Trust. Communication. Street cred.
All are critical components of a successful peer review program. Done right, using peers as part of the teaching evaluation process can create a more supportive learning environment that improves teaching and student learning.
That was the general consensus from teachers and administrators who shared peer observation's possibilities and pitfalls at an informational session at NYSUT headquarters over the summer.
Participants heard from educators from Plattsburgh, Albany and North Syracuse districts who have piloted peer review programs, plus Harvard University's Susan Moore Johnson, a nationally known expert.
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 meeting at the request of interested members, said it is one option locals can consider as they negotiate new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) plans.
"As this discussion 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 noted 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 & Learning Trust have offered peer-to-peer learning opportunities.
Johnson, whose groundbreaking research is based on multiple Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs (including ones in Rochester and Syracuse), said many states and districts are taking a new look at peer observations as they redesign evaluation systems.
She cited several key benefits. 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 focused on crucial actions districts can take, in partnership with their teacher and administrator unions, to ensure 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. Pilot participants said adequate release time is crucial.
"The benefits are astronomical," said Plattsburgh TA President Mary Lou 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 the 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 said. "This is a great way to build capacity and share expertise."
Megarr said Plattsburgh has found the program so helpful that, even when the grant money ended, the district committed funding to pay for consulting teacher stipends, training and substitutes to cover classrooms when needed.
Capacity is a huge issue, said Albany Public School TA's Lauren Franz. Her district is down to only two PAR teachers, even though more than 100 new staffers started this fall and the program provides all professional development related to APPR.
Participants asked a number of logistical questions but one of their major concerns 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. "In our training as observers, you look at engagement, the (learning) environment … It's all in the rubric."
Others noted they might tap other subject area teachers for guidance and collaboration.
"It's all about credibility and trust," Goldberg said. "We've revolutionized our culture."