating do we communicate to our students? And how do we assess them?

And that’s just the basics. Then there are the real doozies, like Reading Literature Standard 5 for 7th grade: “Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.” How do we teach students to conduct such an analysis? What knowledge and vocabulary do students require to understand the structure of a sonnet or a soliloquy? How will we prepare our students in each grade to understand how structure conveys meaning, across all different types of texts?

To support our understanding of the standards, I decided to draw on other resources to fill in the gaps. For example, I like the approach and guidance that the Massachusetts ELA standards have provided, so I used Sandra Stotsky’s ELA Curriculum Framework as a guide for content and knowledge specific to poetry. And to better determine the discrete skills specific to the standards and how they might evolve across grades, I reviewed ETS’s CBAL Learning Progressions. Using these and other resources, I tried to break down the knowledge, skills, products, and scaffolds of each standard across the grades that I teach (I co-teach 6-8 as a special education teacher). So far, I’ve only barely gotten through the Reading Literature standards!

My analysis document was useful for my own thought process, but difficult for planning purposes, so I condensed the potential products for each standard, trying to visualize what would be most concrete for both teachers and students. For example, for Reading Literature Standard 5 in 6th grade, one method of both assessment and scaffolding would be to utilize a narrative arc graphic organizer to track the development of a story’s plot.

By engaging in this process, I began to establish how I and other teachers could assess and teach the standards consistently across grades, as well as how we might sequentially build on the knowledge and skills taught at each level.

We just completed our units on poetry across all grades, and are now immersed in Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet). As we plan our units, I refer back to my standards analysis to assist our thinking in how we will target and assess our instruction. For example, we decided to focus on Standard 5 in our poetry units. Across the grades, we consistently taught concepts and vocabulary based on poetic structure, such as stanza lengths like quatrain, cinquain, or rhyming couplet. Our current 6th graders will now be equipped to build on their introduction to enjambment and caesura, so that by the time they get to 8th grade, they will be much better equipped than our current 8th graders with cumulative knowledge and skills.

To see how we assessed Standard 5 across grades and get an idea of how we view each grade building successively on the other, you can examine our 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade culminating tasks.

I present this process not to imply that my school’s analysis and curriculum development is better than anything else out there, but rather to suggest that time spent digging into the standards will yield resources and knowledge that will be of benefit to students. I encourage educators who may find themselves caught up in political currents to engage in a similar process to keep our focus on what really counts: the content we teach our students.

In 2015, I’d like to see less bickering about politics and ideology, and more resources and knowledge shared by professionals about how we can better support our students and teachers in exceeding the targets of the Common Core standards.

Mark-Anderson-150-Mark Anderson is a 7th and 8th grade Special Education teacher in the Bronx, NY. He participated in the VIVA New York Task Force.



Not Junk Mail

By Justin McGehee

Junk mail. It looked exactly like junk mail.

Okay, it only looked like junk mail for a second, but if I hadn’t given it a second glance, it would’ve been deleted. What a change that would’ve been.

The subject line said something NEA something something Accountability something...or something. Probably just another FYI on education policy and upcoming elections sent by a union-related emailing site. Not spam, but not personalized either.

Couldn’t hurt to take a look. I opened it.

Okay, they wanted ideas blah blah blah, school accountability, what-did-I-think-as-an-educator. One link took me to a forum where I’d need to create a sign-in (with a password) to comment.

“Bah! Humbug!” said the minute-pinching time miser of my brain. It’d probably take a whole minute to create a working sign-in, and I’d probably forget the password, and nobody would read what I wrote, and nobody would make anything happen. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dis!\

I backed out…but I didn’t delete that email. It just didn’t feel like the millions of others I’d seen. It stayed in my inbox for days, maybe weeks, egging me on until I finally broke and created a sign-in. I only made one post and later just one comment. It wasn’t much in quantity, but I truly put the best ideas I had, the kind of thing I just wished “somebody out there” would hear, please, just somebody please hear this… In other words, I had ideas, but not much hope. Not until I got the next e-mail, that is.


Okay, that’s not what it said, but it might as well have.

