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Alleviating Appraisal Anxiety: Lessons Learned from 29 Years of Evaluations

Voice of ExperienceMax Fischer has been teaching for 29 years, but he still gets a little nervous each time he is observed! That isn't a bad thing, it's just a fact of life. Over the years, however, Fischer has learned a lot about reducing anxiety during observation and appraisal time. Included: Tips to calm your nerves at observation time!

Max W. Fischer

Last week, I was observed by my assistant principal. The observation, part of my district's teacher evaluation process, was the first time in more than a few years that my classroom teaching performance has been formally observed. You would think I would be comfortable during such an observation. I mean, I have 29 years of teaching under my belt. I have no idea how many times I have been observed during those years, but it is well into the double digits.

In spite of that, I must admit I had a few tingles go up my spine during the recent observation.

Years ago, I remember veteran teaching staff carping about how time spent evaluating veteran staff was wasted time. Those teachers' credentials were well established. In this age of detailed accountability in public education, however, those arguments have flown out the window.

Although experienced teachers certainly already know the drill of administrator-conducted evaluations, novice educators might benefit from some of the pointers I have accumulated through the years:

Know the contractual expectations of the evaluation process.
If you're teaching in a district with a contract secured by a local teachers' association, seek out an association representative in your building or ask another veteran teacher to share your district's contract language regarding teacher evaluation. Do not construe the contract language as a form of defensive posturing; it is designed to inform you of the terms of the evaluation process within your district. You have the right to know those terms. You will be held accountable for fulfilling your responsibilities under those terms, and the district will be expected to maintain its obligations. If you are new to a district -- whether you are straight out of college or a relocated veteran educator -- during your first years of teaching you will have to undergo several observations within each evaluative cycle. It only makes sense to know the ground rules.

Set a time for observations to occur.
Usually, the administrator who will be observing you will meet with you prior to any evaluation to discuss the procedures and provide some idea of when you might be observed. (Veteran educators might be given more choice about the timing of such observations.) In larger buildings, impromptu meetings, phone calls, and other responsibilities might force principals to reschedule planned observations -- perhaps even more than once. Teachers need to be aware of that possibility. Postponing a planned observation can be especially nerve-wracking on younger teachers who get geared up for the "show." After all the planning and angst, the quintessential lesson you planned to teach might not be evaluated. To top it off, you must endure more angst in anticipation of a subsequent appointment.

Preparation is key to relaxed competence.
Speaking of nerves, nothing in my experience has calmed mine more than to have all my ducks in a row before any lesson begins -- observed or not. That preparation begins with the solid foundation of an instructional objective and dovetails with the major learning standard of the curriculum I'm teaching. All materials necessary for the lesson must be at the ready, and a sound classroom management regimen must have been established. It can be disconcerting to explain later to an evaluator that the focus of the lesson was lost upon students because you were not well prepared.

A scheduled observation is probably not the time to introduce new classroom procedures. Your -- and your students' -- uneasiness will be obvious. You hope your students will rise to the occasion. But what if they don't? Who looks bad? The teacher? The student? Both?

Have copies of ancillary materials that may help you put the lesson in perspective for the observer.
The person evaluating your performance will actually get the equivalent of a snapshot of your teaching in a single observation. If the evaluated lesson is leading up to a subsequent objective -- an extended project, a writing activity, or another type of performance objective -- it might be worthwhile to give a copy of that activity to the evaluator so he or she will be afforded a wider view of your instructional goals. If the activity is cogent to the evaluated lesson and of sound pedagogic method, it can only positively affect your evaluation.

Be prepared for criticism.
When individual or semester observations are completed, the evaluator must usually meet with each teacher and share his or her critique. Unless they are teaching with the aptitude of Socrates or with supreme dereliction, the majority of teachers should expect to hear a mixture of criticism and praise about their efforts. This is not the time to become a wallflower. Should one of your strategies be challenged, it's perfectly reasonable to defend the methodology you employed. On the other hand, this is not the time to rail aggressively. The key to refuting potentially unwarranted criticism is to explain your position in a professional manner. As a professional, you should be able to defend sound instructional strategies.

You also should be ready to accept new revelations about your teaching. Although it can be hard to swallow, the simple fact is that all of us have room to improve upon our techniques and delivery. If remediation is called for in one or more areas of your classroom performance, it is imperative to take proactive measures to ensure that the prescribed enhancement takes place in a timely fashion.


What about a seemingly unfair observations or evaluations? Over the years, many colleagues have confided to me their concerns about being unfairly evaluated. Whether the basis for those allegations were personality conflicts, misguided expectations from one party or the other, or a simple breakdown in communication, evaluation is stressful enough without introducing perceived injustices to the process.

Inequities can occur, however. If that happens, refer first to the wording in your district's teachers' contract. You might find that an alternate form of evaluation is in place. (Perhaps an outside administrator can be brought in to observe.) If you do not find evaluation alternatives, be sure any inconsistencies in communication or expectations are resolved early in the evaluation process.


The No Child Left Behind Act demands even more from teachers. It demands that most teachers improve the caliber of their performance to meet the legislation's "highly qualified" benchmark. It means that no professional is immune from some form of rational, constructive criticism.

Recently, I've begun to use a quote from Michelangelo -- "I am still learning" -- as the signature line in my school e-mail. If a teacher is convinced that no one can reveal anything new about his or her teaching, or that there is no area in which he or she can improve, arrogance has sealed that teacher's fate -- and the teacher's students risk being shortchanged.

I have come to the realization that when I am satisfied I know it all about classroom instruction, I will be ready for retirement.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max W. Fischer
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