Giving An A

Giving An A

-by Jack M. Jose

Teaching is science and art. Educators must seek wisdom and growth everywhere. I have attended development for business managers, curriculum managers, teachers, data specialists and more, and I am constantly reading business best-sellers and teaching blogs. I cannot anticipate where the next good idea will be discovered.

imgresAt separate trainings in 2010, including the Cincinnati Public Schools ASCEND Institute, I  encountered Rosamund and Benjamin Zander’s provocative book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. In it, renowned conductor and teacher Ben Zanders relates advice on getting the best performance from the musicians in his care on stage and in his classroom.

One chapter transformed evaluation at Gamble for two years: Giving an A. (Check out the “Giving an A” TED talk.) The philosophy jibes with our core belief that all children want to learn. All of us want to be successful at our work and be our best selves. However, obstacles prevent us from reaching our full potential. So to undermine the voices that tell us to be just enough to get by, I followed the Zanders’ advice. I eliminated part of the evaluation.

At that time, the CPS evaluation had two parts: one was based a school-selected goal, such as addressing a specific state report card goal; the other part was based on achieving a self-selected goal. It was for this second goal that I told my staff I was giving them an “A”. In my letter to them, I explained:

So, to take away evaluation anxiety as an impediment to teacher development and calculated risk-taking for the benefit of students, I am giving every teacher I evaluate this year the score of “Exceeded” for their teacher-selected goal. The only catch (and of course there is a catch, and it is a challenging one) is that you write me a letter that meets the following criteria:

  • It must be written in the past tense, as if you wrote it in May 2012 looking back on this school year, starting with the sentence, “Dear Mr. Jose, I got my ‘Exceeded’ rating because …”; it cannot include phrases such as “I will …” or “I intend to …” – this is you looking back on this year;
  • It must explain why you earned that “Exceeded” rating for your goal, and describe not just specific goals met or work completed, but the person you have become based on your effort to meet that goal this year. It is okay to be impressed with that person and the hard work and growth that was demonstrated.
  • You must turn that letter in to me on (or before) your annual or PRE initial conferences. 

I was not sure I was allowed to do this. I promised my staff that I would give them the highest rating on half of their evaluation for writing a letter about what they hoped to achieve, and who they hoped to become. That was NOT the intention of the teacher evaluation system. Or was it? Didn’t we want to unleash our highly trained staff to be the best they could be? My best defense, which ultimately I never had to use, was prepared: “I learned it at the mandatory training. I assume you wanted me to apply what I learned there?”

The reactions were strong. In pre-conferences with me, more than one teacher cried and expressed gratitude at feeling so supported. One teacher cried at feeling unsupported – in retrospect I imagine it was the contrast between this particular action and other events of our time together. I had just established an exceptionally high bar for administrative support for teaching. And I followed through. At the end of the year it was rather simple to enter those scores for those who wrote the letters.

The only catch (and of course there is a catch, and it is a challenging one) is that you write me a letter that meets the following criteria…

Between my request and the end of the year I saw inspired teachers engaging students, inventive lessons, teachers wrestling with data and differentiating in the classroom and working closely with academic coaches to improve instruction. And at the end, I saw a group of professionals who lived into their visions of themselves.

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Jack M. Jose