True, I wasn’t being asked to sneak the One Ring to Mount Doom as part of a nine-member fellowship. That would’ve been easy; I already know that story and could take advantage of a little plot hole involving some large eagles. No, it was more serious than that, because this was real life, and I was being asked as a forum-identified “thought leader” if I would please consider doing a whole bunch of reading and writing to put people’s ideas together into a Really Cool Report that would be presented to some High-Profile People.

In other words, something important was about to be said, some very important people were about to be listening, and was I willing to make sure the right things were said, and said in the right way, so that the message wouldn’t be lost on its way to people who could make a difference?

I had no idea what I was in for. All I knew is that because I hadn’t treated an honest request like junk mail, suddenly I’d have the opportunity to make sure nobody’s voice was treated like junk mail.

See, while I often don’t want to be the leader, I do want to help the leader, because that can help everyone else by extension. But now, the leader was Everybody. I’d need to treat Everybody’s voice as an important message because Everybody would be helping and leading everybody else.

Nobody’s voice is junk mail. Everyone has it in them to listen, and everyone has it in them to speak. I wasn’t junk mail. I gave my best in a moment I didn’t even realize would matter, and look what happened. The rest of the writing team wasn’t junk mail. They gave their best, and look what has happened.

You aren’t junk mail, either, and neither is anyone you know.

Now go give your best, and see what happens.


McGeheeJustin McGehee has been teaching high school ELA for 11 years after starting with a performing arts emphasis in English and a Masters of Education.

Teaching as an Art of Inspiration

By Nancy Kunsman

In many of today’s school districts, teachers are handed lesson plan packets weekly. These packets include all the materials a teacher (or anyone for that matter) needs to stay on the district’s pacing calendar tract. This process means all sophomore English teachers across the district use the same materials each week, and teach the same lessons each week, and—in extreme cases—even assign the same exercises each week, all in lock-step fashion.

Recently, a friend of mine from Mississippi, an art teacher who is free to design her own lessons, told me the core teachers in her district are handed these types of packets every week. She also said they are the most miserable teachers she knows.

I have taught in a district using a daily pacing guide with the expectation my students would be within a day of Ms. Jones’ students across the hall. The common rationale was that the students needed a “common experience.” I, too, became one of the most miserable teachers in education today because I had lost my autonomy, my opportunity to inspire.

I recently joined fifteen teachers from across the United States to present a policy report to the National Education Association leadership and its policy task force. While in DC, I made time to go to the Smithsonian Art Institute just to have my picture taken with Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway. Why? Because in my current school district, I have autonomy, and during a unit on symbols in literature, I arranged a videoconference with the Smithsonian so one of their experts could use art to help my students understand how symbolism is used in visual literature (namely, art).

The one piece that fascinated my students was Electronic Superhighway. In a district with tightly scripted lessons, my students would’ve only had the artwork in the textbook to illustrate symbols in literature. But in a district where teachers are treated as professionals, I had creative options. Returning from DC, the first thing I showed my students was the photo with their teacher in front of that piece of art. They were as excited as I was, and they knew they had a teacher who went out of her way to help them not only understand, but also be inspired by what they learn in the classroom.

Can you imagine the great masters, such as Monet or Cezanne, creating inspirational pieces while being told, “Here’s your paint. Everyone is using these three colors. We want your audience to have a common experience”?

Just as master artists inspire with their creativity, master teachers inspire with their creativity, too. New artists are taught technique and given the opportunity to learn; new teachers are also taught technique and given the opportunity to learn. However, both artists and teachers grow with the autonomy to be creative. While new teachers may need mentors and guidance, these should be carefully balanced with the encouragement to bring their own talents to the classroom.

The role of teachers is not to prep for a test. The role of teachers is not to offer one-sizefits-all instruction. The role of a teacher is to INSPIRE. Contrary to pop culture, we are not just another brick in the wall. We are not just bad apples, needing to be discarded.

Teachers inspire classrooms full of students every day. I make the policy proposal that districts reconsider the common experience through scripted lessons. Instead, schools across America should encourage teachers to show us what they have, to show us their creative abilities. Teachers inspire us to have unique—not common—experiences in classrooms across America.

