Areli Schermerhorn is a peer evaluator in New York's Syracuse City School District. Through the district's Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program, teachers are observed each year by peer evaluators who specialize in their content area, as well as by their administrators.
Ms. Schermerhorn is the peer evaluator for English as a New Language (ENL) and bilingual education. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, she talks about her own experience as an English learner and what she has learned about best practices for evaluating ELL educators.
You can see more from Ms. Schermerhorn in the following:
Experiences as an ELL and ELL educator
Tell us about your experiences as an English learner.
My family came to the United States when I was 11 years old. I had an uncle that was stationed at an Army base in Seneca County in central New York, and my father was able to secure a job in the Seneca Falls Machine Company.
When I started to attend school, one of the most difficult things was that I didn't have any friends and no one spoke Spanish. There was no one there that I could really have any kind of conversation with except for my own siblings. It was a very scary and lonely time, and I recall the great loneliness of being in a classroom where I could tell that people were laughing at me. The first year, I don't remember saying anything in English. It took me about a year to actually start to speak and when I spoke, people were surprised. I think they thought there was something wrong with me.
Was there someone who made a difference for you?
There were no supports for English learners at the school, but the one person that I do remember that made a difference was a reading teacher because they sent me to a class with other students who had special needs in reading. I'll never forget the day that she found a book in Spanish because she just wanted to know if I could read. And I was so delighted because I knew I could read. I just couldn't read in English. And I read this book in Spanish to her and it was such a liberating moment for me and to have her say, “See? She can read.” This changed the dynamics of the class and once that happened, she started to find more materials that had Spanish and English for me.
How did you start teaching English learners?
This is actually my second career; I was laid off from my position in working for an American Granby company which was a distributor of plumbing supplies. And I was doing customer service and translation of documents. When I was laid off from that company, I had to think about what to do, and someone suggested teaching Spanish because I had a major in Spanish and sociology.
I liked the idea and got my certification, and then someone said, "Have you thought about teaching English as a Second Language?" And I said, "Nope, I don't know what it is." And I remember thinking that I didn't like English to begin with because I used to say that it was such a complicated and difficult language. And they say said, "Yes, but you have all the language credits and you could take these courses to teach English as a second language." I said, "Are there jobs? Are there students that would need this service?" because I didn't realize that that was something that we provided and they said, "Yes."
And I didn't even graduate and I already had a job. They had offered me a position and I actually student taught right here in the Syracuse school district then was asked to stay as a teaching assistant to finish up the year. And then I fell totally and utterly in love with this profession because I had the most incredible students to work with. When I was younger, I always wanted to see the world and the world instead came to me. I was very blessed.
Areli Schermerhorn: What I remember about being an English learner
Peer evaluation in Syracuse
Can you tell us about Syracuse's peer evaluation program?
I work with a team of teachers that represent all the different content areas that we have here in the Syracuse City School District. We also represent content areas that are not always thought of as needing support, including areas like fine arts, and physical education, and business, technology, bilingual education, and English as a new language. We are tasked with completing about 115 to 120 observations a year, and we have an opportunity to observe every single teacher in our content area. (Our evaluation system is contractual and under our current contract, our teachers who are untenured have four evaluations a year – two by an administrator and two by a peer observer – and the tenured teachers have two evaluations, one of them by an administrator and one of those by a peer observer).
All of us went through a very rigorous interview process to become peer observers, and we continue to have ongoing training, ongoing testing, and calibration.
What are the goals of the peer evaluation program?
Often, we don't see evaluation as a support for our teachers. We often look at it as something that needs to be done and not necessarily something to improve practice. We are changing that mindset in Syracuse and now the team of peer evaluators is part of the district’s support system for teachers, offering teachers with an opportunity to have a collegial conversation about their practice with an expert in the field with someone who has had years of experience and is committed to learning about the newest research in this specific field.
Tell us more about how Syracuse’s peer evaluators collaborate.
As a team, we do collaborate and tap into each other's expertise. For example, if I'm observing a math lesson, I may be working with the math observer but by the same token the observer may be asking me about any English learners that they observed in the classroom.
For example, I know that there was an evaluator that was observing a class in which the teacher had told a student that was speaking Arabic, “We don't speak that language here.” And she was taken back by the fact that the teacher was telling this to the student she asked me, “What do you think you know about that and what kind of feedback can I give this teacher?”, because maybe it wasn't that it was ill-intended. However, the reality is that hearing that message really could interfere with that child's learning.
So we pulled out the research and I said, “Let’s share with the teacher that, even though they understand the importance of learning English, we also want to honor the student's background and language. And all of us see bilingualism as an asset. And we want to make sure that we communicate that to our students. The fact that this student was speaking in Arabic does not mean that this student isn't going to be learning English.” So we were able to put together some nice feedback so that this teacher didn’t feel like she was being attacked or offended but rather educated. So as a team, we are collaborating with each other because we all have the same goal which is for our students to be successful in their classrooms, to be successful in their lives and we want to create that kind of environment for them.
