Educators from districts big and small heard about the possibilities and pitfalls of peer observation at an informational session at NYSUT headquarters this week.
Harvard University’s Susan Moore Johnson, a nationally known expert on the subject, discussed the latest research and highlighted the experiences of districts that have implemented different types of peer review programs. Participants also heard from teacher leaders in Albany, Plattsburgh and North Syracuse, who shared lessons they learned in piloting peer assistance and review programs.
Under New York’s updated teacher evaluation law, the state requires multiple evaluators and allows districts to use trained peer observers to serve in that role. NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, who convened the informational meeting at the request of interested members, said it is one option that local unions may want to consider as they negotiate new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) plans.
“As this informational meeting has shown, there is no single perfect model for peer observation,” Fortino said. “There are many different models and it’s up to labor-management teams to collaborate on whether they want to try this — and what might work best locally.”
Fortino said the union has a long history of supporting peer-to-peer professional development programs, whether it’s mentoring, coaching or peer assistance and review. For more than two decades, the state’s network of Teacher Centers and NYSUT’s Education and Learning Trust have offered peer-to-peer learning opportunities, with great success.
“Peer observation can be a strong component of educator evaluation and a powerful way to leverage teacher talent,” Fortino said. “But it has to be done with all sides on board and with the ultimate goal of improving student learning and helping colleagues grow in their profession.”
Johnson, whose groundbreaking research studied seven PAR programs (including in Rochester and Syracuse), said many states and districts are taking a new look at peer observations as they are under pressure to implement new evaluation systems. They have good reason to do so, she said. Peer evaluators can provide subject matter expertise that a principal may lack, reduce the demand on administrators’ scarce time, introduce the teacher’s perspective into the evaluation process and enable teachers to take greater control of their profession.
Johnson keyed in on several crucial actions that districts can take to ensure that the peer observations are effective: a competitive, demanding selection process; clear guidelines; relying on teaching standards and rubrics; offering rich training and support; supervision by a PAR panel; and a focus on both evaluation and assistance.
“The benefits are astronomical,” said Plattsburgh TA President MaryLou Megarr, whose district pioneered its program as a way to support new teachers. “Too often, we isolate ourselves in our classrooms … this lets us share ideas and see collectively there are great things going on. I became a better teacher after seeing what goes on in other classrooms.”
Plattsburgh middle school principal Jamie LaBarge said having a consulting teacher like Megarr go into a classroom as a first observer can be a valuable “icebreaker.” “She can provide some peer coaching and usually, on the second observation, we’ll go in together,” LaBarge explained. “This is a great way to build capacity and share expertise.”
Megarr noted that Plattsburgh has found the program so helpful that, even when the grant money ended, the district has committed funding to pay for consulting teacher stipends, training and substitutes to cover classrooms when needed.
Capacity is a huge issue, said Albany TA’s Lauren Franz. Her district is down to only two PAR teachers, even though more than 100 new staffers are starting this fall. Albany’s PAR program supports all new teachers right through the tenure process. They also work with teachers on improvement plans and provide all professional development related to APPR.
“You have to build a system that is credible and sustainable,” said David Babikian of North Syracuse.
Participants asked a number of logistical questions but one of the major concerns voiced was whether peers could adequately observe and support colleagues teaching at different levels and in subject areas.
“Good teaching is good teaching,” said North Syracuse consulting teacher Lisa Goldberg. “You look at engagement, the (learning) environment … It’s all in the rubric.”
Others said they might tap other subject area teachers for guidance or to take a look at a colleague’s practice.
“We’ve revolutionized our culture,” Goldberg said. “The conversation is rich and growth-inducing for all sides.”
Fortino urged participants to take home their thick informational binders and notes and to consider what pieces might work in their districts. She said NYSUT would be posting an informational bulletin on peer observation to support union leaders who are interested in the option.
“As we always say, quality professional development is not a one-day event,” Fortino said.