KunsmanNancy Kunsman is a National Board Certified Teacher, currently in her 16th year teaching English. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

“Now is the time” to take steps towards education reform.


By Janet Foster

It started with an email. My inbox is replete with things that are sent to me without my permission. The fact is, I often don’t read them fully. I had my finger poised over the delete key while I was scanning an email from the NEA in October, when I read about the formation of a writing collaborative through an organization called VIVA (Voices Ideas Vision Action). I read on. For me, it’s kind of like walking into a book store with an unlimited gift card—I’m a sucker for a writing project.

I took a few minutes to compose my response to the question and sent it. I went back to the website a few times over the course of the next couple weeks to see what other people had written, and was encouraged to see so many other teachers writing about the same topics I did. Then I got another email; this one invited me to join VIVA. I hesitated briefly, then jumped in.

Along with my interest in writing, I decided to join because I wanted to see the people who are at the heart of the National Education Association (NEA). The picture I had in my mind was a smoke-filled room with grumpy, old men scowling, smoking cigars, and cooking up impossible ideas for the teachers of America. Teachers, the professionals who should be a part of their conversations, are never present when I imagine this scene. I’m not sure why; something to do with Jimmy Hoffa and union bosses in control of the ignorant masses. So I decided to join this writing group to develop ideas and suggestions to present to the union, to meet some of the movers and shakers of the NEA, and to refine my notion of the union’s intention.

When the VIVA writers finally met in Washington, D.C., we already knew something about each other, but that isn’t the same as being in the same room. We quickly became a cohesive group and we worked on last-minute adjustments to what we planned to say. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but even as we walked through the NEA headquarters’ doors, I wondered just how things would work since we had never rehearsed as a whole group.

Ultimately, rather than the original 90 minutes with three people that we had been told to expect, we spent four hours with a 12-person task force. Not only did we present our information, but we were also given time to join them at the table, literally, and speak directly with them and expand and discuss what we had written.The time passed quickly and some intense conversations on contentious topics drew passionate responses from both the NEA and VIVA groups. For a time during this discussion, the VIVA group dominated the conversation with specific comments and guided the talk toward some significant changes that we believe should be implemented. It seemed that we were being heard, and it was encouraging. In the end, the momentum of VIVA’s influence waned and it seemed that the NEA had reverted to ingrained, traditional thinking and it didn’t sound like they would seriously consider our suggested solutions. But they had just been handed our report and they hadn’t had time to read it yet. I believe that they did hear us, and that when they read and digest our full 50-page report, they will consider our recommendations. The NEA task force members are teachers, too, and they, like most of us, sometimes forget to question the status quo.

My trip to Washington, D.C. was short and I only had about two hours to walk and see the White House and the National Mall. As I stood at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, facing the reflecting pool, I thought of the footage I have watched with my students many times of Martin Luther King, Jr. standing on this same spot, giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. We study his speech because it was a significant turning point for many Americans because he was speaking to a national, multiracial audience, many of whom had heard of him, but had not heard him speak directly.

When my class reads and then watches the old black-and-white footage of this speech, we discuss the marked change in King’s presentation. He begins slowly and methodically, and he seems to have no passion for his audience. Then we notice the distinct point when he breaks away from his scripted speech and begins his impassioned plea to the crowd. One phrase that he repeats to make his point is, “Now is the time.” This inspirational mantra can be used in a new context for us today in the realm of public education in the U.S.

Now is the time for teachers, the union, and the public to work together and reverse the direction of a one-size-fitsall approach to teaching. Now is the time for the voices of teachers to be heard above the din of corporate, profit-making, non-education-based organizations. Now is the time to remember that we’re talking about the hearts and minds of our children.

This writing collaborative has been an incredible journey for me—both personally and professionally. I met my personal objectives by completing the writing task, presenting it to the task force, and taking a walking tour of some of the most iconic symbols of my country. My hope is that the task force will glean some ideas from our writing that will help them suggest specific steps that the NEA can take in the coming year. It will take much more than a single report from the writers of this one report to institute the changes that need to be made in public education, but one step is a beginning.

