Hold Us Harmless: Why teachers shouldn’t be evaluated this year

My district is in impasse with my union, Volusia United Educators, over several issues. I spoke on behalf of my union on the issue of teacher evaluation. The union wants teachers held harmless for the year; the district claims that the pandemic and the new types of teaching it has entailed will have no impact on our evaluation. Below is the text of my speech. The hearing is still happening now, so I don’t know what they will decide (I may update this post later with the results and my commentary), but here is my speech:

Impasse Hearing – Teacher Evaluation

Good afternoon. My name is David Finkle. I am in my 29th year with Volusia County Schools and I teach at DeLand High School. My wife also teaches at DeLand High, and our two children are Volusia County Schools graduates. I was the Volusia County Schools 2005 Teacher of the Year.

As this incredibly difficult school year begins, Volusia County Schools is set to evaluate teachers as if this was a normal school year. You haven’t taken evaluation off the table. You haven’t made evaluation a low-stakes trial run under the new circumstances. You haven’t put forth any changes to the evaluation system. This puts teachers in an untenable situation.

The Volusia System for Empowering Teachers, VSET, is not empowering us currently. It is based on the Charlotte Danielson framework for teaching. The backbone of the model used in our evaluation system is teachers’ ability to build classroom community. Students are supposed to receive feedback from both their teacher and peers. Students are supposed to serve as resources for each other and explain concepts to their classmates. They are supposed to work in instructional groups. Students are supposed to help manage instructional groups and help peers, and the interactions between students are supposed to connect them to each other.

Even if we weren’t doing Volusia LIVE, social distancing alone changes all our teaching methods. We cannot do small group discussions. We cannot do pair/share, student conferences, or collaborative projects. Most of the teaching methods that make an effective teacher effective are simply not available to us this year. Social distancing alone has completely changed the nature of our work. Last spring we moved to online teaching. That, too, completely changed the nature of our work, but we adapted. But Volusia LIVE is not like last spring’s online teaching. It is a completely new form of teaching. What teachers are being asked to do is this: combine socially distanced face-to-face learning with live online teaching – we are combining two completely different, and completely new, modalities of instruction at the same time. We should not be pretending that our current evaluation system can adequately evaluate teachers who are doing two brand new jobs at once.

There was an attempt to train us for this new dual-modality-teaching during pre-planning but it was not enough. But the thing is, even if training had been adequate, the way we are teaching is still vastly different from the kind of teaching the Danielson framework is asking us to strive for.

If we look at the Charlotte Danielson framework that we use for V-SET, there are certain things that we are supposed to be creating in our classrooms, things that administrators are supposed to be looking for.

We cannot create the kind of classroom that VSET is looking for under these circumstances. We are trying to adapt, but we cannot guarantee that our adaptions will work. This is not the same job, and we were not really trained to do this job in this new modality. Do you fear we won’t work if we are not being evaluated? Teachers at my school have been lined up twenty cars deep on either side of the parking lot gate in the morning – eager to get into school as early as possible. They aren’t doing that because they want evaluation points. They are doing it because they care.

Other districts have opted to hold teachers harmless for the year: St Lucie, Indian River, Desoto, Hendry, Glades, Hardee, Highlands. It is within your power to de-stress our year. It costs you nothing. But it would be an investment in your relationship with your teachers. I have talked to many teachers. Not one thought we could be fairly evaluated in our current teaching situation using a framework designed for pre-pandemic teaching. Not one. It’s not that we don’t want to do a good job. We want to do the very best job we can under the circumstances. But these circumstances limit our teaching in ways we can’t control. Our very best teaching simply can’t happen right now.

In this time of change and difficulty, if I evaluated my students as if nothing was different, I would probably be marked down on VSET for lacking flexibility. The district should model flexibility for us. How you treat us and evaluate us should be a model for how you want us to treat students.

Thank you.