Are there any additional benefits to being able to observe so many teachers in your area of expertise across the district?
Since we get to observe all teachers in our area across our district, we get a chance to facilitate networking between teachers. We also have an opportunity to observe highly effective teachers so that we can make recommendations to other teachers. We are able to bring people together that would probably never have a chance to come together and we are constantly seeing great teaching.
Can you talk about the collaboration between the district and teachers’ union around this program?
Our contract is negotiated with the union. And the union saw the benefits of having peers be part of the evaluation process through a teacher-to-teacher relationship where teachers who have worked diligently in a classroom to become experts in their area can work with other teachers to improve their practice. The union is also are working with the administration to show how having this collaborative relationship of peer evaluators is helping supporting our teachers because they’re providing expert information, and recommendations, and suggestions that are really going to benefit the students. And ultimately, that’s the goal that we all have.
Why did you decide to apply to become a peer evaluator?
At the time that I became interested in this position, there were a lot of changes that would be mandated by the federal government and by the state around teacher evaluation. There was a lot of anxiety and fear associated with the whole evaluation process and my approach was: “I need to learn more, I need to know this rubric inside and out, and I need to empower myself so that I can figure out a way that we can continue to improve our practice with knowledge.” So I wanted to have the knowledge and the background so that I could have the conversations with my colleagues and with administrators about this process.
Can you share some of your early experiences being evaluated as a teacher?
Anytime anyone is evaluated, that experience can be just a little bit nerve-racking. There was a time when I was evaluated by a principal. And it’s not so much difficult as it was interesting because he chose to hone in on what I thought were some really minor things in the lesson, like “Oh, this didn’t have a piece of paper readily available.” And I had to pause for a second. But interestingly enough, I took that, and I said to myself, “He really was right. I need to make sure that my students always have their tools and their materials readily available.”
And from that point forward, those students no longer had a loose piece of paper; they all had a notebook, and that notebook was always in the bin, and that notebook was always labeled so they weren’t wrestling trying to find where to take notes on. So, even though I thought it was minor, it was sort of like why are we choosing this, everything else in the lesson seemed like it was really going really well. I thought, I noticed something and it impacted my teaching from that point forward.
I also remember a time when was Mr. Alicea was my principal at the time; he is currently the superintendent. I was really impressed by Dr. Alicea's commitment to the evaluation process. The fact that he took detailed notes, the fact that he stayed from the beginning of the lesson to the end of the lesson, and was then able to craft a report that we could discuss. And when Mr. Alicea did this, that was wonderful in providing that kind of feedback. And it is so wonderful to see an English learner reach such heights and have such impact on other English learners.
What advice do you have for school or districts that might wish to start a peer evaluation program?
For a district that wants to start a peer evaluation program, I would suggest starting with a review of the literature on peer assistance and review (PAR) programs. These programs have been established in some districts for over a decade. PAR programs are typically designed to support first year teachers. This is how the process of peer evaluation began in Syracuse. Teacher retention in the first five years was a concern for our district. When the state of New York mandated that teachers be evaluated by an independent evaluator, the idea of content specific peer evaluators began to take flight as it was a way to provide targeted support to all teachers. Our PAR consultants are not content specific, but this year for the first time, they posted an ENL PAR consultant position. The benefits of content specific mentoring and support is becoming more and more apparent. With teacher shortages being very real in some districts, it is important that teachers receive support from many sources. Evaluators can and should be a source of support.
Video: What do peer evaluators do?
Video: Reframing conversations about teacher evaluation
What is an evaluation cycle?
Can you describe a typical observation cycle?
We typically use an observation cycle that includes a pre-conference before the lesson, the lesson that’s observed, and the post-conference after the lesson. When we're working with untenured teachers, the pre-conference is always there for evaluations with peer observers; when we work with a tenured teacher, we don't typically have a pre-conference, but we are always willing to give one if requested.
In the pre-conference, we like to make sure that the teachers understand the process and the teacher evaluation rubric, that they have an opportunity to ask us questions, and that they feel more comfortable with what's going to happen. One of the things that I love is that I have an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the students, the classroom, and the goals that the teacher has for those students. I can also find out there are any special circumstances that I'm going to be observing.
In addition, the pre-conference also allows a teacher to explain to the evaluator why they're doing what they're doing and why they chose the strategies they are using. The teacher can also ask questions and ask the evaluator for feedback on a particular area of their instruction.