Fortunately, I found the NEA task force totally contrary to my imagined group. They were engaged and anxious to hear what we had to say. They were led by a vivacious, engaging leader, Becky Pringle, who questioned and prodded us to clarify our writing. The task force not only gave us an opportunity to present our findings, but they also showed a very down-to-earth, compassionate approach to what they were hearing. They did this because they are just as concerned about the future of schools and students as we are in the VIVA writing collaborative. I am glad to have a revised picture of what the NEA actually does behind closed doors.

Though the work is only beginning, I returned home to Oregon with a new appreciation of what it takes to make change happen—especially on a national level.

And incidentally, as I walked away from our presentation at the NEA building that crisp December evening, I am pleased to report that I did not see a single cigar.

FosterJanet Foster is a Language Arts teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Jefferson, Oregon. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange.

Uncovering Ineffective Methods of Accountability

By Rachel Rich

This December, along with colleagues from Washington State to New Mexico, I flew to Washington, DC to present a report to the NEA summarizing the passions and concerns of over 900 teachers. Our writing collaborative was granted an opportunity as rare as a perfect SAT score—a chance to speak with the NEA’s Vice President, Board, and Accountability Task Force. Our project stemmed from a joint NEA and VIVA Idea Exchange website that allowed teachers to discuss “360 Degree Accountability”. One focus of the debate was the term “accountability”, which unfortunately often implies that teachers bear sole responsibility for student success and that the only way to achieve such success is through standardized testing, testing, and more testing.

 In spite of this, I expected the 900 contributors to mostly share their philosophies, best lesson plans that support tests, or even praise for the glitzy computerization of tests, probably sprinkled with a few gripes. I was wrong. The VIVA/NEA sounding board reverberated with endless outcries against the standardized tests de jour. Too long. Exhausting. Demoralizing. More a test of computer skills than knowledge. Putting instructional focus solely on teaching to the test. Shortening instructional time. Disruptive. Taking over the whole school from March to May. Not what they hoped for. Uninformative. And way too expensive.

Charged with the mission of summarizing these (and unrelated) views, I decided I had better inform myself about the terminology and technology of current assessments, as well as their implications. I also shared a vested interest in observing the outcome of educational reform, since before retirement I served on several committees for the Oregon Department of Education to draft standards and a common curriculum underlying such tests. These benchmark standards were then incorporated into House Bill 3565, Oregon’s Education Reform Act.

Rather than just jump on a bandwagon with other educators with their minds already set pro or con, I decided to first hunt down the facts myself, as found in the testing industry’s own manuals. My focus is specifically on Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests used in my home state of Oregon, because I can consult with local teachers for clarification. SBAC is now used by over 20 states, although many other states employ the similar PARCC.

Like winter wool on bare skin, these questions began to prickle: What are the logistical issues for schoolwide tests taken at a computer? How much time do they consume? How expensive are they—including fees, technology, and administration? Do SBAC results detail each student’s strengths and weaknesses or merely summarize the progress of a whole class or school? Are results prompt, allowing teachers to tailor instruction throughout the year, or do they merely give schools a thumbs-up or thumbs-down at year’s end—an autopsy, if you will? Are scores fair and consistent between students, schools, and states? Do these tests guide or rule instruction? Besides improving learning, do these tests serve other purposes? And most important of all, do they actually raise student scores?

Scrolling through SBAC’s online guides and other primary sources, I uncovered some strange answers and equally peculiar implications. This blog invites you to share your own testing experiences and especially your solutions to any problems. How should the goals, parameters, and outcomes look? How would you fix or replace today’s version of standardized tests?

But first, let the SBAC literature speak for itself:

Test length according to Smarter Balanced Online Field Test Administration Manual, p. 34

For the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests, the youngest students test for seven hours, while the eldest sit at a computer for eight-and-a-half hours. The literature admits students actually need much more time, probably 10 ½ hours for high school students. Here is the SBAC minimum timetable from p. 34 of the manual:

Grades 3-5: SEVEN HOURS

Fortunately, SBAC allows students to take breaks and spread tests over days or even weeks. But to complicate things, it’s impossible to administer tests only within the relevant class period, given the time it takes to log each student into his or her computer and then conduct the required instructions and warmups. Consequently, blocks of 90-120 minutes are recommended, although breaks cannot be longer than 20 minutes without shutting down the program. These scheduling factors are a real headache for administrators. Likewise, lengthy tests pull both students and teachers out of their other classes, burdening both with make-up work.

