According to research from Gallup, students who strongly agreed with the statements, “My school is committed to building the strengths of each student” and “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future” are 30 times more likely to be engaged than students who strongly disagree! Since student engagement is a critical factor in academic performance, taking the time at the beginning of the year to identify student strengths can yield high returns throughout the school year.
Think for a moment about what sets your school district apart from the rest—teachers that incorporate creative and innovative lessons into daily classroom activities, students passionate about improving their school and the community through volunteering, a championship athletic program, or history and traditions that go back generations. Whatever it is, every district has a unique story to share. The challenge for many education leaders is communicating this story in a way that energizes, informs, and builds support among key stakeholders.
As a former K–12 teacher for more than 15 years, I still get that familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach when August rolls around. It’s the same feeling I used to get as an athlete before a sporting event and as a student before I had to give a presentation in front of the class. Psychologists call this feeling, performance anxiety. This kind of distress arises because some parts of our brain can’t tell the difference between a real physical threat and a public speaking engagement. So whether we are facing a bear or a ten-minute presentation to parents, some parts of our brain interpret these events similarly. As an educator, this kind of distress has never been a welcome companion, but lately I have come to see it as less an enemy and more an opportunity for growth.
In 2009, Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) set out to create a new evaluation system that more accurately captures educator effectiveness through multiple lenses and offers teachers the feedback and support needed to improve their practice. In collaboration with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and more than 400 educators, national experts, and community stakeholders, PPS has spent the past five years working on a solution. The district’s new evaluation system—developed through years of collaborative design and the phased introduction of new components—uses observation of teacher practice, student learning and growth, and student perception to provide a holistic picture of educator effectiveness. It also establishes a higher overall standard of performance than is required by state law in alignment with the district’s goals for student achievement.
With the beginning of another school year, students aren’t the only ones adjusting to a new school or classroom. For thousands of educators and other district staff across the country, the first day of school is also their first day on the job. Starting these employees off on the right foot—whether the person is a novice teacher, a 20-year veteran educator moving to a new district, or a part-time cafeteria worker—is critical to their professional success, the stability of the organization, and most importantly, student learning.