During the lesson
When I go into the classroom for an observation, I usually sit in the back of the room with my computer where I take notes. I try to capture the language that is being used in the classroom, such as how the teacher asks questions, what kinds of questions are asked, how the students respond, and how the teacher checks for comprehension. I am also making notes of evidence to look for evidence of best practices laid out in the Danielson rubric, such as communicating the purpose of the lesson, using questions that provide opportunities for discussion, giving students opportunities to see how their work is evaluated, and whether the teacher is creating a classroom environment where students feel free to take a risk and are celebrated for doing so. If it’s a bilingual classroom, I will also try to see how well the students stay in the target language.
I then can share these notes with the teachers and they may say, "Oh, I said this. Oh, I said it this way." And it’s like taking a look at a mirror and seeing things that they may not have seen before. They may be surprised or notice patterns in their speech, which can tell them A) "This is working and I’d like to continue this," or B) "I think I would like to try something that is going to be clearer for my students because they’re having a lot of questions when I say it this way." They also can reflect on what is the questioning that they use, and the types of questions, the directions that they give, how clear are the directions, and the response they get from the students, and what happens afterwards.
And I have usually heard from teachers how grateful they are to have that chance to reflect on that interaction, and it gives us a place to start a conversation with some talking points when I sit with the teacher.
Post-conferences are usually associated with taking a look at the evidence that was gathered, and sharing considerations or recommendations that the evaluator may have. I really like the conversation to turn to the teacher's goals. And obviously if there is evidence that shows that there is an area that truly needs developing, then we will have a conversation about that.
The teachers do have an opportunity to review the report before I come and meet with them in the post-conference. And I like to do that because I do want to give them time to review the evidence, and I want to give them the time to be able to self-assess. And, in fact, if there is a question, we look at it together.
There are times when I may not interpret what’s happening correctly. So it’s really important for us during that post-conference to ask the teacher if something didn’t seem to me to go as well as I thought it should, “Why did you do this this way? Could you explain to me what was driving your decision?” And sometimes there might be some clarifying information; what is really does is it allows the teacher to kind of take ownership of what happened and then we can move forward.
So those are things that I think allow the teacher to pause for a minute to be able to think about their teaching, their practice, with the guidance of someone who has the opportunity to speak about good practices and highly effective practices. As a peer observer, I have had this wonderful opportunity to see some very highly effective teaching practices. So then we are not only observing, we ourselves become learners. We ourselves are taking part in our own professional development as evaluators.
What happens when things don’t go well?
There are times when things don’t go as well as a teacher would like. And they’re usually hesitant to have a discussion about it with the fear that all of a sudden they are going to put themselves in a position where they might be receiving a lower score because they’re sharing something that the evaluator maybe didn’t notice or didn’t catch. But we want to take away that fear and have teachers feel comfortable talking about things that they themselves see as in need of improvement so that they can then receive some guidance. And so we’re really trying to shift that so it’s not about a score; it’s about the reflective conversation with the guidance of someone that can provide recommendations and things to consider.
It’s okay to be able to say, “I’m growing in this area. I need to take a look at new ideas so I can implement them so I can become better.”
But there are some times when I have had difficult conversations with teachers and one of the strategies that I have used is, "Let's switch roles. You're going to take a look at this, this is the evidence you captured. Let's take a look and see how you would approach this." It's about being able to be respectful of this other adult. I always like to think back if the one common value that I hope we all share is that we care about the students. And so if I can bring the conversation also back to that and reassure the person that I know you care about the students as much as I care about the students, this seems to work.
Can you talk about the evaluation rubric you use?
As a peer evaluator, we use a rubric; it's a tool that allows us to look at evidence and align it to what’s considered to be good teaching practices. I often think of the rubric as a language. And we think of that of two people speaking the same language, being able to you know understand the rubric components and the evaluator understanding that the design of the lesson and how it aligns with those components. The more that we start to speak the same language the better the communication is going to be.
In Syracuse, we use the Danielson Framework, an evaluation tool that was created by Charlotte Danielson, which is based on the national teaching standards and is divided into four domains. (National teaching standards are what is used for national board certification.)
- It starts with the domain of planning and it has components such as setting instructional outcomes, designing coherent instruction, designing assessments in the planning component and domain.
- Then it goes in to the classroom environment. It starts to look at the way that the teacher creates respect and rapport, the way that they establish a culture of learning, the management of behaviors and procedures in the classroom.
- The third domain is the instructional delivery and how does the teacher communicate with the students -- how do they use questioning and discussion in the classroom, how do they engage the students and how do they assess, use assessment in the instruction.
- And the last component is the professional responsibilities and that really takes a look at the teachers, you know maybe managing some of their grades and their recordkeeping. There, also takes a look at their teachers' professional development, how involved they are with that how involved they are with the parent engagement piece. That’s a part that’s typically evaluated by the administrator since it’s ongoing.