Clearly, this SBAC timetable shouts out why so many students and teachers, not to mention administrators, label these assessments lengthy, stressful, and exhausting. By comparison, college exams are only three hours, the SAT is three and three quarters, and our military’s ASVAB is only two and a half! We have to ask, how is it that the SAT manages to test a senior in less than half the time it takes for SBAC to assess a third-grader? Who knew I would stumble across such revealing manuals? I merely intended to research the acronyms and dense terminology swirling around standardized tests like a dust cloud. But once penetrated, the online SBAC guides reveal a method of “accountability” that is both inefficient and extreme.


Rachel Rich taught middle and high school English and Foreign Language for 21 years, while leading the longest running international student exchange program between them. An early advocate of educational reform, she worked on several committees for the Oregon Department of Education to pass House Bill 3565 (The Oregon Educational Reform Act), and helped draft Oregon’s Certificate of Initial Mastery and Certificate of Advanced Mastery. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

Crafting a New Career Ladder

By Lesley Hagelgans

Who is qualified to lead?

At the Teach to Lead Summit in Louisville (December 2014), a team of regular classroom teachers were asked how they knew they were qualified to take on the initiative they had proposed.  They explained that they believe in the wealth of their knowledge in pedagogy, their experience in the classroom, and their ability to research and network empowered them to be qualified. Effective teacher leaders take it for granted that they are qualified to rise to the new challenges in education. Maybe that’s why the role of defining a teacher leader has become so difficult at this point in our educational society.

Emerging Road Map

There is an emerging roadmap to becoming a teacher leader, but it is difficult to put into words.  Previous career pathways ended in administration or university classrooms. In the corporate world of the late twentieth century, women had to bust through the glass ceiling into corporate offices; education is very similar.

The evolving career ladder of Teacher Leadership is similar to the evolution of Nurse Practitioners from the medical field. Defining what that role should be is tough, because there are countless variables to consider about what goes into an effective teacher leader. Besides the aforementioned variables, there is an endless supply of people (who are not teachers) who feel that they should be shaping the job description of this new position.

Teachers need to be front and center – if not leading – this conversation! They provide valuable insight and research for defining what a teacher leader should be. Sometimes that research is more qualitative than quantitative, but the value in both methods of research cannot be overlooked.

Supporting Organizations

Organizations like New Voice Strategies and VIVA Teachers, the Department of Education, the Network of National State Teachers of the Year, Hope Street Group, the Center for Teaching Quality, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and other similar groups are all seeking to define what it means to be a teacher leader.

These organizations are working collaboratively to raise the voice of teachers in the crafting of this new position within the profession and to highlight the actions of those brave educators willing to step out of the traditional classroom role in hopes of inspiring meaningful, sustainable reform in a movement towards a more equitable, quality education for all students through teacher leadership.

Lesley-Hagelgans-150(2)Lesley Hagelgans teaches Language Arts at Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Mich. She was a member of the National VIVA Task Force.


When did you know you were a Teacher Leader?

By Lesley Hagelgans

As I was sitting in the beautiful Grand Ball Room on the tenth floor atop the historic Seelbach Hotel, Annice Brave, the keynote speaker asked, “When did you know that you were a teacher leader?”

For me, it was this summer. I was on the phone with a representative from the NEA. She was telling those of us on this conference call, “We are so pleased that you all are coming to Denver to present at the Raise Your Hand: Empowered Educator’s Day. We are privileged to have you join us because you are WORLD CLASS educators.” Then there was a pause.

I’m not sure if she paused on purpose or not, but I thought to myself, “Does she know who she is talking to?” Then it hit me.

15 years ago when I was interviewed for the job I currently hold, the principal asked me one memorable question, “How would you describe yourself in just ONE word?”


