Getting the Right People at the Table: One Leader’s Quest to Build Trust and Transform a School District through Collaboration

Reproduced with permission from the American Institute of Research’s Designing Successful Teacher Evaluation – With Everyone at the Table (publication anticipated Spring 2013)

Ask Jake Gourley for advice on how to ensure the success of new teacher evaluations and hewill tell you, it’s all about getting the right people to the table. Gourley, an award-winning government teacher at an underperforming suburban high school in Illinois, played a central role in doing just that. The result is a new system that has been not only well-received by teachers, but has contributed to unprecedented levels of collaboration and cooperation between administrators, the local school board and the teachers’ union.

According to Gourley, although the district was not yet required by the state of Illinois to implement a new process, both the administration and union felt “it would be to our advantage to be ahead of the curve instead of waiting to see what might come down the pipeline.” Also,by starting early, Gourley’s district was able to take the time to pilot new evaluations instead of implementing the “real thing” in the first year.

The district established a joint committee of administrators and teachers, and spent an entire year collaboratively planning, designing, and then piloting the new evaluation system. Teachers –together with administrators – helped design pre-conference conversations that were much more like interviews as opposed to the old “Let’s take a look at your grade book” format, structured what informal and formal observations would look like, held tough conversations on potential measurements of student growth, and created post-evaluation meetings where the whole team walked through each evaluation looking for red flags.

“Knowing that the first year was a pilot allowed us to build teacher understanding of the evaluation’s purpose, as well as the flexibility to identify strengths and weaknesses of the new instrument – both of which helped boost trust in outcomes.”
Gourley, who also serves as his local union president, worked aggressively to get teachers involved. “In recent years, I found that administrators were far too willing to go it alone.” Hefelt this contributed to a feeling of distrust – not only in the building and at board meetings, but also in his school’s existing teacher evaluation procedures. “Teachers were not active partners inthe process, they didn’t feel good about what they gained from their evaluations, and frankly felt the whole process was more of an obstacle course than a means to improve instruction.”

“I knew if we were going to be successful in developing and building a new evaluation system that would both meet the state’s requirements and deliver meaningful information toteachers about how to better serve our students, we had to have open discussions, frequentcommunication, and, of course, have everyone at the table.”

In recruiting teachers to serve on the district’s joint committee (whose role would be to designand agree upon the district’s new measures of teacher effectiveness), Gourley looked forindividuals who were strongly invested in the school’s curriculum work. “In selecting teachers,we took note of who regularly attended the school board’s curriculum meetings. To me, there’s such a strong relationship between the strength of the curriculum and the whole evaluation process. And, ultimately, that’s what evaluation should be about. By looking at various aspects of the evaluation, including measures of where students are (and are not) mastering the curriculum and meeting standards, teachers will be able to see gaps in instruction and address them through alterations in instruction, learning new strategies from other teachers, or focused professional development.”

Gourley also looked for those who had demonstrated collaboration skills. “Again, we werefocusing on who was at the table – those who were talented and passionate in their own right, butwho were also willing to hear other vantage points. We also tried to get new people involved.This helped us keep the conversation open and away from prior issues that might have bogged us down.”

From there, Gourley deliberately made discussions as transparent as possible. “I don’t want to overdraw the idea that things were perfect and smooth, but we worked really hard to make the work of the committee open and collaborative so people would feel comfortable. Eachtime we had a general faculty meeting, we made sure to recognize the ongoing work of the teacher volunteers. At the same time, feedback was welcome. If something seemed awry during someone’s evaluation, I heard about it that day, probably directly from whoever it affected. In the past, teachers tended to keep their evaluation experiences private. In this new environment,they shared experiences and asked ‘How can we make this better?’”
The joint committee also worked to address the time barrier. “For many teacher leaders,competing priorities can de-rail committee work. To combat this, we appointed an alternate and second alternate for each teacher representative. Alternates were provided immediate updates after each meeting – whether they attended or not -- both through materials and face-to-face conversations. Then, if a teacher representative had a conflict, the alternate was already ‘in the loop’ and could step in to keep the work moving forward. This approach lessened the burden for teacher representatives and also promoted regular, on-going communication.”

