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Supervision, Evaluation, and All That Jazz

The jazz trio Saturday night was piano, bass, drums.  They had been playing together for years and could read one another with a quick look, a nod.  The melodies weaved in and out, disappeared, only to reappear surprisingly when you weren’t looking.  Intricate, understated, exuberant, regretful, joyful in stages.  Even a tune the trio had played together maybe a hundred times still sounded fresh, even to them.  Improv within certain defined guidelines so each musician could solo but work with the group.

Ornette_Coleman_3 Isn’t good teaching like this?  Singular expertise, mastery of the basics and beyond, confidence in presentation, joy in the work.  A little humor.  Smooth integration with the rest of the group.  Improv within certain defined guidelines.  You know it works because it works.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking as I listened.  I’ve been working on a video presentation for Magna Publications about supervision and evaluation for live broadcast in March, so the topic is in the back of my mind most of the time, sort of like when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail. And I’m a great believer in Don Murray’s observation that you don’t know what you think until you write it, as I’m rediscovering again with this project.  Sometimes your brain is working on ideas when you’re distracted with something else as it surreptitiously looks for connections, for similarities, for assonance.

After over twenty years of supervising and evaluating teachers, I’m thinking about the inherent conflict between those two activities.  Supervision is about trust, about teacher and supervisor working together to improve instruction.  But when the supervisor is also the evaluator (often the principal is both), how do you build trust between the observed and the observer?  Why would a teacher reveal a weakness or ask for help from someone who has power over the teacher’s continued employment?

As I’m working on this project, I continue to read Dan Goldhaber’s thoughtful and restrained blog (can he do this regularly?). His calm discussion of the inflammatory topic of value added reminded me once again that a teacher’s poor test scores are a symptom of poor supervision and evaluation.  With all the focus on teachers’ effectiveness, it’s remarkable that the responsibility of administrators for poor test results has received so little attention. 

There are lots of excuses for poor supervision – lack of time, contractual issues, poor preparation, too many responsibilities, even lack of courage.  But teachers don’t do the job in a vacuum, and the main responsibility of the school administrator is instruction.

So maybe your school plan isn’t perfect.  I’m reminded of Ornette Coleman’s advice to his musicians:  “Forget about changes in key and just play within the range of the idea.”

 

  

 

 

 

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.