Ambitiously, I have created lesson plans aligned to the Common Core, unit designs, and assessments. I met with students, contacted parents, attended PLCS, IEP’s and parent meetings, joked at lunch with my colleagues, emailed everyone (parents, students and staff), analyzed data, decorated for school parties, published the yearbook and sadly, even attended funerals of former students to be there for the friends they left behind.

Ambitiously I have sat on curriculum boards, school remodeling boards, textbook committees, hiring committees, eighth grade party planning committees, the local union board, the leadership team for my district, the evaluation committee for my district, the Faculty Council for my building and the committee to plan this year’s staff skit for the annual holiday assembly.

Ambitiously, I joined VIVA 5 years ago in October. I have met the most inspiring teachers who deal with challenges far greater than what I can imagine. I have had the privilege of representing their voice through writing blogs, attending events like Education Nation or Raise Your Hand, and sitting on various boards.  Through VIVA, I have been graced with knowledge from experts who calculated value added measure algorithms, piloted the Common Core, defined what collaborative teacher evaluations actually look like and even sat down at the table with Secretary Arne Duncan.

Ambitiously, I take my next step in this journey of Teacher Leadership. Instead of using numbers as another means to identify failing kids or teachers resulting in punitive measures for all, I believe in analyzing those numbers proactively and prescriptively to help students, reach out to parents and support teachers. It is time for the education system in this country to become proactive instead of reactive. Teachers need time to teach and really work with kids and access to meaningful research. Please don’t let the next generation of teachers think you need an accounting degree to do this job (unless you’re teaching Accounting, of course). I was humbled when this idea was selected to be a part of the Teach to Lead program in Louisville.

Awards and accomplishments aside, I am still that same ambitious teacher I was 15 years ago. I just wanted to help kids – all kids – reach their fullest potential. So when did I really become a teacher leader? I’m not really sure, but I know it was the support of my colleagues – past and present – at both VIVA and Marshall Public Schools that helped my ambition find focus, purpose and meaning. Ambitiously, I am excited about where this new wave of teacher leadership will take us all.

Lesley-Hagelgans-150(2)Lesley Hagelgans teaches Language Arts at Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Mich. She was a member of the National VIVA Task Force.

How Loud will Your Voice Be?

By Jim Szewc

The late, great Stephen Covey once said, “Find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.”  The following success story shows how lending your voice to issues that are important within our school walls and communities, such as teacher evaluations, can lead to equity and positive change.  If you take away anything from this piece it is that banding together and getting others to follow your passion whether you are sitting at the negotiating table, or sitting in the faculty lounge, leading and supporting change, your voice has infinite value – use it!

I was fortunate to have experienced the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system from the classroom teacher perspective and have watched it develop as I transitioned into my current role as a new teacher mentor within the Hillsborough County Public School system (FL). This evaluation system was designed by various stakeholders both inside and outside of our school district, supported through a grant awarded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that gave our district a financial advantage to start developing such a system before most other districts were required to by state mandate.  What makes our story so unique is that the development and implementation of this system included teacher union involvement and classroom teacher input at every step of the journey.  Although I was not as involved in this area of the district five years ago, I was able to speak with several people who were both within the district and outside over the past year and was pleased at what I found.  This collaborative relationship with school board members, the superintendent, various district personnel and the teacher union and its members was paramount in making such a massive systematic change possible. I have no doubt as to why, five years later, we are continually viewed as a model district for others in the same position.  As with most major paradigm shifts within systems as large as this, there were definitely hurdles to conquer in order to accept and successfully adapt to the changes. However, it was evident that collaboration and equity of voice were the keystones in developing a fair and efficient system. If you are involved in the same process within your district, I encourage you to find a seat at the table so you can help raise the volume of teacher voices from the first conversation through the final negotiation and invite others to do the same.  We are always asking our students to understand and design how they should be evaluated, so it is vital that we do the same when the opportunity arises.