Gourley is quick to emphasize that involving teachers in collaborative decision-making didn’tjust happen overnight. In fact, the movement for greater teacher engagement emerged largely in response to a pervasive, negative climate in which teachers felt disrespected and devalued.“Just a few years ago,” Gourley says, “our district underwent its ‘crisis years.’ School board meetings were characterized by anti-teacher fervor, and the district experienced continual labor-management conflict and almost serial litigation.”

Teachers grew increasingly concerned about learning conditions in their schools, but reported being threatened or written up when they spoke out. In response, teachers, including Gourley,began to mobilize and recruited some progressive community members to run for school board. Over the course of two election cycles, teachers “pounded the pavement” and went “door-to-door.” These new members, together with teachers and like-minded administrators began to dramatically shift their school climate towards a positive, student-centered focus, as well opened their door to teacher concerns.

“There was a complete shift in the philosophy of the board. Now, at curriculum meetings, boardmembers will literally turn from their bench and say, ‘Are there any math teachers here? Can you tell us about more about this matter?’ ” The school board also established a communications committee to listen to teachers’ views.

Gourley also credits changes at the building level with creating a culture of openness and collaboration that supported a successful evaluation reform process. Specifically, at one of the district’s high schools, the administrators re-structured the master schedule to provide teachers with shared professional development time.

“When all the teachers in a particular content area share a common professional development period, three days a week, teachers start to see what their peers are doing, share what has or hasn’t worked, and become willing to try new things. We saw a kind of renaissance of teacher engagement and enthusiasm. And, even though the common planning time only lasted one year,the trust and camaraderie extended into the evaluation pilot period. People no longer thought twice about sharing their experiences.”

In addition to the efforts in his own district, Gourley is a member of the Educator AdvisoryCouncil (EAC) at Advance Illinois, an education advocacy organization. The EAC was established by Advance Illinois to ensure teacher voice in state-level education policy and ismade up of approximately 20 recognized teacher-leaders. The EAC engages in multiple roles ranging from developing a set of policy recommendations aimed at elevating the teaching profession to serving on Illinois State Board of Education committees and taskforces to provideteachers’ professional knowledge and perspectives.

Being a member of the EAC provided Gourley additional resources and support as he worked in his district on teacher evaluation reform. “It was great to have the inside track. As laws and rules would come out, Advance Illinois would have those things in our hands the next day. To be able to go into the joint committee meeting and say, ‘right now the State Board [ISBE] is talking about this topic’ gave me more credibility with the local administration and empowered me as one of the participants. At the same time, Advance Illinois legitimately seeks input from teachers and passes on our perspectives to legislators and state policymakers.”

Although the shift to a more positive climate has brought a dramatic change, challenges still exist. For teachers who were assertive and tried to demonstrate leadership in the past, only to be reprimanded and written up, “old wounds take a long time to heal…it’s hard to build trust when you still have personalities involved who were mistreated in the past.” Gourley has found that clear, honest communication does the most to counter the harms of the past. “I’m not the rose-colored glasses kind of person. I can understand where there are concerns and issues, and I don’t gloss over the problems we have. Again, I think if you are honest about whatever challenges you face, then people come to appreciate that.”

It is worth noting that in fall 2012, just after the pilot year completed, the district’s school board ratified a three-year teachers’ contract a full year ahead of schedule. Gourley believes it is safe to attribute the successful, early completion of negotiations to the collaborative climate built while working on curriculum and evaluation issues.

For other teachers and administrators in the midst of developing an evaluation system, he suggests keeping a singular goal at the forefront of all the design and implementation work.“Once you have the right people at the table, the focus has to be on what we can do to improve the instructional experience for our kids. If you keep that front and center, it can foster a more collaborative environment.”