Evaluating ELL educators
How do you handle the fact that many evaluation rubrics don't include ELL criteria?
One of the considerations in evaluating ELL educators is that you really need a rubric that specifically addresses examples of highly effective practices for English learners. It has been challenging for evaluators to not really see the reports for best practices for English learners in the current rubrics because they may themselves not have the expertise that is required to interpret the evidence correctly of what is an effective practice with an English learner.
In the past, I made a strong effort to use information that was focused on English Learners and was research based. For example, I used Dr. Claude Goldenberg's articles (English Language Development - Guidelines for Instruction) and Dr. Diane August's resources to guide my thinking and recommendations.
Now, I am really excited about the fact that there is an ELL tool that has been created that aligns with the Danielson rubric and the Marzano rubric. Created with the support of Dr. August, it provides examples, ideas, and resources for evaluators who are using those rubrics and observing classrooms where English language learners are present.
Having this new tool is going to empower the teacher and evaluator since they will also be able to take a look at their own practice and see how it aligns with what research states is the best practice for English learners.
Why is important for evaluators of ELL educators to be familiar with ELL practices?
As the peer observer for English as a New Language and bilingual education, I often hear teachers tell me, "I'm so glad you understand English learners and what works with English learners." So it makes me think that maybe they had been evaluated by someone who doesn’t understand English learners and who may not really interpret their teaching as something that aligns with effective practices when in fact it does.
When evaluators don't have that knowledge, they may misinterpret what they see. For example, scaffolding for ELLs may be misinterpreted as lack of rigor, even if the teacher is looking at best practices for working with English learners because they're trying to increase the comprehension in that classroom.
I can give you an example. I was working with an ENL teach and she explained to me that her administrator had suggested that she not have these speaking and listening outcomes or objectives because they cannot be really assessed.
And I had to pause and say, "Well, we know that speaking and listening objectives are really essential to developing language and you certainly are responsible for all the language domains and there are ways that we can assess speaking and listening during a lesson," and so that we had a conversation about that piece.
As a result of this kind of misinterpretation, it can be very frustrating to be evaluated by someone who is looking at your practice and making decisions. Teachers are respectful of the evaluation process, and they do want to do well, so to be receiving mixed messages can be very frustrating. And they sometimes feel powerless because they don't know how to approach the evaluator to let them know that what they were doing was effective. They may in fact feel that they they're being unfairly scored, unfairly evaluated, because the administrator or the evaluator does not have the information to make the determination that that particular lesson or that particular strategy that was being used is really effective.
What do you recommend to teachers being evaluated by someone who isn't familiar with ELL best practices?
My advice first is always to be respectful and courteous with the person that you are conversing with. Seek to understand where this came from; then, if needed, it's important to be polite but firm as you look for ways to educate the administrator and explain based on your knowledge of what is best practice.
Maybe you have some resources such as the AFT’s “American Educator” edition from Fall of 2018 which takes a look at educating English learners and recent research on best practices. It is my “go-to” publication and if I had it in front of me you could see all, it is written all over and I actually lined up the research with the Danielson Rubric. AFT’s emphasis on using research and their professional development in their publications is what sets them apart because they want to elevate the profession of teachers to a level that is inequal to other professions.
You can also refer back to the ELL observation tool mentioned above and resources on Colorín Colorado (which ELL teachers often say they use to validate what they are already doing!)
And you can also invite someone who is familiar with best practices to sit in on a conversation with an administrator, such as an ELL specialist or coach. In our district, I always offer to meet with an administrator who may have questions about best practices about English learners and to take a look at evidence and see how that fits within the scope of looking at the Danielson rubric. I also try to empower teachers and sharing with them resources that they can use so that they can share those with their evaluators.
What do you recommend to evaluators of ELL educators who are new to the ELL field?
First, it’s really important for administrators to understand how their language program works for their English learners in their building. Administrators that are not familiar with best practices for English learners can have conversations with the ELL teachers, coaches, and other experts. Administrators can kind of take some ownership of their own journey of professional development and they can tap into some resources mentioned above.
It’s also be important to have some humility. When people self-assess their knowledge of English learners, that can be troublesome. They can be pretty confident that they understand the best practices for English learners and sometimes it is really difficult when someone feels they already know what they need to know. I will have to kind of be very transparent about that.
At the same time, districts can facilitate the growth in the knowledge of our administrative staff on English learners by putting professional development in place for them and by creating opportunities for collaboration. They can also publish a list of teachers or experts that an administrator can contact.
We need to take a look at the way we can empower each other because the whole district can really benefit from creating opportunities for that collaboration to happen between the experts in English language learners and the evaluators in their district.