As the new evaluation system was being introduced, I was a 4th grade classroom teacher, and like everyone else I was hungry for as much information and details about this new framework, developed by researcher, Charlotte Danielson.  As a participant and spectator during the early months of the roll-out, I observed my colleagues showing signs of concern, trepidation, and even fear in some ways.  This fear derived from the knowledge that several new faces would be in the classroom throughout the year and each time, they’d be critiquing the instructor’s every move.  In some ways, I shared this same fear as it was an early stage of my career, but also, having come from the business world in my first life, the thought of being evaluated based on my performance was not something that was new to me.  In addition, within this observational component would also include feedback from school administrators and seasoned veterans of the classroom, so how could this be a bad thing?  In making this my personal stance, I was able to undergo the first two years of implementation with a positive attitude and willingness to listen and help my colleagues do so as well.  This is where I lent my voice, in helping others see the value in feedback and how it could change how you taught and how much the students were learning.  If I were in that position again, I would have tried whatever I could to be a bigger part of the development process, and would have tried to share my sentiment outside of my school walls.  Whatever stage of the process your district is in, I whole-heartedly encourage you to do the same, keep an open-mind and be receptive to feedback and help your colleagues see that same value!

Throughout these last five years, welcoming teacher voice and representation in the implementation or adjustments to this evaluation system has been a priority of our district and a mission of our teachers and union representatives.  It has been fundamental toward creating this evaluation system and will be a vital foundation for the long-term success of our district, our teachers and our students.

How loud will your voice be when the time comes in your district to make a monumental change? 

A Closer Look at HCPS’s Teacher Evaluation System:

  • The observational component makes up 60% of our overall evaluation “score” and of that the principal’s observations and peer evaluation are weighed equally, although some professionalism components are observed and rated only by the principal.  Depending on previous year’s performance, teachers may be observed multiple times both formally and informally within any given school year.
  • The remaining 40% of the overall evaluation consists of a value-added score calculated based upon annual student gains in various academic assessments both state and district designed.  What students and assessments that are included in this calculation depend on the educator’s role in the school and what students are officially assigned to you and therefore are impacted by your teaching.
  • Although the formula itself was not designed by teachers, as a component within our overall evaluation system, it was agreed to and voted on through the adoption process, which involved teachers and the teacher union every step of the way.

Links and Resources:

Jim SzewcJim Szewc teaches 4th grade reading in Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools. He participated in the VIVA MET Idea Exchange.



That Which Gets Measured Matters…

By Ann Neary

This fall, in my large, comprehensive NYC public high school, teacher evaluations were recalculated (from official Spring evaluations) to include a standardized test component. The result?  Only one teacher out of 140 has a Highly Effective rating. Teachers were shocked and puzzled. They were not part of the policy making or decision making conversations that decided what percentage standardized tests would play in their evaluations, what tests would be utilized, or how those tests would be calculated.

Here is what the breakdown looks like on a NYC teacher evaluation:


60% of the teacher evaluation is based on observation by an administrator. Last year that meant using a rubric taken from the Charlotte Danielson framework and judging 22 components (Update: this was considered too burdensome and so has been reduced to 8 components for this year’s evaluations). 20% of the evaluation comes from comparing the teacher’s student testing data with students from across the state and another 20% comes from comparing testing data in the local region. The 40% chunk raises questions.

In an effort to explain the new results to teachers, the DOE issued the following cover letter with the new teacher rating. The document raises more questions than answers. “ A teacher’s State measures were pre-determined by the State or selected by the principal from a list of State approved assessments. A teacher’s Local Measures were chosen from a State-approved list by the School Local Measures Committee and approved by the principal.” Who knew there was a Local School Measures Committee? Not a single teacher I know. And where are the State approved lists? What tests were approved?

Using my own data, I found that only 34 students out of the 70 I taught were included in this measure. And in some cases the “comparison” test was different- for the same student (a PSAT score compared to a city test score). This calculation appeared on the data sheet with Local Measures, by the way. And in several cases, a student took a city test in September but not in June (my seniors “opted out” that day) so I was unable to determine what the zero for the end of the year test did to my overall score.

NYC is not unique in this quagmire. Rochester School District (New York state) filed suit against the governing state board claiming that the state tests used in teacher evaluation made no concessions for the extreme poverty in which their students lived. States other than NY have raised questions as well about who is creating the standardized tests and how do they accommodate specific student populations.

