In all that has been written about teacher evaluation, there has been one glaring omission: For teachers, it is frightening.
It’s intimidating to adjust to new performance expectations, anxiety-inducing when a job rating is attached to students’ test scores, and downright terrifying when less-than-rosy results come back.
All of that makes Renee Pryor’s job one of the most challenging in Tennessee’s Lincoln County school district—a job, she jokes, that “no one wants.” She is the administrator who works with new teachers and those who have gotten a lower score on one element of the reviews, typically the portion that is based on student-test scores.
Formally the district’s supervisor of evaluations and teacher leaders, Pryor is in reality responsible for making sure that evaluations of the district’s 250 teachers trigger useful feedback and targeted support—rather than leaving them frustrated and bewildered.
Tennessee was one of the first states to overhaul their teacher-evaluation systems in response to federal incentives to include such components as observations of teachers, a review of their planning, and consideration of student achievement; the elements are scored on a 1-to-5 scale. As in most states, putting the evaluations into practice has been a major lift.
“The new evaluation system has been overwhelming for teachers, but Mrs. Renee has done so much to make it as positive as possible,” says Tricia Bain, a teacher at South Lincoln Elementary School in Fayetteville, Tenn. “She has done an outstanding job in modeling what a ‘5’ lesson plan looks like through one-on-one coaching and workshops. … She shows so much heartfelt compassion for all teachers, whether they are first-year or veteran teachers.”
Pryor returned to the 4,000-student district in 2011 after its then-superintendent, Wanda Shelton, saw an opportunity to use her district’s cut of federal Race to the Top funds to support the state’s evaluation demands. Rather than pay for more professional development of the generic kind, Shelton created a new position to build the capacity of the district to do teacher evaluation meaningfully.
“It was my theory that evaluating doesn’t mean anything unless you can find prescriptive, individualized programming so that teachers can grow,” says Shelton, who retired in December.
It was Pryor, though, who turned what could have been just an aspirational job description into a powerful mechanism for supporting teachers.
“Renee fleshed it out, especially the [professional-development] piece,” Shelton says. “She did not want anyone to be demoralized by a [lower] score. She is passionate about that.”
Pryor, 51, taught in the district previously, beginning in 1988 as a high school career and technical education teacher before moving on to positions in another district. John Fanning, now a principal at the South Lincoln School, says her instructional abilities stood out even then.
“There were so many students who wanted to be in her class, and one of the reasons it grew over those years was because of Renee. She would arrive early, stay late, and if you ever had to be on a committee with someone, she was the one you wanted to be with,” he says. “When she came back to our school system to work with teachers, I saw that what she used to do with her students, she was now doing with her colleagues.”
Pryor’s first task was simply ensuring that principals understood the evaluation standards. She created resources so that principals had strategies on hand—links to research, video clips, and exemplars—to give teachers immediately after visiting their classrooms.
Teachers needing assistance typically get a growth plan and are paired with colleagues in the district who have excelled in their content areas. Most of all, they get a lot of personal support from Pryor herself. She has devised a host of techniques to improve the process and make it less frightening.
“Regardless of the situation or why they are where they are, they don’t want to be there, and I’ve got to make this as painless as possible for them,” Pryor says. “I go into this by telling each teacher, ‘You’re valuable, I know you’re valuable. Let’s take a look at what happened this year.’ ”
Pryor gives each teacher a video of his or her lesson as a way to break the ice. First, she asks teachers to comment on their own videos, before she gives them any feedback.
“Her first question is usually, ‘How do you think your lesson went?’ And I like that, because it puts me in charge of what I’m feeling,” says Erica Mohler, a middle-grades teacher Pryor has supported at the district’s Blanche School. “And if I don’t think it was good, then I shouldn’t expect someone else to think it was good.”
In addition, Mohler says, Pryor comes with concrete steps about ways to improve even generally good lessons.
Doubling Down on PD
Pryor’s responsibilities have expanded as the district has begun new initiatives, such as its Rewarding Instruction for Student Excellence, or RISE, program.
Funded through a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant, RISE supports substantial stipends for teacher-leadership positions in the schools and bonuses for teachers who improve student achievement. Pryor is the person who works with teachers to help them craft the individual professional-development plans for increasing their scores.
“Her dynamic personality is very encouraging to teachers who are struggling with test scores or in training to enter a leadership role,” says Bain, the South Lincoln Elementary teacher.
And in concert with the district’s curriculum staffer, Pryor has also revamped the district’s in-house offerings of professional development. Originally for novice teachers, the monthly Teacher Time sessions are open to all and now focus on the state’s 12 evaluation competencies. Increasingly, Pryor has asked classroom teachers from the district to present and model strategies, and she often taps teachers who have at one point gotten low student-growth scores on their evaluations.
It’s a way for those teachers to regain confidence in their abilities, Pryor says. And that’s important because one of the hardest things about teacher evaluation is that getting a low score feels terribly personal.
Teachers truly do want the evaluation. They want it as long as they get meaningful feedback.
Pryor knows that, no matter how much some teachers like her as a person, being evaluated by her changes the stakes. Mostly, she says, the teachers she’s worked with have come around. Of the approximately 60 teachers she’s supported in the past three years, she can only recall one who rejected her feedback altogether and who simply didn’t possess the skills or will to get better.
“Teachers truly do want the evaluation. They want it as long as they get meaningful feedback,” Pryor says. “They just don’t like the feeling they get when they get a low score.”
It also helps that Pryor is anything but a blind follower when it comes to every last detail of the state’s evaluation system. She was among many individuals recommending that Tennessee officials consider changing how they calculate teachers’ growth scores.
Tennessee usually measures those scores over a three-year period, a way of improving their stability. But the law of averages means a very low score in one year can pull down a teacher’s rating in subsequent years, even if she makes significant progress, Pryor points out.
Now, teachers will get a choice of whether to use a growth score based on one or three years, under changes the state legislature approved for the 2015-16 school year.
To help measure the success of its efforts, Lincoln County has commissioned studies by researchers at Lipscomb University, in Nashville.
The early results are promising: Teachers who participated in the district’s RISE sessions got higher scores than those who didn’t on the observation portion of their evaluations. The next step? Proving that higher performance also translates into better student learning.
All of that has Pryor feeling good about her role working with teachers, even though the topic of teacher evaluation, inevitably, continues to be sensitive. It has meant, on occasion, that Pryor has been asked to defend just why evaluation should matter. She recalls one friend’s protestations: “We had some bad teachers and we turned out OK.”
But in Pryor’s view, not everyone can depend on having supportive family members to make up for a year of off-instruction.
“There are very few positions that have the power that teachers have. The bus drops these babies off, and they’re with you from 8 to 3. Sometimes, we’re their doctors and their nurses,” she says. “We can do so much good for our students, and I just strongly feel that they deserve the best.”