And the other question left unanswered is the disconnect between what teachers are being asked to teach and what students are being tested on.

To engage my students in critical thinking, I often ask them to consider “what’s missing or whose voice is missing” from the text we are reading. This past September my Journalism students wondered why they had not heard from Officer Darren Wilson, accused of shooting Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. They searched diverse news outlets, watched multiple newscasts and found nothing. * The students were engaged in rigorous research, they participated and collaborated with diverse partners, learned to build on other’s ideas, evaluated information and integrated it into their own work. They expressed their own ideas clearly and persuasively in a manner appropriate for their audience.

None of that work would be tested on a standard exam. Yet all represent Common Core Standards for Speaking and Listening and College and Career Readiness standards.

Whose voice is missing from the discussion of teacher evaluations? The teachers whose job it is to teach.

Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt and Allison Rizzolo make compelling arguments in their book Everyone at the Table, for teacher engagement in evaluation processes as a means to both assess teacher effectiveness as well as improve teacher effectiveness. They lay the foundation and steps needed for teachers to take charge of their profession. Florida has led the way in this process. Teacher voice was welcomed and vital to the process.

Let’s make sure that all teachers have a voice at the table. I offer a few suggestions for ways in which you can get started:

  1. Share this blog on your social media networks.  Get your teacher friends talking about this issue.
  2. Sign up on the Commit to Lead site to share your ideas on how to get teacher voice represented in the revision of teacher accountability systems.
  3. Take a look at past VIVA Idea Exchange reports on this topic to see what your peers are recommending.  Share and discuss the reports in your school building and in social media. (VIVA CEA, VIVA MET, VIVA Minnesota, VIVA NY)
  4. If you haven’t done so already, become a member of VIVA Teachers.  There’s no cost to join and you will find yourself among a national group of teacher leaders who are actively engaged in this work. Join now!

It’s time teachers had their say.

* just this past week interviews with the officer appeared in the news

annAnn Neary teaches at DeWitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NY. She was a member of the VIVA MET Idea Exchange.

Teachers Speak, VIVA Listens

By Andria Mitchell

I had the privilege of attending as a speaker, representing teacher leaders at the Grantmakers for Education Conference.  Although, I was honored to be selected to present at such a prestigious event, I was a little nervous.  Speaking on behalf of teachers is a big deal to me, and I was hoping that I would represent educators well, deliver a message that was compelling enough to grab the attention of the audience, and leave them with a clear understanding of how to include teachers in the process of educational reform locally and nationally.

Patricia Loera from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation facilitated the session.  She asked several questions about my experience as a teacher leader, and allowed me to create a picture of “a day/week/school-year in the life of a teacher leader”.   Although, I was sharing from my own experiences, I never really considered how difficult it is to be a leader and serve in the classroom at the same time.  When duty calls I change hats, fall into character, and proceed into the capacity that I am needed without thinking about it.  As educators we tend to push ourselves beyond the job description in an effort to ensure that students are offered the best education possible…by any means necessary.

After my question and answer period, Elizabeth Evans took the floor.  She introduced the audience to New Voice Strategies and VIVA Teachers, and explained how her company links educators from across the country to research, discuss, and present on issues surrounding teacher efficacy.  Elizabeth also described how the collaborative efforts of teachers has allowed “teacher voice” to be heard in front of school policy makers throughout the U.S. ; including State and Local school boards, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation staff, U. S. Department of Education, and various educational conferences.  New Voice Strategies has empowered teachers to take a hands-on approach to the development of school policy.

We ended our session by allowing the audience to ask questions.  This is where I learned that our message was well received.  There were several questions about how to prepare teachers for the projected changes that will occur in education, as well as questions about how to engage teachers in planning for educational transitions.  I felt inspired by the questions that were being asked.  It made me feel like my voice was heard and someone will take action to hear the voices of the teachers in their local districts.  Mission accomplished.


Andria MitchellAndria teaches 8th grade and is a Title 1 Compliance Coordinator at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. She participated in the VIVA MET Idea Exchange: Reflections from the Classroom.